It was early 2002, and the Kitchen Sisters were looking for some hope.
Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, otherwise known as the "Kitchen Sisters," are radio people, storytellers of the airwaves for 25 years, and producers of award-winning pieces you've probably heard on National Public Radio. They had just finished the "Sonic Memorial Project," remembering the life, times, and people of the World Trade Center.
"They were pretty dark days," remembers Nelson. "It was a heavy subject for us, and both of us were listening for stories that had some hope and brought people together."
It was around this time that Nelson noticed that a lot of cabbies in her native San Francisco were from Brazil -- from one town, in fact. This led the Sisters to Janete, a woman from that same Brazilian town who sets up a cart every night outside the cab company to cook the food of home for the late-night drivers.
The Sisters' radio career is spent chasing stories like this. Despite their name, they've never focused on food particularly, but as they say, "it has managed to find its way into every interview we've ever done" -- in part because they begin every interview with "What did you have for breakfast?" And everybody, they note, has an answer.
"Food is what we have in common," says Silva. "Everybody eats. It's the most profound, basic, universal act there is. But it's also an act of tending and nurturing, and it's a connection to the land."
"Food represents time spent," Nelson adds, "people really focusing and thinking about their group or community or family and taking time to sit and listen to each other. The family table is where traditions are passed on and children learn values, history, and how to be civilized."
The Sisters developed an ongoing series of radio stories for NPR called Hidden Kitchens and that, in turn, has led to their first book, Hidden Kitchens.
Their publicity tour started in Memphis on Wednesday, October 26th, at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. The book doesn't have a Memphis "hidden kitchen," but as Nelson says, "We picked Memphis to start in because it's sonic ground zero. All roads lead to Memphis if you're thinking about sound. And we're hoping people will want to tell us their own hidden kitchen stories."
"The great thing about the book is that it's given us a way to include material that hits the cutting-room floor in a radio show," Silva says. "We can put in side stories, elongated stories, and recipes."
Combing oral histories and recipes can be a challenge, however. For example, one chapter in Hidden Kitchens is about Angelo Garro, a modern-day hunter/gatherer who forages the coastal forests of California looking for wild boar, mushrooms, and other seasonal food treasures. He's a blacksmith, and he lives and cooks and entertains in his forge.
And he has a recipe for wild fennel cakes. It lists only eight or nine ingredients, but it starts with harvesting wild fennel -- not the kind you see in markets, but "for a few weeks each spring you can forage for it in and around San Francisco and anywhere that early Italian settlers may have sprinkled seeds." Nelson says it took seven people, including Angelo himself, to translate Angelo's recipe from his words to the page.
Along with sketches of "Kitchen Visionaries" and messages left on NPR's Hidden Kitchens Hotline, the book has 11 stories like Angelo's: the Chili Queens of San Antonio who helped introduce chili to America in the 1940s; NASCAR kitchens "crammed in the corners of garages, tucked into crew pits, jammed between haulers, squeezed into trailers, and spread out on tailgates in the parking lot"; the wild-rice harvest season in Minnesota; a community stew in Kentucky, called burgoo, "that goes back as far as anyone can remember"; the secret, illegal Montgomery kitchen at the hub of the fledgling civil rights movement.
Are such traditions, along with the family meal, being lost?
"I feel encouraged by the time we spent on the road," Silva says. "People are concerned about this loss of tradition. Kids are not sitting down at the table. It's the microwave, fast food, and pizza. Hopefully, we're at a tipping point, with what kids are eating and the obesity issue and what seems like a loss of civility in life. There's a sense out there that we can't lose this."
The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, will sign Hidden Kitchens at Off Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, on Thursday, October 27th, at 5:30 p.m. And they will give a workshop on oral histories at 2 p.m. that day as part of the Southern Foodways Alliance's symposium, "The Sweet Life -- Sugar and the South." For more information, check out southernfoodways.com or call 662-915-5993.
WKNO 91.1 FM will also air two Hidden Kitchens radio segments Saturday, October 29th, at 7 p.m.