Each fall, the Ojibwe tribes of northern Minnesota harvest wild rice by hand. It’s a long process that begins with families in canoes venturing into the tall grasses, where rice is poled and gently brushed with knockers into the bed of the canoe. We journey to White Earth Reservation, out onto Big Rice Lake in a canoe, to see how one tribe is supporting itself and changing the diet of its people through community kitchen projects. And we talk with the founder of White Earth Land Recovery Project, Winona LaDuke, about the land, her fight to save wild rice, GMOs, her family, philosophy, and her candidacy for vice president of the United States on the Green Party ticket with Ralph Nader.
Sometimes life without a kitchen leads to the most unexpected hidden kitchen of all—the George Foreman Grill. How immigrants and homeless people without official kitchens use the George Foreman Grill, hidden crock pots, and secret hot plates to make a meal and a home. Featuring an interview with boxing champion and grill-master, George Foreman.
So many immigrants, homeless people and others of limited means living in single-room occupancies (SROs) have no kitchens, no legal or official place to cook. To get a hot meal, or eat traditional foods from the countries they’ve left behind, they have to sneak a kind of kitchen into their places. Crock pots, hot plates, microwaves and toaster ovens hidden under the bed. And now, the appliance that comes in so many colors it looks like a modern piece of furniture: the George Foreman Grill.
We had never considered such a hidden kitchen. So we called him. George Foreman talks about growing up hungry and violent, about his his time in the Job Corps, about cooking for his friends and his work with kids. “Feed them,” he says. “Hunger makes you angry.”
And we contacted the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. They put us in touch with Jeffrey Newton who has been homeless or in shelters most all his life, from boy’s homes, to reformatories, to prison by age 17. Then he moved out on the streets, where every day he goes “trailblazing” — looking for food, shelter, work, the resources he needs to make it through the day.
Jeffry learned to cook from his grandmother. He feels an urge to cook, especially for other people — under the overpass on Chicago’s Wacker Drive; on a George Foreman Grill plugged into a power pole; with a hot clothing iron to toast a grilled cheese sandwich.
Pat Sherman lived for quite some time in SROs with no kitchen, where cooking was forbidden. She now has a home and works in Glide’s Memorial Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. Sherman was quite ingenious when it came to cooking. Her Crock-Pot doubled as a flower pot — nothing that would arouse suspicion. When nobody was around to check, she would slow-cook her beans while she went to school, then come home to a hot meal.
Photo by Chika.
A lot of Kitchen Sisters stories are born in taxicabs. The Hidden Kitchens series was conceived in the back of a Yellow. Davia lives in San Francisco and hates to drive. She started noticing that every time she got into a Yellow cab, the driver was from Brazil. And not just from Brazil, but from the same town in Brazil: Goiânia. Inevitably, these cab ride conversations turned to music and food.
That’s when the story of Janete emerged, a woman from their same hometown, who comes every night to an abandoned industrial street outside a cab dispatch lot and sets up a makeshift, rolling night kitchen — hot salgadinhos, bollinhos, pão de quejo. She cooks the food of home. By dawn, Janete and her blue tent are packed up and gone.
One night around midnight, we decided to go in search of Janete’s secret cabyard kitchen. A driver had given us a sketchy map and told us to park in the cab lot and walk from there.
There, under a streetlight and a small blue tarp, four drivers were laughing, huddled over big plates of food, eating in Portuguese. Brazilian music spilled out of a parked cab. Janete, shy and smiling, presided — a hidden kitchen vision.
We travel to the Mississippi Delta into the world of Lebanese immigrants —where barbecue and the blues meet kibbe, a kind of traditional Lebanese raw meatloaf. Lebanese immigrants began arriving in the Delta in the late 1800s, soon after the Civil War. Many worked as peddlers, then grocers and restaurateurs.
Kibbe — a word and a recipe with so many variations we don’t know where to start. Many love it raw. Ground lamb or beef mixed with bulgur wheat, cinnamon, salt and pepper. However it’s made, it’s part of the glue that holds the Lebanese family culture together in the Mississippi Delta and beyond.
We visit Pat Davis, owner of Abe’s BAR-B-Q at the intersection of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Miss., the famed crossroads where, legend has it, blues icon Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil to play guitar better than anybody. Since 1924 Abe’s has been known for it’s barbecue, but if you know to ask, they’ve got grape leaves in the back.
Chafik Chamoun, who owns Chamoun’s Rest Haven on Highway 61, features Southern, Lebanese and Italian food — but he’s best known for his Kibbe. Chafik arrived in Clarksdale from Lebanon in 1954, and first worked as a peddler selling ladies slips and nylon stockings.
Sammy Ray, Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M University, Galveston, talks about growing up in a barbecue shack that his mother ran on the edge of what was then called “Black Town.” His father peddled dry goods to the black sharecroppers.
During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Abe’s BAR-B-Q and Chamoun’s Rest Haven were some of the only restaurants in the area that would serve blacks. “We were tested in 1965,” Pat Davis remembers. “A bunch of black kids went to all the restaurants on the highway and every one refused them except Chamoun’s and my place. And everybody else got lawsuits against them.”
The list of famous Lebanese Americans is long and impressive. Ralph Nader, Paul Anka, Dick Dale, Casey Kasem, Khalil Gibran and Vince Vaughn, to name a few. But the one most people talked about on our trip was Danny Thomas. Pat Davis took us out in the parking lot to listen to a CD that he just happened to have in his car of Danny Thomas singing in Arabic.
“We called ourselves Syrians when we first came here,” Davis says. “And until Danny came and said he was Lebanese then we all began to realize we really are Lebanese and Danny Thomas can say it. So we’re Lebanese now.”
Some kitchens are hidden by place, some by time—like the saga of the chili queens. For over 100 years, young women came at twilight to the Alamo and the plazas of San Antonio with makeshift tables and big pots of chili to cook over open fires. The plazas teemed with people—soldiers, tourists, cattlemen and the troubadours — who roamed the tables, filling the night with music.
From San Antonio’s earliest days as a Spanish military encampment, life in the town revolved around the plazas. They were the market place, the meeting place, the place of government and festivals — funerals, weddings and hangings. People came to argue politics with their neighbors, to listen to the sad songs of the troubadours, and eat the food of the legendary chili queens.
The chili queens were romanticized in the press as being exotic Spanish women with sable hair and fiery tempers. They became the stuff of tourist legend. No trip to the Southwest was complete without a visit to the chili queens. These women were often peoples’ first introduction to “that spicy, dangerous, Mexican food.”
In the 1930s, Lydia Mendoza, the queen of Tejano music, began her legendary career singing in the plazas of downtown San Antonio with the chili queens.
As San Antonio grew and modernized the chili queens were periodically driven out of one plaza only to reopen their little stalls in another. In the 1930s, the health department finally lowered the boom. Health regulations and the war ended the chili queen’s reign in San Antonio’s plaza.
C.B. “Stubb” Stubblefield, namesake of the legendary club in Austin, Texas, had a mission — to feed the world, especially the people who sang in it. When he started out in Lubbock, he generously fed and supported both black and white musicians, creating community and breaking barriers.
From 1968 to 1975 in Lubbock, Texas, C.B. “Stubb” Stubblefield ran a dilapidated barbecue joint and roadhouse that was the late-night gathering place for a group of local musicians who were below-the-radar and rising: Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall.
Born in Navasota, Texas in 1931, Christopher B. Stubblefield was the son of a Baptist preacher and a mother who worked raising 12 children. As a young boy he picked cotton and worked in local restaurants. After a stint in Korea, where he was in charge of food preparation for thousands of soldiers, he came back to Lubbock and started a small BBQ joint.
One day he picked up a hitchhiker, guitarist Jesse Taylor. And that was the start of it. Jesse asked if he could bring some friends by to play music at Stubb’s and the place became a focal point for west Texas musicians and people traveling through.
A generous visionary who wanted to “feed the world,” Stubbs was not a good businessman. But his friends helped through. Ultimately, he moved to Austin, started a new restaurant, created a BBQ sauce that is still on most grocery shelves across the nation, and spread love, music and good will throughout his life.
Kitchens and mothers. The food they cooked or didn’t. The stories they told or couldn’t. In honor of mothers from around the world, The Kitchen Sisters linger in the kitchen — the room in the house that counts the most, that smells the best, where families gather and children are fed, where all good parties begin and end. The room where the best stories are told.
Stories of mothers and kitchens from playwright Ellen Sebastian Chang, cookbook author Peggy Knickerbocker, designer Cristina Salas-Porras, folklorist and creator/host of American Routes Nick Spitzer, and actress Robin Wright. And messages from the Hidden Kitchens hotline.
Hidden Kitchens turns its focus on the president’s kitchen and some of the first cooks to feed the Founding Fathers — Hercules and James Hemings — the enslaved chefs of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Hercules, described as a “dandy,” had eight assistants — stewards, butlers, undercooks, waiters. He cooked in a huge fireplace — hearth cooking. He walked through the streets of Philadelphia in a velvet waistcoat and a gold-handled cane. When Washington was getting ready to leave Philadelphia to return to Mt. Vernon, Hercules escaped. Washington sent out search parties and offered rewards. Hercules was never found.
In 1784, Thomas Jefferson was appointed minister to France. He took with him his body servant, 19-year-old James Hemings (the brother of Sally Hemings), to master the French style of cooking. Hemings apprenticed with well-known French caterers and a pastry chefs and assumed the role of chef de cuisine in Jefferson’s kitchen on the Champs-Elysees, earning $48 a year. In 1793, Hemings petitioned Jefferson for his freedom. Jefferson consented upon one condition — he must train someone to take his place. After teaching his brother, Peter Hemings, the cooking techniques he had learned in France and at home, James Hemings became a free man.
These stories begin a long connection of presidents and their African-American cooks, including the story of Zephyr Wright, President Lyndon Johnson’s cook who worked for the family for 27 years. Johnson spoke to Zephyr Wright about the Civil Rights Movement and the March on Washington. She attended the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Johnson gave her the pen he used to sign the document.
Carmen Miranda—Brazil’s Ambassador of Samba, the highest paid woman entertainer in the world in the 1940s. When she died, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians lined the streets of Rio to pay homage to her. Over 50 years after her death she is still Brazil’s most famous celebrity. Her iconic turban, piled high with fruit, her moves, her rapid fire Portuguese lyrics, her wild lens of samba, rhumba, along with her epic dance numbers in 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals, captured the imagination of the world. The Kitchen Sisters travel to Rio to meet Carmen’s sister, her husband, her lover, her band leader, her driver, her composers, Cesar Romero. And we visit the Carmen Miranda Museum.
Travellers. The people of walking. Sometimes called the gypsies of Ireland. They speak of non-Travellers as “the settled people.” Mistrusted for the most part and not well-understood. Nomads, moving in caravans, living in encampments on the side of the road. Stories of young Traveller women — exploring the ancient and modern rituals clinging on the edge of the Celtic Boom.