Library of Congress Acquires 40 Years of Kitchen Sisters’ Eclectic Storytelling

Above: Davia Nelson (left) and Nikki Silva interview Angelo Garro in his San Francisco kitchen.
Davia Nelson (left)and Nikki Silva (center) interview Angelo Garro in his San Francisco kitchen. Photo courtesy The Kitchen Sisters

For the past four-plus decades, The Kitchen Sisters have cooked up groundbreaking radio stories that often, but not always, use food as a window into a cultural or historical moment.  

Soon future generations can more easily mine and build upon longtime collaborators Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva’s eclectic body of work: in January the Library of Congress announced it would be acquiring their entire archive—some 146,400 mixed materials, including more than 7,000 hours of interviews, oral histories, field recordings, and archival audio—for the American Folklife Center. 

“This is important and essential,” New York Times food reporter Kim Severson tweeted about the acquisition. “[The Kitchen Sisters] were onto a way of storytelling through food way before a lot of us.” 

The Kitchen Sisters’ immersive style of radio journalism has heavily influenced the current podcast explosion. From the moment you hit play, their rich sonic stew of interviews, ambient sounds, period songs, and theatrical scoring is like listening to an action-packed short film. You rarely hear Nelson or Silva speaking, except when some narrative bridging is required. 

Nelson, who is also a veteran movie casting director, likes to quote a bit of storytelling wisdom from director and Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader: “Scenes are like parties. Come as late as you can, and leave as early as you can.” 

That economy guides The Kitchen Sisters’ editing: stop listening for even a few seconds and you’ll miss something vital. During a phone interview from their offices in Francis Ford Coppola’s Flatiron building in North Beach, Nelson says that each 15- to 20-minute story is built on at least 10 hours of recording. That means that thanks to the Library of Congress, we’ll now be able to wander around inside the thousands of parties they’ve thrown, listening to everything the guests of honor said as well as eavesdropping on all the peripheral conversations and gossip during prep and cleanup. 

As inevitable as the acquisition may seem to their fans, it was not a forgone conclusion. The discussion took more than two years, Nelson says. “But the food recordings in our collection were of interest, because the 250th anniversary of the country is coming up, and they really want to feature food as part of what they’re celebrating about America,” she explains. The enormous diversity of everyday American voices and occupations The Kitchen Sisters have recorded, along with the rarity of a collection created from the vantage point of two women collaborating, sealed the deal. 

What those voices have in common is that they usually belong to a “person who glues a community together through food,” as she puts it, or to those “who elect themselves to take on the issues of their community and of society in oftentimes small but sometimes large visionary ways, like [civil rights hero] Georgia Gilmore and the Club from Nowhere​​.” A longtime Cole Valley resident, Nelson points to the grocers, stockers, and cashiers at nearby Luke’s Local as among the many such unsung heroes made more visible by the pandemic: “They’ve been the center of our neighborhood. Instead of retreating, they keep expanding—the conviviality, the radical hospitality, the products that they feature.” 

Nelson and Silva also revere librarians and archivists: their recent NPR series “The Keepers” focuses on those individuals and others quietly intent on preserving our cultural heritage. They made their first visit to the Library of Congress around 1981, when they were collecting personal stories from the home front during World War II and wanted to incorporate period sound, archival audio, and newsreels. Long dependent on archives, they have tried to be careful to keep their own materials well-organized: the office walls are lined with neatly labeled boxes of pre-digital-era, “tangible media” — reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes, transcripts, story scripts, notebooks, and photographs—and they strive to catalog the ongoing flow of electronic files. 

The Kitchen Sisters will be digitizing and keeping copies of everything before shipping their archive to the Library of Congress over the next three years. “We’re still producing, and we often make our new stories out of elements from the old ones, going further in,” explains Nelson. “We’re not stopping.” 

Which is perhaps the best news of all.

cassette tapes from the kitchen sisters archives
Above: Archived cassettes of early interviews by The Kitchen Sisters from the ’70s and ’80s. Photo courtesy The Kitchen Sisters

A San Francisco Sampler Platter:

New to the Kitchen Sisters? Here are four stories to whet your appetite, all available on

The Egg Wars. The Gold Rush spawned a desperate scramble for protein, and wily entrepreneurs looked for eggs in an unlikely source —The Farallon Islands.

The Cabyard Kitchen. Born in the back of a San Francisco Yellow cab, this story about a Brazilian woman’s midnight pop-up launched the Hidden Kitchen series.     

Weenie Royale: The Impact of the Internment on Japanese American Cooking.  An excellent example of how the Kitchen Sisters use food as a key to unlock difficult emotional experiences. 

An Unexpected Kitchen: The George Foreman Grill. This look at how immigrants and homeless people use the popular portable electric grill to make a meal and a home includes a gut-punch of an interview with the boxing champion and grill-master.