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America's Hidden Eating Rituals Revealed

Families and friends around the United States will gather together this Thanksgiving to share a meal. It is among the best-known eating rituals in America, but by no means the only one. The many ways food traditions help create community in this country has inspired a new book called Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters (Rodale). Authors Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson compiled the book from tales they gathered while doing their Hidden Kitchens series for National Public Radio.

A group of Brazilian cab drivers in San Francisco helped launch Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva on their quest for hidden kitchens. The men led the two California-based radio producers to a woman named Janete, who set up a nightly mobile kitchen on a deserted San Francisco street and cooked the drivers their favorite Brazilian dishes:

"We went one night around midnight," Davia Nelson recalls, and there they were, with drivers huddled around these grills, parked cabs, music spilling out onto the street. It was what we call a Hidden Kitchen vision, and we said, 'If Janete is doing this here in San Francisco, who else is out there?'"

An appeal to National Public Radio listeners brought hundreds of stories of hidden kitchens - secret, unexpected, or unusual places where people get together to eat across the country. Nikki Silva says the responses ranged from childhood memories to the imported traditions of community newcomers. "It just opened windows for us to food culture across America we had never thought about."

From Kentucky came word of a frontier stew called burgoo brought to the region by its early settlers and still cooked at picnics and community fund-raisers today. "Men get together all night," Davia Nelson explains. "It's a nine-hour process. They burn sassafras and hickory and they grill Boston butt (pork) and mutton and chicken. And then in these big huge vats, they make this stew, and it has to be stirred and stirred or it will scorch. It's not a stew, it's just an epic, a community epic."

Many hidden kitchens have sprung up at work places across America. The Kitchen Sisters - who are actually friends and colleagues, not sisters - heard of enterprising cooks aboard nuclear submarines, on auto assembly lines and at nail salons run by Vietnamese immigrant women. Nikki Silva describes a salon in San Francisco, where Davia Nelson happened to be getting her nails done on Christmas Eve. "She noticed all these Vietnamese manicurists from other shops suddenly started to arrive with plates of food, and they were going to have a Christmas Eve feast of pork and shrimp rolls and fish and pho. They brought their families, and suddenly the nail salon was transformed into this community kitchen.

"It was amazing to go back to the nail salon a few years later and say 'Could we have a recipe for our book,' adds Davia Nelson. "No one's asking the manicurists of America, all these Vietnamese manicurists, what do you cook?"

The quest for hidden kitchens also yielded stories of people who cooked on the road, binding people together when they were far from home. "One of our favorites is a traveling circus kitchen," says Davia Nelson. "A woman called, and she said her family owned a traveling circus, with hundreds and hundreds of performing artists, and every single day, no matter what, even if a tornado blew away the tent, even if the animals escaped, the cookhouse flag would go up and all these circus performers would gather together and have a meal. And she said, 'How much I rejoice in this wild community kitchen in which I grew up.'"

Some hidden kitchens have helped people cope with hardship and adversity. Nikki Silva says one woman nominated the portable grill marketed by heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman. "She thought this because for so many homeless people and immigrants to this country who have to live in single room occupancies where you don't have a kitchen, the George Foreman Grill was a way these folks could get a hot meal. The homeless folks would plug into the power plugs on the street and fry up whatever they could find to eat."

Davia Nelson tells the story of the secret civil rights kitchen run by Georgia Gilmore. In the mid 1950s, she cooked for her fellow activists in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, when African Americans demanded equal treatment on public transportation. "Dr. Martin Luther King, who was a new preacher in town, used to love her fried chicken, and he helped her to open a restaurant in her home. It was one of the only integrated dining places in Montgomery, Alabama. She mobilized a whole group of women in the community to bake pies and cakes, and they would sell these slices at beauty parlors and taxi stands to help raise money for gas to help people continue the Montgomery bus boycott that Rosa Parks had helped to ignite."

The Kitchen Sisters says their search left them with mixed feelings about the future of American eating rituals. "This woman from Tacoma, Washington called who was a home economics teacher," recalls Nikki Silva, "and she said in recent years, she's finding that fewer and fewer kids are having home cooked meals. We're losing our food memory. We'd get a message like that, but then we'd hear about all of these wonderful traditions that were being maintained throughout the country and new immigrant groups bringing in their rich traditions and that being shared with the community. So I think we're at a turning point, where people are realizing that there's such value in cooking for others."

A quote from the final pages of Hidden Kitchens sums up one of the book's recurring themes-"No one who cooks, cooks alone."