Tell it, Sisters

I love a good story. I love it even more if it’s true, and if it has to do with food. So the Kitchen Sisters are irresistible for me. Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva (sisters in spirit, but not blood) started out in Santa Cruz, Calif., collecting oral histories of stonemasons, railway workers, cowboys and an assortment of other folks. Nothing about food at all in the beginning, they told a group at The Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last week.

Gradually, food found its way into their stories. The Brazilian woman who cooked food under a tent before dawn for San Francisco cab drivers. Clambakes in Maine. In 2004, they pitched a series on these places, called Hidden Kitchens, to National Public Radio, where they had worked on the Lost & Found Sound series of unusual, rare sounds and recordings. The Hidden Kitchens series received a duPont Columbia Award in 2006.

The women found that food goes along with so many things, as Silva told the group. As an example, she played a recording of a piece from the series, about the George Foreman Grill. An appliance. No big deal, right? They found that those without kitchens – homeless people, those on the edge living in cheap one-room places – relied on the grill. The recording included a homeless man in Chicago describing in detail how he used the grill beneath the bridge where he lived. Then, Foreman himself, talking about how he grew up poor and hungry. So many intersections. Hear the piece and find out more about the Kitchen Sisters here.

If I didn’t do what I’m doing (whatever that actually is), and were smart enough, I’d be an oral historian, because this stuff gets me so excited.

The women have collected some of the stories and recipes in a book, “Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More from NPR’s The Kitchen Sisters.” They’re working on a new project about the life of girls around the world.


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