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.
No matter what had happened, no matter if a tornado took the circus tent, if an animal got loose, if we were up all night in the mud tearing down the tent, we gathered on those big picnic benches and came together to eat. It was an incredible experience. When I look back on it now, how much I have to rejoice in that community kitchen.
We listen and marvel at how the simple ritual of sharing a table can create family, even among the most unlikely people–in a kitchen as big and raucous as a circus tent or as quiet and intimate as two people sharing a meal from separate worlds.
Hello, my name is Gabrielle Burton. I used to have a job as a cook for a wonderful man in Boston, a sort of classic WASP, old-style New Englander. He was about 83 and when I left he was 90-something. Dr. Harris would pick me up at college, and we’d wind our way through the cobblestone Cambridge streets, at slower and slower speeds as he aged, to go shopping for dinner, stopping at the small neighborhood grocer, putting two pieces of fresh fish or two chicken breasts on his charge account.
Part of the evening was sitting and eating with him and sharing stories over dinner–me telling him about my college life–Dr. Harris reading me poetry, playing me records of John Cage or some classical music, someone he wanted me to know about. It was a remarkable way of connecting across the generations.
I think young people seem to be increasingly isolated from anyone over the age of 60 in any real way. It seems to me that this is being lost. This is my small kitchen story and I wanted to share it with you.
These small kitchen stories about the private traditions of family, natural and created, contain big ideas about how we can connect, how these connections lessen isolation, and how they delight and bind, and even forge community. People will go to great lengths to find each other, and food is often the way they get there.
Hi, my name is Cindy Van Reedy. I’m calling from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I’m a lesbian and almost every lesbian community in the country comes together regularly through potluck dinners, and Milwaukee is no exception. In fact, I went to Google and typed in “lesbian potluck history” and came up with over seven thousand hits. It’s sort of like when three lesbians get together, it’s a potluck…
The man cooking burgoo at a kettle in Kentucky called it the fellowship of stirring, standing side by side with your neighbor, making something that links you to the past, present and future of your community. These kitchens connect us in ways that are not always obvious–to each other and to the land itself.
Hello. This is Margaret Fitzgerald Evans. I was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta. My father was a small town doctor who began his practice in the 1940’s. Many of his patients were poor and paid him for his services in home-grown vegetables. I remember well waking up in a sweltering humid Mississippi summer morning with paper bags full of ripe corn, beans, tomatoes, turnip greens, cucumbers, green peppers, peas and everything else imaginable piled up on the porch. We ate our dinner at noon every day, hot plates of vegetables, cold bowls of salad and piles of steaming rice. My daddy always said the delta grew cotton and vegetables out of this world. My father taught us respect for the hard-working farmer. We knew that they left the vegetables on our doorstep before daybreak out of pride. We never saw their faces, but Daddy knew who they were and what they did for us. Thank you for listening to my story.
There is the fellowship that comes from tending and feeding each other, and there is the fellowship that comes from listening. This need to be heard and understood and recognized seems as powerful as the primal need to feed and be fed. Food and story are a way to kinship with someone whose face you’ve never seen, whose work you don’t know, whose faith is strange to you, whose experience is not your own–a way of discovering perhaps that you share more than you realize.
Hello, my name is David LaChance at Mt. Holyoke College. Here at the college we have a kosher Halaal dining hall, which means that all of the food which is served there can be eaten both by observant Jews and by observant Muslims. It brings together these two groups on our campus to literally break bread together. The dining hall was opened here on September 13, 2001, at the request of students. It was their idea to have such a place. It is a powerful reminder of the connections between these two very ancient faiths.
In strange and simple ways, food can cross a line, can cut though politics, race, religion. Nineteen-fifties Montgomery civil rights activist Georgia Gilmore looked at a pie and saw a weapon for social change. Her “Club From Nowhere” raised money for the bus boycott movement selling home-baked pies and cakes in the beauty parlors of Montgomery. Today, people around the country see the same power in kolaches, clams, ramps, burgoo–a way to raise money to build a library, fund a fire department, feed the hungry, take care of our elders and our children. In the right hands, in the right region, even a barbequed muskrat has earning potential for some social cause or political candidate.
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.
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.