On any cookbook shelf, stashed between the glossy covers and the celebrity chefs, there are always a few oddities. Maybe it’s the book you picked up from the giveaway pile at the library. Maybe it’s the gift your friend got you as a tragic joke. But my favorite finds in any collection are the community cookbooks: those spiral bound, DIY collections that bring together the favorite recipes of a group of friends.
Today it’s all about Kickstarter, but community cookbooks used to be a key fundraising tool: Throw in a few bucks for a cause, and you’d get enough recipes to last you the month (plus a tempting window into your neighbors’ kitchens). And one of the first groups to make use of the idea was the women’s suffrage movement. For the suffragettes, creating a cookbook was not only a savvy business move, it also helped counter women’s fears that voting was too radical, too masculine. Donating to a political cause can seem a little daunting. But buying a cookbook? That’s just good taste.
So where does a man’s man like Jack London fit in? Ever the outdoorsman, London was building a sustainable ranch in California when he met the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a vocal supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. The two shared an interest in socialism, and soon London began to appear at Gilman’s suffrage rallies. When the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania was seeking recipes for The Suffrage Cook Book in 1915, London pitched in with a few of his “especial ‘tried’ favorites.”
London died a year after the cookbook’s publication, three years before women’s suffrage became a reality in 1920. Whether he was genuinely interested in the cause is up for debate – pushing for a ban on alcohol, he noted that when “the ladies get the ballot, they are going to vote for prohibition.” But to readers of the cookbook, London wasn’t a prohibition crusader, or even a big-name author. He was just a fellow activist – who happened to make a mean risotto.
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The recipes in The Suffrage Cook Book span the classic to the tongue-in-cheek; a recipe for “Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband” instructs: “Mix the crust with tact and velvet gloves, using no sarcasm, especially with the upper crust.” London’s contributions were more straightforward, from recipes for roast duck to celery stuffed with Roquefort cheese and walnuts.
“Savory Rice and Tomato” doesn’t sound like much – some premade rice baked in a casserole dish – but it reminded me of another dish I’ve seen pop up again and again: the baked “risotto.” Purists will cringe at the idea, but a risotto that doesn’t require babysitting has its own appeal, particularly in the summer when I’d rather be standing over a margarita than the stove. Firmer than a traditional risotto, it’s a dish that London would have recognized as his own … but with a contemporary twist.
8 plum tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/4 pound bacon, in a 1/2-inch dice
1 yellow onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 cups Arborio rice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, plus three springs for garnish
4 1/4 cups chicken stock, heated
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a roasting pan with aluminum foil. Season tomatoes with salt to taste and spread out on prepared pan. Roast until the edges of the skins are browned but not burned, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside. Reduce oven temperate to 375°F.
2. In a large Dutch oven or heavy oven-safe saucepan with a lid, brown bacon over medium heat, then remove from pan and set aside, reserving bacon fat. Add onion and green pepper to bacon fat and sauté until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Add rice, chopped thyme, and 1 teaspoon salt. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until rice is shiny and translucent, about 3 minutes.
4. Stir in roasted tomatoes, then add hot chicken stock. Stir once, cover, and bring to a boil. Transfer to oven and cook, covered, until liquid is absorbed, about 35 minutes.
5. Remove rice mixture from oven. Stir in butter, cheese, and reserved bacon. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with thyme sprigs and serve.