Muriel Bell

Muriel in her neighborhood of Harlem, NY. Photographed by Amy Larson

Muriel in her neighborhood of Harlem, NY. Photographed by Amy Larson

Muriel Bell
Social Worker at Bronx Defenders
Avid home cook and expert lunch maker

You are part of a "lunch bunch" at work, tell me a little be about that: where do you work, how does your lunch bunch organize itself and why is a lunch bunch important to your work and personal life?
I work at the Bronx Defenders, a holistic public defender office representing parents in family court in the Bronx. . My colleagues work so hard, and lunch is something we look forward to. It gives us joy and sustains us throughout the week. Cooking for others is so special and is actually my love language.

What is your favorite meal to make for your lunch bunch and what are some of your favorites that your bunch fellows have made for you?
I try really hard to avoid pasta every week but this is my favorite thing to make. It is all I ever want. It brings me back to my childhood of spending all Sunday in the kitchen and around the table with my family. The ladies in my lunch bunch are fantastic cooks. Alex makes incredible salmon with mango salsa. Roshell made a cold soba noodle salad recently that gave me life. Miriam does an amazing kale chicken Caesar salad and Natasha makes a mean veggie enchilada. Elizabeth keeps us all vital with her vibrant and beautiful salads.

An example of a past Lunch Bunch meal. Muriel and her 4 colleagues take turns bringing lunch for each other.

An example of a past Lunch Bunch meal. Muriel and her 4 colleagues take turns bringing lunch for each other.

An example of a past Lunch Bunch meal. Muriel and her 4 colleagues take turns bringing lunch for each other.

An example of a past Lunch Bunch meal. Muriel and her 4 colleagues take turns bringing lunch for each other.

How did you get started cooking?
For years I watched my grandmother make magic in the kitchen and turn out multiple course meals for a giant family. I used to come home from school every day and watch food network until my family got home, and I would replicate whatever I saw Rachael Ray, Ina Garten or Giada DeLaurentiis make. Sometimes it was horrible (I recall a terrible pasta with bread crumb sauce, don't ask) but my mother encouraged me to keep practicing and ate whatever I made her. It wasn't about competition, it was about fun and love and curiosity.

The recipe you've shared with me is one that you created from memory that your mother prepared. What role did food play in your relationship with her and how does it continue to impact you today?
Food will always equal love to me, and for me there is no greater love in this world than the one between a mother and daughter. My mom is no longer with us but I feel that I can still be close to her by recreating her favorite dishes. Sometimes a smell of a tomato sauce or a sizzling chicken brings me right back to her and the kitchen of my childhood home. Some of my memories have faded, but food can always bring me back. I cook for those I love in the same way she did. It is the most precious lesson she gave me. See the full recipe at the link below

IMG_0895.jpg

Muriel’s pasta recipe which she has recreate from memories of her mother preparing it.

IMG_2200.jpg

Many of your recipes are meals you come up with on the fly. What is your best advice for cooking without a recipe? How would you advise someone who wishes to gain the confidence to cook from scratch?
Besides bringing me joy, cooking is also a huge form of self care for me. I try not to take it too seriously, and I feel as though food culture has become so cultivated and intimidating in the digital age. Coming home from a wild day at work to a random scattering or pantry items and veggies, and still throwing together a delicious dish and being able to laugh at yourself if it is turns out to be a disaster, is everything I need in my life right now. My advice is cook what tastes delicious, and don't worry about following recipes. Use them as inspiration. Involve others. Learn the basics about food and the elements of your favorite dishes, soups, pastas, curries, braises, sandwiches, everything. I recommend following and worshiping Samin Nosrat and Alton Brown, the Queen and King of accessible food science.

How do you smash the patriarchy?
I have to admit, sometimes I feel that I am a bad feminist (thank you Roxane Gay). Both in that I will absolutely ruin thanksgiving dinner to argue with my brother about reproductive justice, and I feel so tired and run down that I often ignore those difficult conversations all together. I think there needs to be space to jump in and jump out of smashing the patriarchy, while realizing that others exist in intersections that make it impossible for them to step out of conversations, organizing and action. I think that we smash the patriarchy every day by being kind to, and taking care of ourselves and each other. Dismantling racist systems and addressing harm is impossibly hard work and we need to lean on each other in building power and practicing self care.

Amy Larson