As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we honor the women who have placed a stamp on history and acknowledge today’s trailblazers who are known to break barriers. The moment someone says a woman can’t do it, the challenge has been accepted, confronted and succeeded or success is in the making. Who says a woman can’t make it happen or isn’t strong enough to do the job?!
There are so many stories to tell about so many amazing women, so I chose to honor a woman who unbelievably (maybe believably) breaks barriers and continues to do throughout her career. Not to mention, she can throw down in the kitchen. I am talking about a living legend in Chicago, Battalion Chief Bridgette Dunagan, who has one of the hardest careers of fighting fires. It wasn’t unusual being the only woman in the firehouse, let alone the only person of color.
While we are constantly re-adjusting to the “new norm” and many of us have the luxury of working from home, Battalion Chief Dunagan, like any firefighter, has not missed a beat. When it comes to saving lives, there is no room to take breaks, and not everyone’s work can be done at home. No matter what the country is going through, firefighters have literally been “running in the line of fire.” Not only are they fighting fires every day, but also facing the pandemic head-on as first responders.
In my interview with Battalion Chief Dunagan, we had a great conversation filled with laughter, serious talk about balancing life, social justice, fires and her winning Guy’s Grocery Games. As I got to learn more about Battalion Chief Dunagan, we learned that we have some common interests like curry as our favorite spice and the need for self-care, especially massages.
I have included a recipe inspired by one of Battalion Chief Dunagan’s recipes she used when competing in Guy’s Grocery Games: Grilled Apple Butter Pork Chops and Spicy Kale Greens.
Why a firefighter? Why not?
In 1987, my brother initially asked me to take the test with him, but I wasn’t interested. Things got serious when he challenged me to get a better score. He thought he would score higher than me and wasn’t confident that I would pass. So, I said, let’s do this! Guess what? I passed. Not only did I pass, but I moved up the ranks. I realized that this is the best job I have ever had.
I didn’t start right away because I found out I was expecting a child shortly after taking the test. My daughter was and is a priority so I had to delay my start date, and I began my career in 1990. When I became a candidate, I started at the airport and there was not much action.
Before I go further in this conversation, I have to acknowledge the first woman who became a firefighter in Chicago who was hired to relieve during the strike in the 1980s. Her name is Lauren Howard. She was brave and bold. Back then a firehouse didn’t exactly welcome women as firefighters. It was considered to be a man’s job, but that was not a concern of Lauren’s. Talk about breaking barriers. She paved the way for women like me. She is a great person and we are friends to this day.
Here I am, 5th Battalion Chief where I relieve three other Chiefs, managing the south side of Chicago, which includes the lakefront.
Photo credit and pictured: Battalion Chief Dunagan as Fire Candidate, 1990
More than just putting out fires, it's about breaking barriers
Fire Candidate - Hydraulic Engineer - Lieutenant - Captain - Battalion Chief
Whenever someone told me that I would not make it, that was motivation for me to push through and thrive and so I did. I decided that I wanted to do more so every time I wanted to move up a rank, I took the test and passed each time.
I faced many challenges. For example, when I took the engineer’s test, I was impressed with myself because I wasn’t good at math and this test was based on calculations. Driving the truck is a hard job because you don’t have time to check GPS to locate the location of the fire. It has to come first nature because someone’s life might depend on it.
In addition to facing everyday challenges, there were bigger issues. I have faced and overcame racism and sexism. Though the department has come a long way when it comes to diversity and inclusion, we can always do more and do better.
Photo credit pictured: Battalion Chief Dunagan in bunker gear as Captain, 2018
You think fighting fires is a big deal, but I am a mom first. That was also my greatest challenge, but I had a great work/life balance. Unlike your traditional working parent who might miss parent-teacher conferences, school plays and basketball games, I had the opportunity to be active in my daughter’s extracurricular activities. I am so proud of my daughter as she is working hard to become a doctor.
Other than being a mom, my other superpower is my palate. I have the ability to identify most ingredients in a dish, especially herbs and spices. I love going to restaurants and challenging myself to recognize each ingredient in my meal.
Memories in the kitchen
I learned how to cook from my mom. Our bonding time together was planting and cooking. We would hang out in the kitchen and dining room. I remember her adding meat to her greens, which took all day to cook. Good times! When I had an opportunity, I would wait until my mom left the kitchen so I can steal the meat out of the greens. To this day, I rarely put meat in my greens. Sometimes, I'll use chicken and chicken broth.
When my daughter was younger, she didn’t have the desire to cook with me in the kitchen. Now that she is an adult, she is very intrigued about the ingredients I use when preparing meals for her and her friends.
Photo credit and pictured: Battalion Chief Dunagan in formal uniform as Chief, 2020
Let’s talk about when you competed on season 16, episode 14 of Guy’s Grocery Games
When I was Captain, my friend suggested that I audition for Guy's Grocery Games. This is so interesting because I had no desire to audition for it, but I did. So, I competed against three other firefighters from other states. I made grilled pork chops with spicy kale greens for the first round. They loved it, but I didn’t win that round. The final round was 5.11 Spicy where I made a spicy seafood boil and not only did I win that round, I won! I decided to share some of my winnings with other female firefighters by treating them to a day at the spa at Aire Chicago. We deserved it!
Just recently, I was called to do the show again, but unfortunately, I had to pass up the opportunity due to COVID restrictions and I felt that my obligations to the firehouse were more important. I would love to compete again one day.
I love cooking a seafood boil for the team. I put everything but the kitchen sink in the boil along with king crab, shrimp, lobster, andouille sausage, mussels, Brussels sprouts (yes, Brussels sprouts!), corn and lemon. I might include chicken. My recipe is called Clean Your Freezer Out boil, and I can eat seafood every day of the week.
Favorite Spice and Tools
For my veggies, I like Za a’tar. This spice is usually found in the international aisles of the grocery store. As for my meat, I love curry.
The bench scraper is my favorite tool in the kitchen because it is easy to use and it is multi-purposeful. It is a three-in-one where you can use it to chop, scoop and clean with it on your cutting board.
Speaking of favorites, I love lilies. It was my mom’s favorite flower. My mom loved gardening and that is why I have a passion for gardening.
Reflection on History Made
Where were you and how did you feel when Vice President Kamala Harris was elected?
I was at home when it was announced. I could not stop smiling the next day. There is someone in the office who looks like me. It was just a wonderful feeling. I love that the President’s administration is multi-cultural.
Gems to drop for little girls or people in general
I remember the feeling when I became the first Black woman to drive the fire engine in Chicago. I wanted to be on the Southside so kids who looked like me when I was I child to see me. I wanted them to see what I fought and earned for so they can see that it is possible. I believe in being the change you want to be.
I am from the Southside, I still reside on the Southside and I serve in the same community where I once grew up. Moving in the area I serve is important to me because you have a certain level of respect for the area when you are part of it. It makes a difference when you can manage and monitor your community to ensure the residents are protected and safe. I want to make sure I look after the community that once took care of me.
Essential Workers and First Responders Tribute
The Chopping Block would like to take a moment to acknowledge our essential workers and first responders who have worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic. From the cashier at our local grocery store to our first responders like our firefighters to the caregivers of those in need, The Chopping Block wants to thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We know it was not easy reporting to work while combating COVID-19 and leaving your families every day to serve the public. You are our superheroes, and we will forever be grateful!
Now, let's get you cooking some of Battalion Chief Dunagan's food. Both of these recipes have been adapted slightly from her versions.
Apple Butter Pork Chops
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Serves: 4 people
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
4 pork chop filets
Salt and pepper
Le’Kesh All Seasoning
3 Tablespoons butter, divided
15 ounces 1/2 jar apple butter, divided (more if desired)
2 apples cored and sliced, no need to peel them
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar (I used white sugar instead)
1 teaspoon ancho chili powder or just chili powder
1/3 cup heavy cream (I used milk instead)
- Season the pork chops with salt, pepper and Le’Kesh All Seasoning.
- Melt the butter in the skillet, then cook the pork chops for 3 minutes on each side.
- Set pork chops aside while cooking the apples.
- Melt more butter in the skillet and cook the apple slices for about 5 minutes.
- Pour in about 7/12 oz apple butter, plus the chili powder & brown sugar. Then add in the heavy cream and stir together, bringing the mixture to a light boil.
- Add the pork chops back in and cook 4 minutes on each side, adding a tablespoon of apple butter to each one as they cook.
- To serve, place the apples on top of each pork chop.
Spicy Kale Greens
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1 1/2 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth
2 cups of kale greens
1 of each bell pepper (yellow, green and red)
1/3 cup giardiniera peppers
Salt and freshly ground pepper
- In a very large soup pot, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, just until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Add the chicken stock, then add the kale in large handfuls, letting it wilt slightly before adding more.
- Season with salt and pepper and Za‘atar then cover and cook over moderate heat until the kale is tender, about 20 minutes.
- Chop all three peppers and add to kale while cooking.
- Add 1/3 cup of giardiniera peppers or you can add more if you can handle it
- Remove the lid and cook until the liquid has evaporated, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer to a bowl and serve.
If you would like to know more about the kitchen tools and cookware I used, see list below. All items listed (and many more) are available for purchase at The Chopping Block and in honor of Women History Month, all women get 15% off retail orders this month. Feel free to schedule a private shopping experience or order ahead for curbside pickup via the SHOP tab on our website.
Kitchen tools I used that are sold at The Chopping Block:
- Lodge Cast Iron Skillet
- The Chopping Block Bench Scraper – Chief Dunagan’s fave!
- Le Creuset Dutch Oven
- Epicurean Cutting Board
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we are honoring Battalion Chief Dunagan by also highlighting one of the organizations she supports, the Black Fire Brigade.
The Black Fire Brigade is a 501c3 organization that provides training to inner city young adults to become licensed EMTs, Paramedics and Firefighters. The Black Fire Brigade believes that when young people learn how to save a life, they are less likely to take a life. Click here to learn more about the Black Fire Brigade.
If you want to learn more on how to cook pork, don't miss these upcoming classes at The Chopping Block:
- Virtual Building Blocks: Pork Cookery on Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 10am CST
- In-Person Wine Country Dinner Party Demo on Saturday, April 10 at 6:30pm Lincoln Square
- In-Person Grilling Boot Camp Saturday, May 29 at 10am Lincoln Square