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'Hidden Kitchens': Stories, Recipes and More

The new book by The Kitchen Sisters was inspired by their ongoing Morning Edition series of reports exploring the world of street-corner cooking, colorful kitchen rituals and visionaries, legendary meals and eating traditions -- a wild and poignant chronicle of American life through food.

Some of the more inspiring "hidden kitchen" stories:

• A midnight cab-yard kitchen on the streets of San Francisco

• Makeshift kitchens crammed in the racing pits of NASCAR

• A secret civil-rights kitchen tucked away in a house in Montgomery, Ala.

• The Chili Queens of San Antonio

• Food from the galleys of Great Lakes freighters

• The George Foreman Grill, just about anywhere and in every place you can imagine

More than 1,000 NPR listeners called the Hidden Kitchens Hotline, leaving hot tips about underground kitchens at nuclear test sites, traveling circuses, Burgoo picnics in Kentucky, hippie kitchens at Phish concert, clambakes and many more.

Excerpt from Hidden Kitchens: Street Corner Cooking, Kitchen Rituals, and Visionaries:

When we opened up the Hidden Kitchens Hotline on NPR, we asked, we pleaded: "Please don't tell us about your grandmother and her cooking." We know, it sounds harsh, cold and heartless. Kitchens and grandmothers -- the two are inextricably linked, but that's what we were afraid of.

We knew if we gave grandmother stories an inch in, the hotline would have a meltdown. It would be a torrent, a flood, an endless sea of grandmothers and their cookies, pies and advice. Fortunately for us, most of you completely disregarded our plea, and called up not once, not twice but three times to tell us about -- you guessed it -- grandma. Here are some little kitchen stories even the hardhearted Kitchen Sisters could not resist.

Message #38 was received at 2:40 PM Thursday.

"My name is Douglas Weed. I have a story to tell about my two grandmas' kitchens. There was only one grandma at a time in my family. They rarely saw each other, didn't particularly like each other. I called them little grandma and big grandma in an accurate reflection of the their physical sizes and the food on their tables.

"They each lived in small, obscure Pennsylvania towns. Their kitchens both had those 1950 refrigerators with the tiny metal freezer at the top and gas stoves, a dry sink and running water. Lots of hand-held devices -- mixers, peelers, the cherry pitters, spoons and ladles and sharp, very sharp knives. Both my grandmas wore white aprons over their housedresses when they cooked. Both went to church and Bible school every Sunday. Both had been born just before the turn of the last century. Both shunned written recipes. Yet despite these similarities, my grandmas had fundamentally different attitudes about food.

"Little grandma ate no seeds, no salt, no sugar, refused to make sauces, would not serve jams, berry pies, berry cobbler, berry pancakes. All meat was boiled or baked. Coarse whole wheat bread was served with salt-free oatmeal for breakfast. Lots of plain boiled vegetables, canned sugar-free fruit for dessert. For a little boy in the 1950s, this was a tough assignment -- any meal at little grandma's house was a challenge. The solid, oh-so-plain food, and not much of it.

"Big grandma, by contrast, produced dinners to die for. Her table was covered with china serving bowls filled with chicken gravy, gravy soaked biscuits, another with hot biscuits, two kinds of jam, honey still in the comb, the chicken in its own bowl and milky coleslaw, a plate of ham, fresh fruit swimming in condensed milk.

Big grandma loved to make decorated, two-layer buttercream-frosted cakes. Yellow, white, chocolate -- you could have whatever flavor you wanted. She once made three different cakes for the same day. She baked pies too, and homemade doughnuts. Frycakes, she called them.

"I loved my grandmas. Little grandma was as sad and troubled as her food was plain. Big grandma was as happy and as thoughtful as her table was loaded. Both lived into their 80s. Little grandma died depressed and a bit demented. She lingered. Big grandmother died of high blood pressure and diabetes. A little artery blew up in her head -- she fell to the floor dead in mid-sentence. No surprises for either, I suppose. They died as they lived -- as they cooked in their nearly identical kitchens."

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The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning, NPR series, Hidden Kitchens, and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below-the-radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food. The Hidden Kitchens audio book, narrated by Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, received a 2006 Audie Award.