Food & Drink : Cookin’ up memories

The Kitchen Sisters bring their love of food and lore to the Texas Folklife Festival

On June 8, the Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, producers of NPR’s Hidden Kitchens, will visit San Antonio to speak at the Texas Folk Life Festival at the Institute of Texan Cultures.

Hidden Kitchensexplores America’s food tradition — lost, preserved, and still evolving  creating oral histories of everything from a recipe for pralines perfected in 6x9 prison cell at Louisiana State Penitentiary to rice harvesting with the Anishinabe Ojibwe tribe of Minnesota to SA’s famous Chili Queens. (Many of the stories were published in book they co-wrote with Alice Waters,Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR’s Kitchen Sisters.)

Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, the Kitchen Sisters, will appear at the Texas Folklife Festival this week.

For much of their work, Nelson and Silva have collected local lore from listeners, who leave hot tips, anecdotes, and recipes on the program’s hotline. Recently the Kitchen Sisters have launched Hidden Kitchens Texas, with its very own hotline, 1-866-ovenmit, which will be used to produce an hour long special about the Lone Star state. “What we’ve been doing is we ask people to call in with their stories,” Silva says, “and we’re getting all these wonderful calls, and then we use those messages as little stories in and of themselves, or we follow up, go there, and produce a larger story around them.”

Apparently, they’ve received quite a few calls about ice houses, which they’ll be exploring during next week’s visit. Here Silva talks to the Currentfrom her home in Santa Cruz, California.

Do you find that people like to talk about food more than other things?

Yeah, almost everyone talks about food. I think food plays a big part in memory. A lot of times when we are trying to get people to remember, say, World War II, we’ll ask them things triggered by smell or taste. When you were in the army what was the food? All those things trigger larger memories because food is so universal, it’s something that we spend a lot of time on — gathering food, preparing it, the smells of food cooking. So many people call in with such strong memories of the smells of their grandmother’s house; roast pork cooking, or when it was canning time. Food is the perfect way into storytelling.

Are people ever cagey about sharing their recipes?

A lot of people call into the hotline and give us the recipe over the phone. Other people have been much more private about it. I remember one in particular; this man told a beautiful story about how his mother and all the church ladies had taken in this woman, an immigrant, and her family — they helped her find a house and furniture, and really took care of her — and in exchange the woman came every year on Saint Nicholas Day and dropped off these Czechoslovakian moon cookies and a special poem for each family. 

And then she came one year and told the family that she had cancer and that she was dying. That was the last year that she brought the cookies, but when she died, she left all these people that had helped her the recipe for Czechoslovakian moon cookies.

So, now, this man is a teacher and every year he makes his students Czechoslovakian moon cookies for the feast of Saint Nicholas and, if they get married, he gives them the recipe as a wedding present. We asked if we could have the recipe, and he just freaked out, “Oh my god, we can’t just give this away like that!” But finally they decided they needed to, because the whole thing was about sharing.

What were they like?

Oh they’re full of booze but you wanna know something, it’s weird about recipes, even if you know the recipe, it’s never the same as the one who makes it, ever.

My dad was this great cook, and he made this banana bread that everybody just loved and I had never made it, ’cause he always made it. I started making it after he died, and everyone says it’s delicious, but it’s just not his banana bread. There were all these little details you know, did he use brown sugar or white sugar? But I realize that’s kind of it: Every time I make it, I’m trying to get to him or communicate with him, and that’s a lot of what food is.

Listening to all these different food rituals and ways of cooking and ways of relating to food, has it changed your relationship to food? Have you found yourself adopting new rituals?

Yeah. I’ve always cooked a lot because I live in a commune, and each of us has a night to cook, but I’d never thought of myself as cook. And I think this is true because I’m getting older but also because of this book, I realize how important it is to my kids and my community the things that I’m making, and it’s a gift of time. I’ve just since doing this book, I’ve been trying to cook a lot of the recipes in the book and realizing, oh my god this san antonio chile is so time consuming, and so incredibly good. Everybody in my house appreciated it so much, it was like nothing we’d ever eaten. Every part of it, finding all those chiles, figuring out which ones to use, and then grinding it in the mochahete that I’d bought in San antonio, everything I did reminded me of my trip there.

The Kitchen Sisters

Texas Folklife Festival
Institute of Texan Cultures, Stage 3

7pm & 9pm Thu June 8

That wonderful West Commerce market, I love that guy, Josheph Aguilar, he has this Mexican Marcado in the middle of no where, and he sells chiles, spices, and, you know, it’s a little teeny market in the midst of who knows what down there. We went and just got so caught up in his family history, so I bought the mochahete.

But just making it here for the family, with the mochahete and the chiles, and knowing that the recipe came from the Institute of Texan Cultures, we got it from Tom Shelton who is this incredible archivist, it’s one of the oldest chiles recipes around.

So, for you, the recipe has its own history, your history, and the history of the guy at the store

Exactly, and the chile queens, we wouldn’t have gone looking for this if it hadn’t been for their story, and just that plaza life, which was so San Antonio. And is still; it’s changed, but the raspa vendors, there’s still action in the plazas and it’s so much a part of people there.

Outside of the hotline, how do you find stories — when you come here, you’ll be in a strange city, how will you choose the direction that you’ll wander in?

We do a lot of research before we get there. The first time we came, knew we were doing the Chili Queen’s story, we went to Jorge Cortez at Mi Tierra, and Felix Almaraz at University of Texas. Graciela Sanchez, she’s from Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, we found her on the internet — so, obviously, we start a lot of it on the internet and just start calling people, and that gives us a roadmap.

The first time we came for the Chili Queen’s story, Tom Shelton was our spirit guide. He drove around with us, and, in fact, he showed us our first ice house. We went with him to this little place, Sanchez Ice House, under the freeway there, and we had a beer, and we began thinking about this wonderful neighborhood phenomenon, and as he starting telling us that it was this combination German, Tejano, Mexican tradition it just seemed like a great way to talk about tradition and neighborhood, and the different ethnic groups that make up that whole region.

And then some things, like the West Commerce Marcado, we were just trying to walk on that avenue where the Chili Queens were, you know, and trying to see what it might have felt like and where those people were. And there it was, this little beam of light, amongst all that one-way traffic.

Right now we’re doing the ice houses, well I have 14 pages of ice house research here. We’ve got someone who’s going to take us on an evening tour who knows a lot about em, somebody’s mother that we met in Austin, she hangs out at Sanchez’s and she’s with the sheriff and police crowd, and so we are going to try to go to Sanchez’s with her that’s kind of how it happens.

You must meet so many interesting people that way

Yeah, that was what was so great about the book. We do these pieces that go on the radio, and like the Hidden Kitchen pieces are only seven minutes long, and we do so much research and talk to so many people to get that seven minutes. The book was this great way to expand on it, include more about the people and photographs and recipes that you can’t really do on the radio.

Did I read that each of you has other jobs besides the Kitchen Sisters?

We’ve worked together since the late ‘70s, but there have been periods during that time that we’ve both done other things. Davia moved up to San Francisco and she started working in film. She’s written a film and she does casting for Francis Ford Coppola’s movies, and a lot of film productions. So that’s a big way that she’s connected to a lot of stories and people.

I do a lot of museum work. I’m a history curator and my husband is a museum designer, so we do a lot of those kinds of projects. We just finished an interpretive center for a state park, which is a beach state park where there was a Chinese fishing village at the turn of the Century. We did this exhibit called Pacific Migrationstalking about all the animals and people that have migrated to this region, and where they’ve come from, and also tourists migrating.

One thing I’ve noticed in the shows is that, while you are a storyteller — that’s even more obvious to me now — your craft is really putting other people’s voices together to make the piece — I don’t hear a lot of you in there.

We always get asked to speak at places about our non-narrated pieces, but the thing is our pieces are highly narrated, but we’re letting other people narrate, and we’re crafting what they said to create this piece.

It’s especially impressive to listen to people describe where they are or what they are doing, it feels like you are there.

Well partly, this style started a long time ago when we were working together in Santa Cruz, and one of the earliest pieces we did was about this one-armed pool player who did this exhibition pool, he’d go from bar to bar, actually he was from North Carolina. He was a wonderful story teller, we went to the bar and recorded him doing his thing, and then we interviewed him. For the longest time we had our questions in, and he was talking to us, and as we were `editing the piece` we kept taking our questions out, because he always started his spiel like a storyteller would — he had this great lines, he didn’t need our questions. Every time we put ourselves in, it was reminding the listener that he was talking to us, and not directly to them.

So, we started trying to do that more and more, and it affected how we asked questions. We struggle not to ask yes or no questions, or to provide too much information; we try to ask questions in a way that people will answer in a complete sentence. We get people to introduce themselves, which is pretty interesting because people introduce themselves in ways you would never think of, and describe themselves in a really interesting way.

I really like the piece about rice harvesting with the Anashabe, and the thing that I was really struck by was the sound — in the background of the interview, there’s this beautiful sound of water lapping against the canoe.

We went out in the boat with Ronny, one of the characters that you hear in that piece, and we had our microphones and taperecorders. Usually its just two people in a canoe, but we were three, he was standing up in the back with a pole, pushing us through the rice, and both Davia and I took turns ricing, so we recorded that sound as we were doing it. It was just so beautiful out there and, the sound, it was just so peaceful.

In order to get that sound, it’s interesting for radio, our ears are like microphones, they can zero in on a sound, but when you just hold the microphone you’ll get this big ambient sound, so if you want people to hear it as if they were there, you have to record each separate element. So you have to do a lot of close-ups; close up of the rice being knocked with the knocker, and then really close down to the water, and then the big stereo recordings of the birds, and then you layer them like a cake, and it becomes one thing.

Are there any stories that people have phoned in from San Antonio that have really piqued your interest?

We’ve gotten several hundred calls from Texas. We’re following up on a lot of Czech and German stuff, like Rose Hoger in Floresville — they called in about the Markovsky family farm, and they make sausage and her grandfather was a butcher and we were going to try to follow up on her while we’re there. Do you know Casbeers? They do Miss Nessie and the Ear Food Gospel Orchestra, it’s a monthly gospel brunch. That sounded fun to me.


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