Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Neighborhood Tale

No Recipes.  No Recommendations. No Rants.  Just a little story to share.

People often ask us why we are “urban homesteaders” instead of rural homesteaders (the latter of course being the more traditional).
They say things like, “You like to grow so much; you’d have so much more room”.  Or “you could have chickens and goats and a barn, you know a real little farm”.  Or, “Oh, It’s so much quieter in the county”. “Less people to put up with”.   

And yes - yes that’s all true and we could have all of that and I am sure it would be divine.  Sometimes I think that this life is preparing me for something fabulous just like that in the next.  But, that said, we have made a very conscious choice to stay in the city AND to grow and conserve and become as self sufficient as possible.  In other words it is our goal to become very good urban homesteaders.

There are a lot of reasons why we prefer our urban life.  I have discussed many of those reasons through this Blog.  We are both aware of how much we appreciate having things close by; we like how if we want we can choose to walk places.  We enjoy the restaurants and pubs that are near to us and the various events that take place in our city  - which is, by the way, steeped in “events”.  And we are lucky to live in an area that has been a real thriving, generational neighborhood for hundreds of years!  The history is a big part of our love for the place.  But perhaps the biggest aspect of loving urban life is right here on our own two block area where so many of us have gotten to know each other and have been there for each other through thick and thin (fires, deaths, celebrations, and life in general).  

One of the first thing we realized when we bought our home was that there were a lot of folks around us, some of whom even then fell into the “elderly” category, who had lived their whole lives on these blocks. They had seen hard times in the neighborhood.  Falling housing values, petty crime, and folks moving away.  But they stayed.  And as we moved in - during a housing boom and some needed gentrification - they were again seeing positive changes happening.  We started to call these long time residents, “The Originals”.   We came to that title not just by virtue of their having been here a long time, but also paying homage to their very distinct characters and ways of being.  For the first few years we would stand at one or another neighbor’s stoop (front steps to the uniformed) and listen to tale after tale of things that happened back in the day - always with a bit of gossip thrown in too!

In the past few years one of the Originals has been on a steady decline.  Her advancing age and her serious health issues have taken a toll and she has started to slip into dementia.  In the beginning it sort of came and went.  Some days as she sat in her folding chair catching some sun, the conversation would be clear and current; other days not so much.  Then she stopped sitting outside in her folding chair.

A few nights ago, we noticed flashing red lights on the block.  This particular woman was home alone for a bit (her son lives with her) and in her mind she needed to “break out” and couldn’t get the door unlocked.  So she called 911 numerous times and got everyone to her front door.  But she wouldn’t let anyone in.  As I tried to talk to her through her big living room window (old Philly row houses have windows on the street - something I have always loved) she tried to break the window with a flowerpot.  She wasn’t recognizing me. She was angry and confused and scared.  Our Fire Department was wonderful.  They got in through a side window and then let myself and another neighbor in so that we could sit and wait with her for her son to get home.  Even when our neighbor let one of the fire fighters have it in the butt with a solid baseball like swing of an umbrella (she was telling him to have some respect!) he was as nice and calm as could be. It took about an hour for our neighbor’s son to get back and when he did the decision was made that she needed to go to the hospital.  She had not been taking her medications and she needed help.  She still was putting up a fight so another EMT unit came and she left on a stretcher, still giving everyone a verbal hard time, still not recognizing any of us.  

I walked back to our house and felt tired and sad knowing that this neighbor, this Original,  will probably be spending most of the rest of her days in a facility getting the care she surely needs.  I do hope she gets home for the Christmas Holidays.  She always decorated, and sent us a card and a box of chocolates.  We would buy her a poinsettia. The house looks very lonely now and may for some time depending on what her son’s plans are for it.

I found myself musing over the situation most of the next day as I did weekend chores.  The sadness of not being able to stay “where you were planted”.  The sadness of being taken away for the remaining days of your life, when clearly you were so rooted somewhere.  The sadness lingered as I reminded myself of the Circle of Life.  We get to know people and we reach out and interact with our neighbors with no actual guarantee of how long we will see and chat with them.  Frankly, for awhile there I was just finding it hard to see the good things.

That next evening, our doorbell rang and it was another one of our “Original” neighbors.  She was at the door holding two huge shopping bags.  Of course, our dogs were howling and jumping around and fussing (I find it a miracle anyone actually comes in our front door!).  As she tentatively entered she put the bags down in front of her.  “Do you like Nutcrackers?” she asked.  Without even waiting for Pat to have a chance to reply, I said, “Oh yes.  I had one once and I lost it.  They are great”.  She then proceeded to tell us that for years she collected Nutcrackers and displayed them at the holidays in her front window and in her home.  She said that she hadn’t done that in a long time now. It was just getting to be too much for her.  She relayed that for many years now her Nutcrackers had remained packed up and stored in a closet (in their original boxes I might add).  

Then she asked if we would like to have her collection!  Her words were something to the effect of, “I see that you enjoy your home and take good care of it and you have people over, and I know you decorate for the holidays.  They should be out so people can see them and enjoy them.  I want you to have them.”

I am not sure if it was the way in which she was honoring us, the events of the night before, or just the season, but I was speechless.  We both were.  That’s not something that happens very often. I could feel tears welling up and I know that I stammered more than I spoke clearly.  I kept thanking her and assuring her that they would have places of honor for the holidays and would be taken great care of when they weren’t displayed.

Now, as those who know us well know, we tend to decorate for the holidays slowly and start a bit later than a lot of folks.  We do not get our decorations out and our tree up right after Thanksgiving.  We like to wait a bit, until we are really in the spirit of the season.  But that next evening, we did some window washing and three of our new Nutcrackers were placed in our front window; the others were placed at various spots around our home.  I am thinking I may rotate them so that folks who walk by get to see all of them.  As I write, an Old Time Santa Claus is flanked by Marie Antoinette and King Louis in all of their finery.  I occasionally catch people who are walking by, look up and see the trio and smile.  Yes.  They do need to be where people can enjoy them.  And they shall be as long as we are around.

Could all of the above have taken place in a rural setting?  Of course.  But I am never going to find out.  Cities of neighborhoods, like Philadelphia, are treasures to be carefully nurtured and maintained and loved.  They are, in some areas of our country, gone forever.  We can’t imagine that happening here.  And so we remain very lucky to have known our “Originals” and  to have this opportunity to be urban homesteaders.  Sometimes “self sustaining” is doing what you can on your own to sustain your home;  sometimes it’s doing for each other to sustain your neighborhood.

Love this place.  Love these people.  Happy Holidays Everyone!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Gypsy Stew: A Story and a Delicious Main Dish

                                                      A Bowl of Gypsy Stew

We got an idea at the end of last week to make a recipe we hadn't made in quite some time. Don't you love when you remember an old favorite and then set out to make it? 

I thought it would be fun to ask folks on The Philly Foodist Facebook page if they had made this great old recipe - or at least if they had eaten it.  No one had! So here it is.  At this time of year it is perfect. The recipe makes a lot; it's soothing and delicious for these hectic days getting ready for and celebrating Holidays; and it is really cost effective. 

The backstory, by the way, involves tales of folks moving from place to place, living on the road, needing to feed many hungry mouths and not having a whole lot of money. Thus, they decided to create a communal feast, a and would ask each diner to contribute an ingredient.  

I give you Gypsy Stew

Note:  this recipe requires a little bit of work, but it is so worth it!  


1 Whole Stewing Chicken (preferably range raised/drug free)
2 quarts of low salt chicken stock
6 medium yellow onions, peeled and quartered
6 whole tomatoes (we've always used canned - a 16 oz can' minus the liquid - save that for something else - is perfect), halved or quartered depending on size
1 bottle of dry sherry - cheap dry sherry. Definitely cheap! Don't go all high end, the flavor will not be the same.  We use Christian Brothers Dry Sherry
3/4 pound block of sharp, white cheddar cheese, cut into thick slices
6-8 pepperocini peppers (the whole ones in the jar are perfect), stems removed, cut in half
Good crusty bread


Put the chicken and the onions in a very large pot - make sure you have plenty of room to add all of the stock. (Voice of experience speaking here) - leave plenty or space
Add all of the chicken stock
Add half of the bottle of dry sherry
Put a lid on the pot, bring the contents to a boil over medium high heat
Reduce to a simmer and simmer for an hour - check occasionally to be sure it does not start to boil
After the hour, remove the chicken to a bowl (so you can be sure to collect all of the juices) and let it cool
While the chicken is cooling, add the tomatoes, the other half of the bottle of sherry, and the peppers to the broth - put the lid on the pot and turn the heat off
When the chicken is cool enough to handle, cut the wings off, cut the thigh and leg pieces off - separate the legs from the thigh, cut the thigh in half
Remove the breasts from the bones and cut each breast in thirds
Pick any other visible chicken from the bones
Put all of the chicken back into the pot with any juices that have collected in the bowl

Bring the pot to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for at least an hour (this is a very flexible recipe, cooking time wise; at least an hour on the simmer but if you need to, just leave it on simmer for two hours) 

Check it occasionally - do not allow it to boil!

To serve: if you have them, use wide pasta bowls or soup bowls (see above); lay slices of bread with slices of cheddar cheese on top of the bread and layer the hot stew over the bread slices. Have more bread and cheddar available. Enjoy. And you will. This recipe makes a lot of Gypsy Stew (see below). Believe me, You will find yourself craving it. There is no way to accurately explain here the aroma and the flavor of the broth and the chicken and then the melting cheddar.  It's truly heavenly. 


For Bill - wherever you are. Thank you for this. 

Cherish Real Food!