Appetite for Books
Hidden Kitchens
Stories, Recipes and More from
NPR's The Kitchen Sisters

by Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson
Rodale, 2005
$27.50, cloth
278 pages

"What did you have to eat?" was the question asked by WPA interviewers with the America Eats project. They fanned out from Florida to Michigan answering the question and recording Ohio rabbit fries, cemetery cleaning picnics, and political barbecues. The imperatives of World War II would eventually sweep their project aside, but the Kitchen Sisters, Silva and Nelson, are asking the question again and finding new answers.

Looking beyond McDonalds, they've found the home that can coalesce around a George Foreman Grill, NASCAR pit stops for hungry drivers and mechanics, and the civil rights that were won with the help of pecan pies. These "hidden kitchens" are places where people create their own communities and gather at the table.

Their stories are about food, but also about fellowship. If it's Kentucky Burgoo, the Sisters call 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."

They have expertly captured these simple and fundamental moments for National Public Radio and now in this book they capture the stories of the stories, the leads they followed and what they found. The book adds pictures, and includes the calls and comments from listeners that invariably add depth and texture.

In a landscape thick with fast food chains, it's gratifying to see how much material the Sisters have to work with. Food traditions persist, whether its Burgoo fundraisers for local churches, hippie whole food kitchens at rock concerts, or the Ojibwe wild rice harvest on Big Rice Lake. In the Sister's stories, food is the underpinning of community.

And of course, there are recipes. For Francis Ford Coppola's meatballs for 500, made annually in North Beach to raise funds for the homeless, you'll need 85 pounds of ground beef, to start. Don't say you weren't warned about Slap It On The Thighs Butter Bars, from the Racing Wives Auxiliary Cookbook. Even if you dare not forage for mushrooms, you can gather friends at the table around a bowl of Porcini Pasta, as cooked by Angelo Garro, wrought iron artist and hunter-gatherer who can find a meal in the weeds of a vacant lot.

But more than recipes, it's what you do with them. I made Czechoslovakian Moon Cookies, a recipe from Baltimore that were an annual Christmas gift given to John Patterson's family from the Pouska family, whom they had helped to settle. Patterson now shares the story and the cookies with his students every Christmas.

I don't think I have Patterson's touch with these cookies, which are very nice. Kind of a light chocolate flavor with bits of nutty crunch, topped by a creamy, crackly confectioner's sugar frosting the seeps into the cakey cookie and leaves a glaze on top.

But if this book has any kitchen lesson to pass along, is that it's not what always what you cook that's important, but who you feed. I'm going to share these cookies at my office's annual holiday cookie swap.

© 2005 Claudia Kousoulas
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