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Kitchen Stories | The Nation

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Kitchen Stories

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We are each other's keepers. We are all hungry if any of us is hungry. And many across the nation are taking matters into their own hands--from The Cooking Club in Los Angeles that works with women living on skid row, to Meals on Wheels, to Head Start Kitchens that feed our nation's poorest children, to the Edible Schoolyard, a one-acre organic garden and a kitchen classroom where urban public school students learn to grow, cultivate, and prepare healthy food.

This essay was adapted from the new paperback edition of Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More From NPR's The Kitchen Sisters (Rodale Press.)

About the Author

The Kitchen Sisters
Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, aka the Kitchen Sisters, are co-producers of Hidden Kitchens,on National Public Radio.

My name is Judy Davis. I'm calling about Aunt Ethel. My Aunt Ethel's knishes were famous. Not just in the family and not just in the Jewish play school where she was the lunch lady, and not just in Levittown, Pennsylvania where she and Uncle Irv lived for forty years. Ethel's knishes were known, literally, across the country. No, she didn't package and market them and, no, she didn't put her recipe on the internet. She just shared them.

She shared them with whomever they got to know at whatever campsite, at whatever National Forest they happened to be vacationing in at the time. In the early years, she and Uncle Irv camped in a trailer with a pop-up tent. By the time of their retirement, it was a prized motor home. But, whatever the vehicle it always contained a freezer stuffed with knishes. It was an annual treat hearing Irv tell about how Ethel fed knishes to camping neighbors who'd never met a Jew in their lives, much less tasted such a delicacy. Knowing Ethel's gregariousness, her won't-take- no-for-an-answer style, and the incredible flakiness of those savory potato stuffed morsels, it was not surprising to hear how often such strangers became fast friends, meeting regularly at one site or another for decades.

Ethel was a maverick in her immigrant family's world. Over the years Ethel endured much criticism and ridicule from her sisters and brothers-in-law in order to follow her American-born playboy of a husband. Unlike any of her sisters, she knew how to have fun. She knew how to play cards, take trips. My God, she even knew how to enjoy the outdoors. For all the rest of the family, the outdoors was dangerous. Driving on a highway anyplace you didn't have to go was crazy. Swimming in a cold pond with live fish was unthinkable. Most of all, exposing your daughters to a world outside the Jewish neighborhood was downright playing with fire.

Ethel could be kosher and a camper. She could share her husband's love for adventure and she could make him stop at every kosher butcher and synagogue along the way. She could schlep the two sets of pots and pans, one for dairy and one for meat, from campsite to campsite and she could make friends with strangers. It was those strangers turned friends, Northerners and Southerners, blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles, who were there at her funeral. There with their love for Ethel and their wonderful stories about how much fun they had together and about how much they were going to miss those knishes by the campfire."

More than ever, America is portrayed as a nation divided by race, politics, economics, war. But our tape recorder is picking up another story. All over the country there are people who are concerned about embracing and creating traditions that bring about understanding and appreciation in their families, neighborhoods and the world.

Perhaps these small kitchen stories are not just stories, but a kind of guide, a way to travel through daily life--with eyes open to the hand-painted signs on the side of the road, to thinking about where the money we spend for food is going, to spotting a pit being fired up in a churchyard and the picnic that will soon follow, to farmers' markets, to community kitchens--all these stories as they mingle and merge into one bigger American story.

Look around you. Who glues your community together through food? Who is cooking on your corner? What traditions are vanishing from your neighborhood, your family, the planet? It's the food, but more than that, it's the fellowship. This improvisational, ingenious, imaginative cooking--old and new, a spirit that can't be suppressed--alive across America. Food is our universal language, it's what we have in common. When in doubt, cook.

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