When we interviewed Deborah Luster for our story “Deborah Luster: One Big Self” we were still in the midst of producing Hidden Kitchens. Many of our questions were about food and her family, as well as her hidden world. Here is Deborah talking about some of her Hidden Kitchens.
Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women
The first day that I was photographing there I ate lunch in the staff dining room. And there were all these women, and they were dressed in these white, double-breasted jackets and tall white hats. And I said, “So what’s this?” And they said, “Well, this is the culinary arts program.”
One woman, Constance Daugherty, she’s beautiful. She was specializing in cake decoration. Her children came to visit her, these four gorgeous children. She was very excited about her photograph because she wanted to use it on her résumé when she got out of prison.
Angola’s one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful places I have ever been. It is at the end of a long, winding road, surrounded by this bucolic landscape. It’s alluvial, the topsoil there is about twelve feet deep, and the fields are worked by these inmates in large rows. There are fifteen hundred head of cattle, two hundred head of horses, mules. There are horse-drawn wagons where they harvest four million pounds of produce every year. When you think about just how gorgeous this place is, physically, and that if you are an inmate there you will never leave, most likely, it sort of breaks your heart.
Our book of photographs of Louisiana prisoners, One Big Self, won the Book of the Year Award for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. I went to this big soiree over at the Governor’s mansion. A guy serving drinks looked at me and said, “It’s Big Lou. I cooked for the warden, at the ranch house.” And I said, “Oh, yes, of course, I love those biscuits.” He’s still an inmate, but now he’s working for the governor of Louisiana, doing her cooking. I ate a few times at the ranch house, where Warden Kane and his staff and visitors eat, and the food was great. It was heavy—biscuits, chicken, catfish, potato salad —but it was very, very good. I also went out with one of the inmates into Lake Killarney to fish. There’s a lake on the prison, and he fishes for catfish or whatever the warden wants to eat, comes right out of the lake, right there at the prison.
My mom, her life revolved very much around her family. And so, by extension, it revolved around the kitchen. She was really a great cook, it was sort of theater to her.
After she married my stepfather, Ed Tovrea, she cooked a lot of Mexican food. He was very interested in Spanish and Mexican food. The Tovrea family owned huge feedlots in Phoenix and in Los Angeles. There were Tovrea Desert Bloom shortening, Cactus brand ham, Arizona Gold Creamery Butter, Apache Bacon. There are little recipe books put out by that company, with things like Gold Spot Lettuce Soup and Stuffed Beef Heart A La Spanish.
Normally she would dress up, even when she was cooking, designer clothes and high heels. But one Christmas she dressed up like an elf. She had on tights, leotard, and a Christmas apron. She put bells in her pockets, and she had bells on her little shoes. She had to jump around to make the bells ring. You have this sonic memory of the din in the kitchen, and these little bells jumping around.