In October 2004, NPR’s Morning Edition started a new series called Hidden Kitchens. A year later, its creators published some of its contents in a richly illustrated book of the same title. The authors are Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, known on NPR as the Kitchen Sisters. The Kitchen Sisters are not cooks, nor cookbook writers, or even food writers. They are journalists focused on telling stories for radio audiences that are about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. In the case of Hidden Kitchens, just one of their projects, the stories revolve around cooking venues we wouldn’t usually think of. These are not the stories of top chefs, or TV personalities. These are the stories associated with one locale, where the person(s) involved may only be known to the locals. Most of the stories are really about a community brought together, perhaps even defined, by the sharing of meals in the locale.
I use the word locale, because the book’s chapters are mostly fixed on one location or type of unusual cookery. Some examples are:
· NASCAR kitchens in the pits, feeding the crews and drivers, moving with the drivers from city to city
· Wild rice harvesting in Minnesota and the Ojibwe Indian community’s White Earth Land Recovery Project
· Fund raising associated with Burgoo (mutton) cooking for charitable organizations in Kentucky
· A Sicilian American hunter, forager and cook in San Francisco and his community of friends
· A secret club, the Club from Nowhere, that provided food for sale, raising funds for the Birmingham AL civil rights movement; and its unsung hero, Georgia Gilmore
· An Indiana farm family that got around the ban on selling raw milk products by selling shares of its cows to its customers. Only owners of the cow can legally eat or drink its raw milk products.
· Cooking classes in a San Francisco prison
· Galley cooking on huge Great Lakes cargo ships
· Concealed cooking by the indigent, homeless, etc. and the importance to them of the George Foreman Grill
While these stories form the main vertebrae of the book’s spine, the rest of the book is fleshed out with side ribs (shorter anecdotes labeled “kitchen visionary”) and a plethora of emails (labeled “messages”) sent in by NPR’s listeners. The authors tried to limit the amount of email by specifying that they did not want any stories about listener’s grandmothers. Needless to say, some made it through anyway and are in the book as well. Also scattered throughout the text, at the appropriate places are samples of the recipes used in these hidden kitchens. The book is peppered with pictures of the unknown cooks, grandmothers, farmers, community organizers, wardens, galley cooks, church members and cab drivers, etc. The recipes and pictures make the stories feel very real.
This is a feel good book in which food and cookery are the means by which countless selfless individuals make their small contributions for a better world, feeding the soul as well as the body, and providing the catalyst that brings together friends and strangers to share a common experience and perhaps form a community. So if you are looking for something upbeat, a positive boost to an otherwise grey day, pick up Hidden Kitchens and read a chapter.