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Journalist Michele Norris wants to hear about your mama's kitchen

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We've all been there. You're having a party, maybe a family gathering, maybe a couple of friends for dinner. And no matter how big your house is, everyone ends up in the same place - the kitchen. Well, now journalist, writer and former host of this program, Michele Norris, is exploring the significance of the family kitchen in her new podcast, "Your Mama's Kitchen." Norris talks with former first lady Michelle Obama, with CBS Mornings host Gayle King, Matthew Broderick, many others, about their mother's kitchens - what they remember, what they learned there, what it means to them. Michele Norris, welcome home.

MICHELE NORRIS: (Laughter).

KELLY: Welcome back to the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED studios.

NORRIS: It's really great to be back here at NPR...

KELLY: Well, we missed you.

NORRIS: ...And at ATC in particular.

KELLY: Yeah.

NORRIS: Missed you guys, too.

KELLY: Well, I'm going to take a cue from you. And before we get into a couple of the episodes that you've already dropped, I'll turn the question on you - tell me about your mom's kitchen.

NORRIS: My mama's kitchen was organized because Betty Norris is organized. It was delicious because Betty Norris is a great cook. And it was adventurous. My mom used cookbooks to explore worlds that otherwise weren't available to her.

KELLY: What does that mean?

NORRIS: So when Julia Child's big fat cookbook landed in America - and this is a book that comes up again and again in many of the conversations that we've had - she got the book and, in our little Minnesota kitchen, was experimenting with French food.

KELLY: Yeah.

NORRIS: She had tried Italian food. She'd read something in some magazine. And so in addition to the staples that we had - you know, the red beans and rice and the mashed potatoes - she also was doing things that were not expected. And our kitchen was also the hub of life. It had a TV, had a little radio in there. She was always listening. Interesting - she was one of the early adopter for public radio up there in Minnesota Public Radio. But also, my sisters would take control and then go to the end of the dial. And dance music would come on, and we would dance in the kitchen.

KELLY: This is so interesting because I was expecting you to tell me some memory about how it looked or how it smelled, and you're telling me, this is what it sounded like.

NORRIS: Yes. Yes.

KELLY: Yeah.

NORRIS: I guess, you know, that's - we're audio people, so that's what I think about.

KELLY: That's what you were paying attention to. OK, so I want to dive into a couple of the episodes. It's so clear - people are talking about kitchens. They're talking about food. But how quickly that question gets to identity, gets to culture. The episode that you did with former first lady Michelle Obama, who's a friend of yours, and you can hear the warmth between the two of you - you can also hear how much her family's economic status - they did not have a lot of money, and you hear that all through her memories of her mama's kitchen.

NORRIS: And she says that, you know? They didn't consider themselves poor. That would not be a word that they applied to themselves. But her mother stayed at home, and her father worked in Chicago - a municipal employee. And they raised two kids in a little apartment above their relatives. And so their kitchen was basically a converted bedroom. But what was interesting in listening to her talk about that - particularly at the end of the podcast where you can hear her getting a little emotional...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "YOUR MAMA'S KITCHEN")

MICHELLE OBAMA: That was the power of my parents' love - that consistency, the quality of the interactions. That's what it means to be a parent. That's how you instill something worthwhile for your kids.

NORRIS: Yeah.

OBAMA: That's what my kitchen table, my kitchen, was for me.

NORRIS: Look at where she's gone in life. She's lived in some of the grandest homes available to, you know, those of us who walk this earth - and realizing that much of what she needed came from that little simple kitchen with the yellow, checkered tablecloth.

KELLY: Michelle Obama's kitchen comes across as a very warm - as a welcoming kitchen. Some of the guests you interviewed for other episodes describe way more complicated kitchens as they were growing up. And I'm thinking of the episode you did with the married couple - Glennon Doyle, the writer, and her wife, Abby Wambach, the soccer star. Describe the very complicated meshing they've had to do in their own kitchen based on what they grew up with.

NORRIS: So Abby Wambach, soccer star, comes from a big family - seven kids - and the kitchen was a space of abundance. They ate big meals. They were expected to eat everything on their plate. They had dessert every night. Glennon Doyle grew up in a very different household. Parents were educators. Dad was a football coach. They were very concerned about their physique, so that was a kitchen of scarcity. You know, they monitored how much they ate and when they ate, and they were not frivolous in terms of - oh, dessert - they'd never have dessert. So these two people come together. And inside of that, they each develop a really complicated relationship with food.

KELLY: Yeah.

NORRIS: Abby Wambach has talked honestly about addictions of all kinds but also to food. You know, she was an athlete who had to eat 6,000 calories a day to maintain her muscle mass. And then you retire, and it's hard to turn that switch off. Glennon Doyle talks openly and honestly about having eating disorders. That started when she was very young. So they come together, and there's a simple question that I ask. And I said, what did you learn from watching your mothers in the kitchen? - 'cause they talked about how - what their kids learned from them. And there's this interesting moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "YOUR MAMA'S KITCHEN")

ABBY WAMBACH: Eat everything.

GLENNON DOYLE: Eat nothing.

NORRIS: Oh, my goodness.

WAMBACH: Literally.

NORRIS: Totally opposite messages.

KELLY: Yeah.

NORRIS: And it's all sort of wrapped up in - you know, and then how they learn how to come together and build this beautiful life together. And that represents a lot of other issues in their life. That abundance and scarcity often deals with finance. It deals with how they deal with their time. So it's all this complicated stuff, but so many things in life come right back to the kitchen...

KELLY: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...And the lessons that you learn there early on.

KELLY: Have you - Michele, have you turned this question on your kids - what they would tell you if asked - if a stranger asked them, tell me about your mom's kitchen?

NORRIS: I have, and I was worried about the answer because the kitchens are also where we pay bills, where we have arguments, where we fuss at our kids to do their homework, where we do crazy volcano projects at the kitchen table.

(LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: But I asked the kids, and dancing came up 'cause we do dance a lot in our kitchen. They talked about holidays. They talked about gumbo. And this is the thing that made me - my husband, Broderick, and I smiled a little bit. They talked about consistency - that they knew that the kitchen was consistently a warm space where we ate on a regular basis even while hosting this crazy show, you know? I'd careen home and have a quick meal with the kids and then a second meal with my husband later on where we really had time to eat. But I just wanted to sit at the table with them before they went to bed...

KELLY: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...And you know what that's like.

KELLY: Yeah.

NORRIS: But they remembered the effort. They remembered that I would cook on Sunday for the whole week and then put things in the refrigerator and label them. And so it made it easy through the week so we could always have a home-cooked meal.

KELLY: What joy that must bring you - that your kids remember the effort. They remember you showed up.

NORRIS: Yeah.

KELLY: That's a lot. When you're dancing, what's the soundtrack to the Norris kitchen?

NORRIS: It's usually - it's funky. It's got a downbeat.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I'm fishing for a music cue that...

NORRIS: Yeah.

KELLY: ...You can play us out on.

NORRIS: Oh, OK, well, a lot of Stevie Wonder - because I come from Minnesota, a whole lot of Prince...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KISS")

PRINCE: (Singing) Your body, baby...

NORRIS: ...Something that gets the hips moving in the kitchen. That's usually - we're often dancing and cooking and laughing and grateful.

KELLY: Michele Norris talking about her kitchen and her new podcast which talks about all kinds of people's kitchens - it's called "Your Mama's Kitchen." She's the former host of this program. Michele Norris, great to see you.

NORRIS: Great to be here. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KISS")

PRINCE: (Singing) You don't have to be rich to be my girl. You don't have to be cool to rule my world. Ain't no particular sign I'm more compatible with. I just want your extra time and your kiss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.