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NPR's Kitchen Sisters reveal food worlds

Food brings people together, just as much as a lack of it can tear them apart. What we cook, how we cook it, and when we eat it say as much about ourselves as our body language and our choice of friends.

ANNE CUSACK / Los Angeles Times
ANNE CUSACK / Los Angeles TimesRead more

Food brings people together, just as much as a lack of it can tear them apart. What we cook, how we cook it, and when we eat it say as much about ourselves as our body language and our choice of friends.

How communities come together through food and the richness of the resulting culinary traditions are of particular interest to Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, better known as National Public Radio's "Kitchen Sisters."

Since 2004, the women have been searching for and chronicling cooking and eating rituals in unexpected under-the-radar places across the country. The stories began airing in 2005 as "Hidden Kitchens" on NPR's Morning Edition and spawned an eponymous book.

Now, with the winter holidays and their attendant family meals upon us, the women admit that, try as they might, they just can't get away from food. It informs nearly every project they touch.

When they put out a call for comments on their new series on the secret lives of girls around the world, about a third of the audio messages were about "Hidden Kitchens."

It doesn't matter that up until the "Hidden Kitchens" series, the women, who have been working in radio together since 1979, didn't consider food their beat. Nor does it make a difference that their focus was on telling offbeat stories about interesting characters that had little to do with food.

When the women first hit on the idea, they put out a call for stories on the radio.

What they got on the "Hidden Kitchens" hotline was 2,789 minutes of audio messages that filled 36 compact discs. And the messages haven't stopped coming.

So great is the public's interest in telling and hearing inspirational, highly personal stories about food that they have decided to begin working on "Hidden Kitchens World." (This is after releasing their latest book, Hidden Kitchens, Texas, in March, which they were moved to write after realizing that a third of the messages they received were from Texas.)

They have done a segment about Rice-A-Roni and how its invention can be traced to a woman who, upon fleeing the Armenian genocide, ended up in San Francisco, where she taught her recipe for rice pilaf to the wife of the man who used it as inspiration for his popular side dish.

"We want to follow people's stories back to their country of origin," Nelson says.

For example, after hearing the segment about a cab-yard kitchen in San Francisco where a woman from Goiania, Brazil, cooks the food of her native land for cabbies, most of whom are also from Goiania, people told Silva and Nelson that they should check out a similar scene in South Africa.

"The entire taxi scene is run out of cab-yard kitchens in South Africa," Nelson says. "We also want to do something on the Quaker chocolate factories of England."

Silva was raised in Oakland, Calif., in a large Portuguese American family with "lots of storytelling and gossip and big meals around the table."

Nelson grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles and was, she says, "just obsessed with radio forever. I used to send love letters to L.A. disc jockeys. I love that sound of music coming out of a transistor radio on the beach."

The women met after college in Santa Cruz. Nelson was producing a radio show on oral history for a small local channel and Silva was curating for a museum and acting as a historical consultant.

"So we were coming at the same idea through different mediums," Silva says.

It's this love of radio and a fascination with the stories of others that make Silva and Nelson refer to themselves as "sonic detectives."

And once they've tracked down an interesting story, they rarely let it go, which is why they have become friends with many of the people they have documented. In this way they have created their own community through food, weaving together stories and connecting people through them to make lasting relationships.

One such relationship is with Jim and Carole Wallace, a couple who live near Austin, Texas, who wrote to them about an annual "Kidney Party" they throw.

Jim had a kidney transplant 12 years ago, and on the one-year anniversary of the operation they decided to throw a party to thank everyone who had helped them. They served steak and kidney pie and kidney bean salad.

Since then the party has morphed into an all-out organ party. Jim grills beef hearts, and Carole, who is of German heritage, slices tongue and serves it with bread and horseradish sauce like her mom used to do. There are also chicken livers with water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and much more. Every year friends and family come from all over the city and some from out of town.

"At the time I had my transplant, the average survival rate was 10 years and we've gone 12, and since then the average survival has gone up to 18 or 20 years, so I'm hoping for another 12 years," Jim says. "So the party celebrates another year of life, and we make new friends and old friends come together, and there are little kids and grandmothers, and we just say thank you."

Also thanking people with food is another fascinating "Hidden Kitchens" find: an urban hunter and gatherer named Angelo Garro.

Garro is from Sicily, he makes artisan wrought iron, and he lives in his forge in San Francisco. He also hunts his own food, often with a bow and arrow, cures his own olives, makes his own salami, and plucks fennel and other herbs and spices from street corners and wild lots in the city.

"Michael Pollan was listening to 'Hidden Kitchens' and went looking for Angelo to go hunting with," Nelson says.

Garro ended up teaching Pollan to hunt, as described in Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma.

"In America, if you come from another country, you try to mimic what you left behind," Garro says. "In Italy everything is local."

Warm and jovial, Garro regularly welcomes friends into the forge, to share a meal or a drink.

"At any gathering around food, something magical always happens," Garro says on a day that he is expecting a friend and her husband to come over and cook. "I don't know what they're going to cook, but for sure we'll drink some of my homemade wine and eat some of my olives and my wild boar salami for starters."

Now, Nelson joins Garro every year for Thanksgiving - he kills a wild turkey with a bow and arrow. And sometimes she comes for dinner on Christmas Eve when Garro makes a traditional Italian seven-fish dinner. "Dinner happens in his forge and he has friends from all over the world. There are kids and dogs and food is everywhere," Silva says. "Angelo just opens people's eyes to the world around them, and he's brought so many people an appreciation of hunting and gathering, and feeding community through it."