An interview with Davia Nelson of NPRs Kitchen Sisters

Davia Nelson is one half of NPR’s Kitchen Sisters(with Nikki Silva). The Kitchen Sisters have produced over 300 stories for public broadcast. They chronicle hidden bits of history and subjects who have shaped our diverse cultural landscape. Their current series, The Hidden World of Girls, is hosted by Tina Fey, and airing nationwide on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Their other NPR series include: Hidden Kitchens and Hidden Kitchens Texas, narrated by Willie Nelson and Robin Wright PennLost & Found Sound, narrated by Francis Ford CoppolaThe Sonic Memorial Project, narrated by Paul AusterWaiting for Joe DiMaggio; WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts; and The Nights of Edith Piaf. 

The Kitchen Sisters have received, among others, the duPont-Columbia Award, two Peabody Awards and three Audie Awards.

Their book, Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes and More from NPR’s The Kitchen Sisters, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2005 and nominated for a James Beard Award. A tie-in to the NPR series Hidden Kitchens, it explores street corner cooking, kitchen rituals and visionaries, legendary meals and eating traditions. The audio book is narrated by actress Francis McDormand.

Q: Davia, thanks for taking the time to share some thoughts about New Orleans and food culture, two things which I know are close to your heart. When did you first visit New Orleans and what was the occasion? Tell us about your most memorable New Orleans meal.

A: My first trip to New Orleans was in 1974 or was it ’75? I was immersed in the world of criminal justice at the time, part of a program where people did community service instead of going to jail or paying fines, and there was a conference in New Orleans on alternatives to incarceration that I decided to attend. The fact that Jazz Fest was happening at the same time only slightly influenced my decision. CB radios were big at the time and we got completely immersed in CB radio culture as we drove across country in a little red Datsun. Breaker, breaker, etc, etc.

What hotel were we in? I can’t tell you that. I remember we got immersed in a hot debate about Own Recognizance the minute we hit the conference. And the first night in town someone took us across Lake Pontchartrain. And then out to dinner at Dooky Chase. I just didn’t know food could taste like that. I had been to Dixleland Square in Disneyland and had a beignet there, but that was about all I really knew about New Orleans. When Leah’s cooking was before me, and the room just came alive, I was smitten. The magic of the meal, the name, the hospitality stayed with me.  Dooky Chase was one of the first places I thought about when I heard about Katrina and the flood.

That weekend we went to Jazz Fest and fell in with a bunch of guys from the local pipe-welders union. They knew how to live. They could see what greenhorns we were and decided they needed to teach us how to eat crawfish. Hadn’t had them before that set of the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras Indians. “Come on, girl, suck the head,” they urged. I can’t eat a crawfish today without thinking of that.

Q: Have the Kitchen Sisters done any New Orleans pieces? If not, give us your New Orleans “bucket list”: Whom would you most like to interview (or whose story would you most like to tell)? Mind you, through the magic of the Internet, you’ve just been given a time machine and can go back in time.

A: The Kitchen Sisters tell a New Orleans story any time we can. Our first was part of our NPR Lost & Found Sound series. We were looking for lost audio artifacts, recordings that captured a century in sound, unusual ephemeral moments in the culture that were one of a kind and had a kind of magic. When we were at the Rogers & Hammerstein Library of Recorded Sound at Lincoln Center researching a story for the series, we asked the librarian about the most compelling lost recordings that were hidden in the collection, the ones only he knew about. He said, “Well, there is that home recording of Angela Lansbury auditioning for Mame, and those eight cardboard discs recorded by Tennessee Williams and his lover Pancho at the Pennyland Arcade in New Orleans in 1947. Needless to say, we made a beeline for Louisiana and the story we produced “Tennessee Williams and The Pennyland Recordings” is one of our favorites from the series

One of the most powerful Hidden Kitchens stories, “King’s Candy: A New Orleans Kitchen Vision” also comes from there. Orissa Arendt called the Hidden Kitchens hotline and told us the story of Robert King Wilkerson, a man who had been in Louisiana’s state prison Angola for 31 years, 29 of them in solitary. He was basically a political prisoner, having founded a chapter of the Black Panthers. “Somehow,” she explained, “in solitary confinement, he managed to create a kitchen — and he did it out of a stove made of coke cans, and he burnt toilet paper rolls to get heat. And he made pralines, which we love in New Orleans. He made these delicious candies and perfected the recipe, hidden in prison. Eventually, they decided they had made a mistake for locking him up for so long. ‘King’ had a new trial, and he’s out now, and he sells his candies which he calls “Freelines.” He does it as a way to help raise (consciousness) about political prisoners.”

We found King in Austin after Hurricane Katrina, where he re-located and has continued making Freelines and working on behalf of Angola prisoners. Almost any time we present our stories in public, we play the story of King’s Hidden Kitchen and serve his candy and carry his message with us.

The King story led us to Boudin and Broncos: The Angola Prison Rodeo, about Louisiana’s state prison, a former 18,000 acres plantation where inmates grow most of the food they eat. During the Angola Prison Rodeo, inmates’ offer local fare at food concessions stands. Dozens of traditional Louisiana dishes are prepared and sold. The man selling snow balls, as they call “snow cones” in New Orleans, is in for rape. The man selling pigtails kidnapped his girlfriend. The guy selling the Tornado Potato is in for life. Now that’s a “hidden kitchen.”

Q: Your new NPR project is The Hidden Life of Girls. Can you tell us about it? Any New Orleans girls in the offing? If you could go back using that time machine again and interview my mother, at what age would you choose to interview her? When she was licensed as the first woman Thoroughbred trainer in Louisiana? Just before she bought Chris Steak House? Just before she won the Horatio Alger Award? You’ve read the book: what do you imagine was her hidden life?

Ruth Fertel is a woman at the confluence of Hidden Kitchens and the Hidden World of Girls. They don’t make them much like her anymore. If I had a time machine I would join Ruth for a game of cards, learn how to do accounting like she did, ask her to teach me to cook a steak, and show me what to look for in a horse, and find out what made her so tough. I would need a lot of tape and a lot of time to crack the case. A pistol, a firecracker, a kitchen visionary. All those terms come to mind.

Q: You were at the first meeting in New Orleans about the birth of the Edible Schoolyard project at Samuel J. Green School. Why do you think projects that teach kids about food and culture are important?

A: The world is going to hell in handbasket. In these complicated times, the power of food – of cooking, of growing it, of tending even a small patch of land, and making things grow, of being nourished and nourishing each other, of sitting at the table together in conversation over good food – is revolutionary. It ties us to the earth and to each other.

Q: You’re a close friend of Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters (who just marked its 40th anniversary). Impossible question, but can you tell us about your favorite Chez Panisse meal? Who was at the table? What did you eat?

A: My favorite meal at Chez Panisse?  The night I turned 50. When Harry Belafonte was at the table and sang me “Happy Birthday” and then we harmonized on “Jamaica Farewell.” Who can remember what we ate?

Q: Can you share one or two of your favorite New Orleans stories, food related or otherwise?

A: My favorite New Orleans night happened at your house around your table. It was just after New Year’s, and right before the Epiphany, the year after Katrina. Everyone was still reeling, still in shock, and a meal cooked together, friends and family gathered around a table, still recounting the story of the storm and the massive levels of destruction and neglect and kindness, was such a powerful thing. You and I sat next to one another and began to talk about Alice Waters and her ideas about edible education and her thoughts that New Orleans might be a powerful place to create an edible schoolyard in the wake of Katrina. Since so many things were being rebuilt and starting from scratch. I said one or two lines to you, you jumped right in, had so many thoughts about the very issue, you knew just the school and just the principal, and within moments we had Alice on the telephone and you and she begun The New Orleans Edible Schoolyard. I know you cooked something delicious. I remember being in wonder in your big kitchen on the edge of Audubon Park watching you cook, but it’s the birth of the Schoolyard that I carry with me.