The library recently featured a display of cookbooks. One of the most striking was barely a cookbook at all. It was more a short coffee-table book with loads of contemporary and historical photos, fascinating stories and a few recipes.
"Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More" is a book inspired by National Public Radio's popular Morning Edition series.
On the radio show, the "Kitchen Sisters," Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, explore food traditions and history in America. The team asks listeners to call or write with their responses to questions such as, "What food traditions are disappearing from your life?" or "Who glues your community together through food?"
Over the years, the responses have been huge, with messages urging the women to check out everything from NASCAR racing-pit cooks to clambakes to circus kitchens. Nelson and Silva travel across the country interviewing people, sampling the food and sharing recipes. They compiled some of their experiences into a book that is funny, poignant and wildly interesting.
"Hidden Kitchens" is laid out much like the show, with transcripts of actual phone messages or email, followed by the story of each tradition, including geographical information, interviews and loads of photos. Pick up the small, colorful book, open it to any page and there is something intriguing.
One of my favorite stories focuses on the George Foreman Grill of TV infomercial fame. The book discusses how the grill itself is a hidden kitchen, as many homeless Americans rely on the grill for a hot meal. Nelson and Silva interview Jeffry Newton, a homeless man in Chicago, who explains that he and many others don't have access to kitchens, but outlets and extension cords are easy to find. So, even while living in an empty refrigerator box under the city streets, he and his friends were able to make hot meals. In addition to Newton's story, the chapter explores the history of the George Foreman Grill and includes an interview with Foreman and, of course, one of Foreman's recipes.
Another chapter talks about burgoo picnics. Honestly, when I saw the word "burgoo," I thought it was a typo, but nope, it's a thick, spicy stew that's often prepared by a community as part of a social event such as a church picnic. The recipe in "Hidden Kitchens" makes three gallons of the stuff and calls for four pounds of mutton, three pounds of chicken, some potatoes, corn and lots of pepper.
There are also stories of secret kitchens that not only connect a community, but empower it. In 1950s' Montgomery, Ala., Georgia Gilmore, a black cook, ran a secret restaurant where blacks and whites could eat together as they worked for civil rights. She became a friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and created an underground network of cooks selling pies and cakes to help fund the movement. Her story is a fascinating biography of a little known civil rights hero.
While the book is enjoyable for the most part, my only complaint is that there are too many transcripts. One or two email or phone messages are enough to introduce a chapter. I found myself skipping over them in my eagerness to get to the actual stories.
Overall, the book is a treat. I especially liked the smaller stories, short paragraphs that spotlight someone who carried on a fading tradition. There's a sweet piece about a woman named Margaret Gingrich who was in charge of making bologna sandwiches for funeral dinners in Brinton, Mich. With her death at age 95, the other elderly ladies in the community fear the tradition will also disappear.
"Hidden Kitchens" is a fun collection of endearing stories that remind us of the joys of tradition and how food enriches us in body and spirit.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.