Finding History (and Wild Rice and George Foreman Grills)
Under a Rock
The New York Times, Nov 27, 2004
by Samuel Freedman
SAN FRANCISCO - One afternoon a quarter-century ago, not long after two relative strangers named Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva had begun serving as hosts of a weekly radio show on local history, they cracked open the door of a garage in Oakland. It belonged to Ms. Silva's pack rat of a father, and the young women had come to pillage it for audio artifacts. Wading into the clutter, they excavated a vinyl 78 with a handwritten inscription on its label: "To Louie, Love, Mrs. B."
When they drove back to their station, KUSP in Santa Cruz, they located a phonograph old enough to play 78's, and listened to a world unfold. Mrs. B., it became evident, was a soldier's wife on the home front during World War II, and she had recorded the disc as a letter to her absent husband. "Do they jitterbug over there, Louie?" she asked. "I bet they're not half as good as we are. Keep out of those pubs and away from those barmaids."
In the short term, Mrs. B's voice formed part of a show that Ms. Nelson and Ms. Silva devoted to the Bay Area during wartime. More enduringly, that moment of discovery cemented what would develop into a long, fruitful and acclaimed partnership. It joined Ms. Nelson, with her ardor for radio, and Ms. Silva, a trained curator and archivist, into a documentary team known as the Kitchen Sisters.
In the last five years alone, the Kitchen Sisters have twice captured the Peabody Award for documentaries for National Public Radio: "Lost and Found Sound," an aural history of the 20th century, and "The Sonic Memorial Project," a chronicle of the World Trade Center and its destruction by terrorists. This fall, they have returned to the airwaves with "Hidden Kitchens," a series of seven-minute vignettes about food that are to be broadcast every Friday morning through January 2005 on "Morning Edition."
Their name notwithstanding, the Kitchen Sisters do not consider themselves foodies, and this series, in Ms. Nelson's words, "isn't about people smacking their lips and saying, 'Mmm, good.'" Rather, she said, "it's about how people survive," by which she meant both literal survival and the survival of ethnic or regional cultures. The series' segments touch on cooks who range from caterers for NASCAR drivers to political-campaign volunteers to homeless hucksters.
"The common thread for us is secrets, that sense of revelation," Ms. Silva said during a recent interview in the Kitchen Sisters' studio here. "It's as if, when you hear something, you're the first person who's ever heard it. And then the desire to story-tell that, to make your excitement real to someone else."
Ms. Nelson and Ms. Silva are part of a larger boom in radio documentaries on noncommercial stations that has brought to prominence people like David Isay ("Ghetto Life 101," "Yiddish Radio Project"), Joe Richman ("Radio Diaries"), Ira Glass ("This American Life") and Jay Allison, a co-producer of much of the Kitchen Sisters' work.
"They're among the handful of the producers who've totally revitalized the form," said Alan Stavitsky, a scholar of public radio who is the associate dean of journalism at the University of Oregon, referring to the Kitchen Sisters. "What I think is so impressive about them is their creativity and versatility. They are able to do both the traditional form of radio documentary -- the well-researched, well-produced long-form pieces -- as well as some of the very quirky, shorter modules."
If anything, Ms. Nelson and Ms. Silva built their early reputation on whimsy. After having met by chance at a history museum in Santa Cruz and discovered a common interest in folklore, they developed shows for KUSP on topics like rattlesnake trainers and a champion cowgirl. Ms. Nelson described their shared aesthetic as ''eccentric, offbeat history, history under a rock." Even their nom de radio started as an inside joke about a show they did on two Santa Cruz stone masons, brothers named Kitchen.
Soon after a friend sent tapes of their shows from the late 1970's and early 1980's to a producer at NPR, the Kitchen Sisters found themselves with a national platform. While they pursued separate careers -- Ms. Silva as a curator, living in Santa Cruz, Ms. Nelson casting films for Francis Ford Coppola from his San Francisco headquarters -- they collaborated on dozens of pieces for the network. Culminating in "Lost and Found Sound," these projects reflected the women's fascination with the odd, the unlikely, the charmingly peculiar.
That approach changed in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, when they started work on the "Sonic Memorial Project." The found objects they used included the voice-mail messages left by men and women trapped in the Twin Towers, staring into their own deaths. Even the seemingly lighter moments, like the recollections of hostesses who used to greet visitors to the skyscrapers, sounded mournful in context.
"We really mined the depths," Ms. Silva recalled. "We spent two years listening to those last words over and over and over, getting to know survivors. We just felt this tremendous sense of responsibility."
Traces of that sense of responsibility infuse "Hidden Kitchens," which appreciates food without ever becoming frivolous or fetishistic. One emblematic segment concerned the George Foreman grill. It began with a tip from a Legal Aid lawyer that many immigrants living in rented rooms used the grill as a stove because it was more adaptable and less fire prone than a hot plate. Through a coalition of the homeless in Chicago, the Kitchen Sisters found a man named Jeffrey Newton, who supported himself on the streets by peddling sandwiches he made on a Foreman grill. The producers also spoke to Mr. Foreman, who confided piercing memories of childhood poverty and hunger. He described inflating a paper bag on his way to school each morning so that he could pretend to the other children that he too had a lunch.
Not long after wrapping up that segment, Ms. Nelson and Ms. Silva went back on the road to report two other episodes, visiting union workers in Kentucky as they cooked up a vat of smoky stew called burgoo and then gliding along a Minnesota lake with American Indians harvesting wild rice. In the coming weeks they will continue reporting and editing episodes about the food served on Great Lakes freighters and about the cooks who fed and held bake sales for marchers in the civil rights movement.
All told, the Kitchen Sisters have collected more than 200 hours of digital audio for 13 seven-minute pieces. An hourlong special may be broadcast in early 2005. The project has literally flavored their lives.
"My microphone now smells like burgoo and parched rice," Ms. Nelson said. "It's so bizarre. I've never smelled our stories before."