Although we call ourselves the Kitchen Sisters, food hasn’t always been our beat. That happened relatively recently, when we began chronicling for National Public Radio the secret, unexpected, below-the-radar neighborhood cooking going on all around America. We call them “Hidden Kitchens”: a midnight cab yard kitchen on the streets of San Francisco, a secret civil rights kitchen tucked away in a house in Montgomery in the ’50s, a clandestine kitchen in a prison in Louisiana, the most unexpected hidden kitchen of the homeless–the George Foreman Grill.
Gathering these small kitchen stories, our microphone has become a kind of stethoscope, listening to the complicated heart of the nation–in the plazas of San Antonio, the racing pits of NASCAR, the ricing lakes of the Ojibwe, over the hard road of hunger that led George Foreman to boxing.
On Fourth of July weekend, 2004, Jay Allison, curator of our quest for hidden kitchens, went on NPR inviting listeners to call in and collaborate with us on our nationwide search. The hotline was flooded with calls–an astonishing array of voices from nearly every region of the country–tales of underground kitchens at nuclear test sites in Nevada, a shipyard in Michigan where the nightshift roasts chicken in the welding-rod ovens, clambakes in New England, church suppers in Kentucky, test kitchens, jailhouse kitchens, kitchens on movie sets…the response was overwhelming. Even more amazing to us than the stories was the sense of urgency intensity of the messages. People were demanding that we come chronicle their kitchens immediately because their tradition was just too good to miss, or the peaches would only be ripe for another week, or the senior center hot lunch program was being closed for lack of funds, or the last keeper of the clams was about to die. These weren’t just invitations to interview, these were house calls.
We have received some 2,879 minutes of messages–an accidental archive of how people live, adapt and cook in twenty-first-century America. These messages have led us around the country to unusual, underground, almost-forgotten kitchens and traditions, and introduced us to the visionaries and cooks who tend and feed our communities.
If there is a single, unifying theme to the hours of stories and messages we’ve gathered, it is not about food itself, but about fellowship. It is really this that lays beneath most of the messages–that hidden thing happens in the best of kitchens–something is shared. The stories are offbeat and eccentric, poignant and powerful–full of hope and imagination–a map of possibilities for coming together through food.
Hi, my name is Mary Brazauskas Parnell. I was raised in a traveling three-ring circus that performed all over the United States. My mother was a trapeze artist, my father was the manager, my sister performed on horseback and I rode the elephants. The cookhouse flag went up on our big tent three times a day and we all gathered together from our circus community, every nationality and ate our meals together.
As a youngster I would go with my father to shop at the grocery store and we would buy carts and carts full of breads and milk in huge quantities, and fruits and vegetables for the animals. When we hit major cities like Chicago we’d go to the large Armour factory and get whole sides of beef. Occasionally, if there was a celebration like a wedding, the show would stop and we’d barbecue whole cows and have an incredible feast for two days.