Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hidden Kitchens (Nikki Silva & Davia Nelson)

I’ll admit I’ve made plenty of fun at the George Foreman grill, especially when the assortment of colors became a major selling point. But after reading Hidden Kitchens, by Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson (a.k.a. The Kitchen Sisters), I discovered how important the George Foreman grill is to the homeless and those who have lower incomes. In one of those governmental paradoxes, low-income persons who are granted SROs (which are single occupancy rooms) don’t have access to kitchens and aren’t allowed to cook in their rooms, which means they have to eat out all the time (leading to less money saved and less healthy affordable food choices). To get around this, people in those situations have embraced the George Foreman grill. It can be stored easily, leaves no mess, and can make a hot, simple meal in a small amount of time.

Hidden Kitchens is a segment on NPR’s Morning Edition that travels the country (their locations are based mainly on voice mail messages left by listeners sharing their local hidden kitchen) searching for such varied kitchens as church fundraisers, streetcorner food carts that only operate at night, NASCAR kitchens, and the original chili queens of San Antonio. They’ve collected many of their stories, along with recipes and listener recipes, in a handsome hardcover published by Rodale. I’d almost put this book into the coffeetable category as the text is sparse on each page and there’s lots of photographs.

I liked this book, I didn’t love it (I’m afraid I’ve been spoiled by Calvin Trillin), but I thought it was well-produced and would be a good introduction to thinking about food more than just sustenance. I especially enjoyed the chapters on the urban forager Angelo Garro. Originally from Sicily, now living in San Francisco, he takes friends on wild fennel hunts (wild fennel grows all over coastal California) leading them around parking lots and under freeway overpasses. (Now I finally know what the plant is that smells like licorice on the bike path and by PacBell stadium). I was moved by the chapter about Georgia Gilmore, a lady who worked with Martin Luther King Jr in the civil rights movement, only the way she helped was by feeding everyone she could (including MLK Jr).

I appreciated that when the Kitchen Sisters asked for listener stories for their hidden kitchen quest, they requested no grandmother stories (not because they were mean spirited, but because they were afraid their staff wasn’t large enough to handle the amount of stories that would come in if they were allowed). Even then, people still called in with stories about their grandmothers. My grandmothers weren’t big cooks, but I’m lucky enough to have Jim’s grandmother who makes him cookies for his birthday and tells him he has to share with me (I consider myself very lucky indeed).

Next book up: What Should I Do With My Life? by Po Bronson

[Note: I feel the need to point out that this is not a self-help book (as the title implies) but rather an exploration of that big question and those who have tried to answer it. I’m adding this note because I feel very strange carrying around a book with that title and reading it on the train (though less weird than I would reading 23 Days in July (the book I'll be reading after this) about Lance Armstrong while riding in the bike car on the Caltrain. That's going too far.]

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