Tag: Kitchen Sisters

An evening with the Kitchen Sisters

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007 | All Things, Books, Events

With so many happenings around New York City on any given day, it’s good to have friends who will clue you into ones you would otherwise miss. Courtesy of a tip from JL (again!): “An Evening with the Kitchen Sisters” at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life, overlooking Washington Square Park.

Those who tune in regularly to NPR’s Morning Edition are probably already familiar with the duo of Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. The two women, who first crossed paths while working on similar oral history projects in Santa Cruz, have been producing radio programs together since 1979. They are the renowned creators of the NPR’s series “Lost & Found Sound,” the Sonic Memorial Project, and “Hidden Kitchens”; their fascinating and provocative radio documentaries have earned them two Peabody Awards and a duPont-Columbia Award.

Most of tonight’s program was framed around the Kitchen Sisters’ past radio features, chronicling little told stories of American kitchen and food culture, past and present. The pair had an easy-going rapport with each other and with the audience (several members of whom were called upon to read from their book) — and much livelier than their Saturday Night Live counterparts.

Kitchen Sisters

Nelson and Silva shared many fascinating stories about food subcultures: a Kosher cafeteria in New York City’s diamond district, Christmas dinner at a nail salon in San Francisco where dozens of Vietnamese manicurists convene from around the city… the women provided context for the stories while sharing selected clips from their radio series as well as a few listener phone messages that inspired the topics. Among the projects were a few non-food-related stories, such as that of WHER, the first “all girl” radio network that broadcast out of Memphis, Tennessee for 17 years, beginning on October 29, 1955. With hushed awe in their voices they talked about their interviews with members of the Mohawk Indian tribe, working precariously high above the ground to build much of our city’s skyline.

Kitchen Sisters stories

Kitchen Sisters stories

I was struck by the Kitchen Sisters’ obvious passion for their work — how would I go about getting a job like this? — and the women’s affection for their subjects; at one point, over an audio excerpt of their “Milk Cow Blues” story about an Indiana farm community divided over the sale of raw milk, Nelson was moved to visible tears, despite admitting to having heard the clip dozens of times before. The piece offered a nice segue for the women to introduce from the audience food writer Frederick Kaufman who in November, 2004 wrote an article for The New Yorker entitled “Psst! Got Milk?” about his infiltration of a private raw-milk coven in Hell’s Kitchen. (Slightly off-topic, Kaufman — who also happens to be Nelson’s cousin — amused everyone with his musings on food porn conventions.)

Kitchen Sisters

Finally, there was the ultimate “hidden kitchen” story of Robert “King” Wilkerson, who spent 31 years in the Angola State Penitentiary for his involvement with the Black Panthers, 29 of those years in solitary confinement. During that time, Wilkerson developed a recipe for pralines, prepared over a contraband stove in his cell fashioned from cans and tissue paper. As a free man now, he sells his candy with much of the proceeds going towards helping his still-imprisoned cohorts fight for freedom. The Kitchen Sisters brought baskets of King’s “freelines” with them this night, which were distributed throughout the delighted audience for sampling. A sweet ending to a wonderful night of stories.

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