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Hidden Kitchens: Communities Unite Through Food

March 18, 2013 | By Katherine Kipp

The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, began their radio career in the 1970s by producing a live radio program that aired weekly. In the decades since, they have hosted many award-winning series, including the NEH-funded program Hidden Kitchens, which has won the DuPont-Columbia Award, and Lost & Found Sound, as well as The Hidden World of Girls hosted by Tina Fey. They have created more than 200 stories for public broadcast about the lives, histories, arts, and rituals of people who have shaped our diverse cultural heritage. Their broadcasts typically discuss a person or story that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Funded by NEH, Hidden Kitchens explores the world of “below the radar cooking” by uncovering how different communities have come together through food. Part of NPR’s Morning Edition, the series exposes a side of community that might otherwise be overlooked. The Kitchen Sisters are currently working on the next installment of Hidden Kitchens, called Hidden Kitchens World, which will focus on global stories of food, culture, and society. In the meantime, we’d like to share a few of our favorites from past broadcasts.

“The Club From Nowhere: Cooking for Civil Rights” introduces listeners to Georgia Gilmore, dubbed “one of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.” In the seven-minute broadcast, we learn about many of the ways Gilmore participated in—and sustained— the Civil Rights Movement. After losing her job for criticizing a bus driver who had removed her from a segregated bus, she helped the Montgomery Bus Boycott by selling pies and cakes to provide money for boycotters who used cars to get to work instead of the local bus system. She called her business the “Club from Nowhere” in order to keep the boycotters’ identities secret.

Furthermore, “her secret kitchen fueled the Civil Rights Movement,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped her establish a cooking business in her home. King wanted a place where he could trust the people and the food, and Gilmore’s house became that meeting place. Testimonials on the radio broadcast call her a “confidante” who raised a lot of money for the movement.

Gilmore’s story illustrates exactly what Hidden Kitchen aims to show: how a kitchen can bring a community together in surprisingly strong and unexpected ways.

Another demonstration of this is Niloufer Ichaporia King’s kitchen, discussed in “Sugar in the Milk: A Parsi Kitchen Story.” The program features clips from King and other Parsis living in America, who reminisce about foods from their childhood before moving onto a more serious issue: the diminishing number of Parsis worldwide, resulting in the disappearance of Parsi cooking. A Parsi is an Indian of Persian descent.

The broadcast focuses on King as she makes a meal for the Parsi New Year, which usually falls on the first day of spring. She visits a farmer’s market and provides listeners with a mini-history lesson about the different legends surrounding Parsi assimilation into Indian culture: for example, the Parsi head priest promised the local ruler that the Parsis would enrich Indian culture without displacing it, just as sugar enriches milk without displacing it. King leaves us with what seems to be her biggest goal in sustaining her Parsi kitchen: by tending to the “endangered artifact” of Parsi cooking, she is handing down an heirloom in the same way one would hand down any other personal artifact.

These are just two of the many kitchens the Kitchen Sisters have covered on their program. Through their diligent research and reporting, Nelson and Silva recount a variety of stories that might otherwise fly below the radar. To read or listen to more installments, visit the Hidden Kitchens website.

The Kitchen Sisters are currently working on eight more installments of Hidden Kitchens for NPR’s Morning Edition, as well as a multimedia website and a blog that will feature scholars exploring the complex relationships among food, culture, and society. The upcoming Hidden Kitchens World will feature lost but not forgotten places in food history—such as this post about Eel Pie Island in London. NEH’s Division of Public Programs has funded Lost and Found Sound in addition to Hidden Kitchens. For more information on The Kitchen Sisters, please visit their website.

The Kitchen Sisters have received several grants for programs relating to food and culture.