December 4, 2009

The Best Block in Chicago, part one: NaCoBakMo, Day 6.

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:11 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

Well, I’m a day behind in my posting, but I’ve kept up with the cookies. It seems that I am unable to function with less than five hours of sleep per night, and previous obligations seem to have arisen as one to shout out “STOP ALL THIS COOKIE NONSENSE AND PAY ATTENTION TO US” so I had to hold off on writing for a bit. But not to worry! I’ll have not-one-but-TWO! incoherent posts for you today.

What’s this all about again? Long story short, I have taken a simple NaNoWriMo-inspired Facebook joke too far and have committed to baking one batch of cookies each day between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve—with the probable cookie total numbering well over 2,000. In hopes of protecting the waistlines of each member of our family we will use these cookies as bribes to raise money for the Irving Park Community Food Pantry. If you donate $25 (or more, of course!) to those hardworking people and send a copy of your e-receipt to me at sirensyncopated at gmail dot com (along with your shipping address), we’ll send you a nice box of cookies when I’m done. And Mr. Unfocused and I will match donations up to $500. We’re up to $175 today, so that means $350 to help feed struggling families. And, you know, you get cookies out of it. What’s not to like?

True story:

About three years ago, Mr. Unfocused and I took a look at a house in our neighborhood. It was only a block and a half away from where we lived.

We had been walking by it on various neighborhoody meanderings for the four years since we had transitioned from our Dee-Luxe apartment in the sky (21st floor! you could fish in Lake Michigan from our balcony! well, theoretically anyway) to a Leave It to Beaver block on the Northwest Side of Chicago. The house interested me; I had wondered about it for some time. It was on a corner lot, so it had some presence. It appeared to have a lot of interior square footage. It was a masonry structure, which in this area isn’t all that common (surprising, actually, considering that most of these homes were built only thirty to forty years after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire). It also possessed one significant attribute that our home lacks—a garage. A BIG garage. With room for two cars AND storage. (Ooooh….storage.)

So after four years of playing shuffle-the-cars in our side drive every Monday morning to get the garbage can out (no alley here, either, but that’s another story)—as well as tripping over the bicycles that live in the front hall for eight months of the year and the finished basement for the other four—I was seduced by a FOR SALE sign.

There was an Open House. It was a Sunday. I suggested, “Why not? Nothin’ else going on. Hey, I’m just curious.” Mr. Unfocused blindly believed me. Actually, that’s not quite true. I really was just curious. I hadn’t been looking very seriously at moving. Our house was working extremely well for us, with the exception of the garage problem. And it was practically brand-new, a 1907 (1905? something like that) structure which had been totally gutted and returned to a single-family layout from the two-flat it had been for many years. It’s true that I’m not all that fond of the color of the granite countertops or the terra-cotta colored marble in the master bathroom, but, you know, these really fall pretty squarely into the category of First World Problems. I admit that every once in a while I would scour the Real Estate section of the paper, or spend a lot of time searching, but that was less out of a need to find a new house than it was about being an enthralled spectator to the glittering American housing market (d. 2008) as it did its part to make us all feel fantastically wealthy.

So we strolled over with the kids and marched right through that house. It had been put through a lot of abuse, suffering from many odd decorating choices and several ill-conceived, poorly-executed accommodations for a physically disabled occupant. It really was a mess. But.

Much of the house had suffered the blessing of benign neglect. There were many lovely period features waiting to be restored by someone with patience and a lot of cash. It was going to require a very skilled architect to recreate rooms to modern purposes, but once it was done it would be showplace worthy of even Sarah Susanka‘s approval.

Now, before we continue with that story, a few words about our block. We moved from the condo into our house in July 2002. As it happens, it was one week before the annual block party. We didn’t know anything about block parties, so we had no idea what to expect, but it was awesome. Every year finds kids racing around in the street from 9 am until they drop from exhaustion, teens alternating from being cool to being kids, and adults taking over in the evening, dancing under the streetlights until the cops show up sometime after midnight. At that first block party, we started to figure out that we had really lucked into something huge: a place where everyone knows everyone else, where everyone is friendly, where kids can run around and play outside because there are so many people keeping unobtrusive eyes and ears open for them. My mom came to that party and marveled that by 3 p.m. she knew all of my neighbors: “After living in my house for more than twenty years I STILL don’t know all my neighbors!”

At first it was a little overwhelming. I kept a copy of the block telephone list in the kitchen drawer so I could grab it for a quick reference when necessary. It was difficult to keep track of the cast of characters, many of whom had lived almost their entire lives here. With many very longstanding relationships still vital (including three marriages between childhood playmates), this means that the term “newcomer” is still applied to folks who have been here for less than twenty years.

Fortunately, everyone gets along quite well. Yes, it’s true that things have been known to get heated around block party planning time (and I confess that I am one of the more difficult personalities), but somehow all conflict tends to get washed away by the kegs of beer and the water pouring out of the open fire hydrant in front of my house. People hang out on porches on pleasant days, chit-chatting and being sociable. We’ve closed the block for a couple of Oktoberfests, huddling around the fire pits folks have pulled from their backyards, eating bratwursts and sauerkraut. Sometimes there are dinner parties, and there are impromptu playdates, which so many city kids don’t get to experience anymore. I know how lucky we are to so genuinely enjoy our neighbors.

I’ll save Part Two of my story for my next post, as I can see this is another long one. But first, you need a cookie.

Soon after we moved in, our next door neighbors thoughtfully welcomed us with a copy of the first Old Irving Park Association Cookbook, published sometime between the late seventies and the early nineties. Shortly thereafter a new version came out, and they gave it to us as a Christmas gift. The following recipe is from the 2003 compilation. Day 7’s cookie, which I will post along with Part Two of my story later today, is based on a recipe in the earlier cookbook.

This is a sophisticated cookie. It is not outrageously sweet, but it is fantastically delicious. It’s very simple to make, but plan on it taking a little time.

Chocolate Dipped Orange Sticks

1/2 c soft butter
1 1/2 c flour
1/4 c sugar
3 T grated orange zest
1 egg
12 oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips

Prepare baking sheet with parchment. Preheat oven to 375º. Blend butter and flour. Mix in sugar and orange zest. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll out to 1/4″ thickness onto floured parchment paper (keep the top of the dough well dusted with flour to prevent sticking). Slice into 2″ x 1″ bars. Carefully lift off of parchment and place on prepared sheet 1/2-1″ apart. Bake for ten minutes. Cool for two minutes on sheet, then transfer to wire rack to finish cooling.

Melt chocolate over double boiler. Dip one end of each cookie in melted chocolate. Place on a fresh sheet of parchment and allow to cool for 2-3 hours,  or until chocolate is firm. Makes approximately 40 cookies.

Next up: another Old Irving Park specialty.



  1. Jeanne said,

    Your block sounds like a dream come true. And I thought the problem here was that northerners were unfriendly!

  2. Maureen said,

    Loved reading this! as I am one of those that has resided on our wonderful block for now 37 years and one who married a childhood sweethear who lived behind me! its amazing to have seen the different famalies come and go over the years. I still have friends that I was in diapers with that we connect all the time, that is what growing up in the city use to be about. Now a days I find that famalies send their kids to far away grammar schools and have to have short term play dates as opposed to my children and say teh Wilson who come and go all day long to each other houses. Keeping everything in the neighborhood and the kids together brings unity and long lasting friendships at that… This was Great, well done and I look forward to reading the next one

  3. Pop and Ice said,

    We have block parties too! Our kids are older, but they still like to check them out. And it’s nice to meet who is new in the neighborhood.

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