Interviews

Michele Norris’ Your Mama’s Kitchen Takes Us on A Culinary Journey About Our Shared Experiences

If you were to step into your kitchen right now, what would you say are your happiest moments? Is it a certain dish you remember? A conversation you once had with someone special. Or was it just watching your family gather around, kitchen doors slamming, refrigerator humming, food cooking? What about your mama’s kitchen? Do you remember all the love and conversations passed down to you? The essence of what makes you, you can be traced back to your kitchen; recipes passed down from generations, stories being shared, laughter reverberating throughout the house.

This is the essence of Your Mama’s Kitchen on Audible. A podcast that’s not just about your kitchen but the experiences shared in the kitchen and how those memories make you, you. Host by the acclaimed Michele Norris, the former co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, Your Mama’s Kitchen begins with a simple request: Tell me about your mama’s kitchen. From there listeners are taken to a journey of the guest’s past and it’s quickly discovered despite our differences, we all share a story, the human story. Guests include Michelle Obama, Gayle King, DJ D Nice, Glennon Doyle & Abby Wambach, Jose Andrés, W Kamau Bell, Lil Wayne, Keegan Michael Key & Elle Key, Samin Nosrat, Dolly Parton, and more.

In celebration of Your Mama’s Kitchen, The Koalition spoke to Norris to learn more about the development of the podcast, working with Michelle Obama, her guests and more.

“The kitchen is where we become ourselves. There’s a lot more that cooks in the kitchen besides the food. It’s where we become who we are. When I talked to Conan O’Brien he said, ‘If he is Clay, the kitchen is the Kiln where he was formed’ and I love that because I think it’s true for many of us. I used to host a show called All Things Considered on National Public Radio (NPR) and when you talk to someone, if you’re in studio, you have to get them to talk a little bit. It’s called a mic check, to make sure the levels match. People often ask really simple questions. At NPR, the standard question was, ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ and when you ask someone that question, the answer was always, coffee or oatmeal or nothing. Rarely would you hear someone say, ‘Oh girl, I had bacon and eggs with French Toast.’ People just don’t have time to do that during the week, so the answers were really short, and I have such a low voice, they often had to listen to people talk for a while so they could match. So, I came up with a series of questions that got people to talk a little bit longer. [I’d ask], ‘What was your first summer job? What did you all do for fun on a Saturday night? Tell me about your mama’s kitchen. Did you use paper or plastic when you go to the grocery store? The ‘Tell me about your mama’s kitchen’ question just open people up. They would go down memory lane [and] would start talking about things that were very personal.”

“In the back of my head, for a while, I’ve been thinking that would be a great podcast because it’s a starting point. Then it goes in so many different directions depending on whether someone lived in the city or the country, depending on whether they had a happy childhood or not, on whether their family lived in America forever or came to America and was trying to figure this place out. That simple question asked at the beginning of every episode is a starting point for a journey I don’t understand until we get in the car, until we get in the studio, until we get on that ride and figure out where we’re going. We become who we are, often because of what we sopped up in the kitchen and not just food.”

For Norris, who is she today was formed by her experiences in her mother’s kitchen. Organized, adventurous dishes were planned out with cookbooks that explored worlds her wasn’t able to travel to at the time. Those diverse experiences found in her mother’s cookbooks are found in the conversations had in the podcast. “Everything I do in my life as a storyteller and a story collector is built around the idea of making sure different people see and hear themselves in the content I create while at the same time making sure I introduce people to new worlds, new visions, new realms and new ways of being in the world. I was really trying to do both things [with Your Mama’s Kitchen]. It’s a show about food and yes, we’re trying to introduce a diversity of culinary experiences. We’ve got Andy Garcia talking about his chicken fricassee, Uzo Aduba talking about her Nigerian red stew and Michelle Obama talking about her mama’s red rice. We run the gamut. We have a show coming up where George Takei talks about Japanese food and the food he loved as a youth.”

“It was also an opportunity to look at American households and see different ways people lived, different ways they communicated and different ways they dealt with all the things life throws at us, whether you in a small town or a big city, [or] whether you are in a suburban household. We just present lots of different voices and lots of different experiences in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s finger wagging. It doesn’t feel like, ‘And now we’re going to have a conversation about diversity!’ It’s baked in because you’re peeking inside someone’s window and not necessarily eavesdropping. You’re invited to do that.”

On the first episode of Your Mama’s Kitchenthe former First Lady, Michelle Obama, shares a memory that’s universal to a lot of Black people. The transformation of the kitchen being turned into a hair salon. The detangling of the hair, the stove’s flame turned on as the hot comb sit on top of the fire as you hold down your ear praying the comb doesn’t touch your skin. Quietly crying to yourself wishing for it to be over.

“Michelle Obama talks about getting her hair done; a triggering memory for many of us. Fighting with your mom on Saturday night going through two bottles of ‘No More Tangles’ and how everybody else would get out of the kitchen declaring, ‘Oh, I don’t need to be here for this.’ Everybody who wasn’t getting their hair done would go as far away from the kitchen as they could. I loved that particular conversation with our former forever First Lady because she’s written two books, she’s done how many interviews on stage supporting those books, how many interviews in her role as First Lady. Yet she’s never really talked about that really private aspect of her life. She’s never talked about watching her cousin during the early years of feminism come home with emancipated ideas and agency about how she saw herself, and how that challenged some of the more traditional views in her family and the tensions around that. We’ve never heard her talk about. By entering this conversation, we’re introducing a different aspect of their life to people who know and love them.”

“I remember when I was writing the proposal for this [and] I noticed whether you were cooking in a tricked-out kitchen with a hood, a big island, double dishwashers and a double refrigerator or the kitchen which for some people was a pot over some bricks and some wood, it’s still a kitchen. The kitchen is not just a room, a kitchen is the place where you gather for sustenance, where you are nourished and some of us get to do that in spaces that are fairly opulent but all over the world, most people are not in spaces that are opulent. It’s basically a pot and some fire and not even a pot that pot might be terracotta, that might be just food on a stick over the fire, but wherever that is, you are getting nourished, and I guarantee you if that is happening, you’re not just getting nourished through food you’re getting nourished through advice and admonishments through all the things you see. This is where you figure out if a relationship is working in a family. This is where you have your loudest arguments and your loudest laughter too. This is where you play games, this is where you learn about justice and fidelity and grace and generosity those big life lessons that help form who we are and how we see the world. So often [this] happen at the kitchen table or either adjacent to the kitchen table in the dining room.”

While the podcast’s title is a reference to mothers and mother figures, the question is often posed as ‘which kitchen do you want to talk about today?’ This can lead to an array of different responses from grandmother’s kitchen to dad’s cooking. Kitchens are so much more than a singular figure. For Norris it’s where parents talked about politics, for others its where shared their dreams. The kitchen is about emotion. As a result, it was important Norris found guests who can have an honest conversation in that space.

“We wanted to hit lots of different notes, so we were looking for people who are good storytellers, who have an interesting story to tell, who would help us understand lots of different cuisines and different regions of the country. The most recent episode that dropped last week on Audible is with Jeff Tweedy, who’s the front man for a band called Wilco based in Chicago. He grew up in a small town in Illinois that’s down south by the St Louis border. [Even] if you’ve never heard of Wilco [or] never heard of his first band Uncle Tupelo, you will listen to that podcast and still relate to the story he tells. He talks about how his dad did a lot of the cooking in the backyard on the barbecue, but cooking was beside the point because for him, cooking was about being with his friends and drinking lots of beer and talking a lot of smack outside. The pork steaks tended to get a little overdone and you could relate to that. You could relate to him talking about his mom who went to work later in life and was a kitchen designer and never got the recognition she deserved. She was really good at what she did at work but was paid less than everybody else. A lot of us remember our mom’s nursing quiet resentments, a little bit of quiet pain because the world sometimes looks past them despite all that they had to offer and all the contributions they make.”

“The curation you hear in the series is intentional. We want to really create lots of different experiences, and we hope that along the way people trust us. [While] you know Jeff Tweety [and] Conan O’Brien, you’re not familiar with D Nice because you aren’t on Instagram, and you weren’t dancing to Club Quarantine in the middle the pandemic. You may not know him, but you’re going to listen to his episode and you’re going to hear something in that episode that resonates with you. Maybe you’ll go and you follow D Nice, and you figure out who he is, and you see all the wisdom he has to offer in the way he lives his life.”

One of Norris’ biggest hopes for Your Mama’s Kitchen is that it forms a genuine community that not only helps you to appreciate your past and present kitchen experiences but also you to connect with others through new foods. “In cases where people remember something, but they don’t have the recipe we try to use the community that we’re building. Through a podcast like this, you really are building community to help people learn from each other and experiment with each other when they try these recipes. We’re really looking forward to rolling out the website so we can serve something up to people by way of recipe, but we can also hear from them and hear about their experiences and maybe a word or two about their mama’s kitchens. I love it because you’re helping with people’s memories, you’re putting them back together.”

To learn more about Your Mama’s Kitchen, including Norris’ own memories and more, check out the full interview in either the audio below or the video above.

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