Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva may not cook often, but they said they know how to make food into the “universal language.”
The two radio journalists talked George Foreman Grills, homemade biodiesel fuel and ovens constructed out of soda cans at a Davenport College Master’s Tea on Thursday afternoon.
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At the ninth installment of the Yale Sustainable Food Project’s “Chewing the Fat” speaker series this fall, the self-titled “Kitchen Sisters” spoke to an audience of approximately 30 students about food’s ability to unite communities.
The sisters started the Master’s Tea by introducing their ongoing National Public Radio “Hidden Kitchens” program, a documentary featuring a collection of interviews on the offbeat eating cultures of different neighborhoods across the country. They arrived in New Haven for the first time at 4:30 a.m. Thursday but, despite their lack of sleep, they said they were excited to begin exploring the culinary secrets of the city.
“We’re going to scout out New Haven kitchens,” Nelson said.
The pair played a series of excerpts from the broadcast that showcased different stories they have encountered during their travels.
The first story — about the George Foreman Grill — featured Jeffrey Newton, a homeless man who used George Foreman Grills fueled by power lines to grill cheeseburgers. They also interviewed Foreman himself and depicted his story of childhood hunger through his words.
When Nelson asked how many students owned a Foreman Grill, no one raised his or her hand.
“They’re not allowed,” Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld said.
After presenting audio excerpts from stories on biodiesel fuel and frozen margaritas, Nelson and Silva talked about a segment they produced on the illegal unpasteurized milk industry in Indiana.
The excerpt featured the Apple family, a group of raw-milk producers whose neighbors reported them to the police. After facing unrelated legal troubles with the government, the neighbor returned to the family looking for a job. The family members ultimately forgave him, according to their show.
“That story makes me cry — the betrayal of neighbors and the forgiveness,” Nelson said as she wiped away a tear.
The last story the sisters presented to the audience was about Robert King Wilkerson, an ex-Black Panther who was imprisoned in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for 31 years — 29 of which were spent in solitary confinement — and constructed an oven made entirely out of lidless soda cans in his cell. While in jail, Wilkerson used the oven to bake pralines, which he continued doing after his release in 2001.
“We actually called King and told him we would come to Yale,” Nelson said. “So he busted out in candy making.”
At the end of the Master’s Tea, the sisters served King’s pralines in their original wrappers.
Despite the presentation’s focus on their culinary series, the sisters said they were not always known for their work in the kitchen.
Nelson and Silva started as radio producers at a weekly radio program in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1979, according to the NPR Web site. Since then, they have produced radio documentaries on “offbeat” historical Americana, ranging from Tupperware parties to Route 66, their Web site says.
When not producing shows, Nelson works as a script writer and casting director, while Silva serves as a museum curator at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz.
In an interview after the Master’s Tea, Silva said she tries to tell stories in an evocative way by using as many senses as possible. At Yale, she said, their goal was to “completely immerse” the crowd in the worlds of the people they featured.
Many students said the sisters succeeded.
Dounia Bredes ’11 said she thinks the different media added significantly to the tea because they helped create a unique story that was “universal” for the whole crowd.
“They put yourself in a situation in someone else’s shoes,” she said.
Nelson and Silva will participate in a colloquium with the Program in Agrarian Studies at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at 11 a.m. today.