Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Kitchen Sisters


There were clues early on that this may not be the typical book reading at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on this Monday night in San Francisco. The small space was transformed - the podium possessed not one, but three microphones and ample-sized speakers stared down at the audience. Easels with montages of glossy posters flanked the podium. Off to one side, platters of tasty finger-food and bottles of wine stood waiting. I overheard light-hearted apologies for the food: “Well, it's not from the stove in the kitchen.”
People started streaming in. The local celebrity vs. average book buyer ratio was climbing by the minute, unusual for this casual, cozy venue. Armistead Maupin, Alice Waters, and Don Novello were among the group. This was a reading to celebrate the release of Davia Nelson's and Nikki Silva's book, Hidden Kitchens, and the two warmly greeted the attendees they knew, which seemed like half the crowd. It had the feel of a reunion of close-knit friends. My thoughts echoed the palpable sentiment: Nelson and Silva, both Bay Area residents, are beloved and admired in this community.
Nelson and Silva, known as The Kitchen Sisters, have been a story-telling team for radio productions since 1979. They created the Hidden Kitchen radio series for NPR's Morning Edition, the basis for their book. They kicked off the event by reading a passage about the inception of the Hidden Kitchen radio series. The passage recounted how, in San Francisco, Nelson happened to keep riding in taxis with drivers who came from a Brazilian town called Goiana. Conversations eventually led to discovering the hidden kitchen of a Brazilian woman who would stake out her tent-kitchen near the taxi company's office late each night. Nelson and Silva conducted interviews amidst the Brazilian music and Portuguese banter, and then broadcast the story. This led to a request for other hidden kitchens, resulting in 2,079 messages. A radio series was born.
We then heard the taped voice of George Foreman, heavyweight boxing world champion, boom from the speakers. He said, “I dreamed of having enough to eat.” This childhood memory morphed into the production of the very popular George Foreman Grill. We listened to taped testimonials from people living in SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotels or living on the streets, passionately describing how the grill is a safe and affordable way to cook. Another type of hidden kitchen.
The authors injected spontaneity by surprising a few of the local celebrities with requests to read. Don Novello, the former Saturday Night Live's character Father Guido Sarducci, read the passage about a man who spoke lovingly about his memories of his “Big Grandma” and “Little Grandma.” Novello, who has a deep voice and rich accent, described how the grandmothers' styles of cooking reflected how they lived their lives and ultimately, how they died.
“Lou the Glue” Marcelli, an imposing 77 year old with a sturdy build, captivated the group with his own hidden kitchen story. As the custodian for the Dolphin Club, a San Francisco Bay swimming and rowing club founded in 1897, he frequently cooks his legendary calamari pasta with tomato sauce, among other dishes, for the old-time members who want to tell their stories, drink wine, and eat his food after a swim in the bay. Affectionately referred to as an “old stove,” he's been cooking for the community for decades. Marcelli swims in the bay four days a week without a wetsuit, regardless of the weather. He said, “You just look it [the water] in the eye and go.”
Armistead Maupin, writer and author of the book series Tales of the City , was asked to read message #341 from a woman living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a lesbian, she had felt isolated until she heard of local potluck dinners. Maupin then quipped, “I wonder why I was chosen to read this one.”
We next listened to a taped story from their broadcast. While listening, wine was served to the audience. This was no ordinary wine. It was homemade by “Angelo” who is also featured in the book. Nelson and Silva serve his wine at all their readings, no matter how cumbersome to transport. His hidden kitchen is in his wrought-iron forging studio in an industrial part of San Francisco where he cooks food inspired by his Sicilian upbringing.
Alice Waters, owner of the Chez Panisse restaurant and founder of the organic and local-grown food movement, was last to read. (Waters wrote the foreword for the book.) She read a story about a woman who fondly remembered a Long Island fisherman selling fresh fish from his cart.
Nelson and Silva took questions before signing books and closing the reading. The authors' knack for engaging radio listeners transformed a rather predictable literary format to a much larger experience. Heartfelt cooking and feeding others has a unique power and magic to soothe and create community where it doesn't exist. The authors showed us that connection.

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