RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Our Hidden Kitchen series returns this morning. Over the past year, we opened up a phone line and asked listeners to tell us their stories about unsung kitchen heroes, local kitchen rituals and visionaries. We've heard about freighter food on the Great Lakes, kitchens tucked away in the racing pits of NASCAR and a midnight stew made in Kentucky. Today The Kitchen Sisters, Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson bring us a story that was left on the Hidden Kitchen's hot line last summer about a kitchen that is truly clandestine, started in a Louisiana prison.
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Unidentified Woman #1: Message 24 was received at 7 AM today.
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Ms. ORISSA AREND: My name is Orissa Arend. I live in New Orleans. I have a friend who created the most amazing kitchen. His name is Robert "King" Wilkerson. He was in prison at Angola State Penitentiary for 31 years. Twenty-nine of those years, he was in solitary confinement. He was a Black Panther, started a chapter of the Black Panther Party with two of his friends. They'd sort of become a cause celebre known as the Angola 3. Somehow, in solitary confinement, he managed to create a kitchen, and he made pralines, which we love here in New Orleans. He's out now. They had decided they had made a mistake for locking him up for so long. He had a new trial, and he sells his candies that he calls Freelines, and they are really, really good.
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Mr. ROBERT "KING" WILKERSON: I was fascinated with sugar. I used to watch mama make candy with pecans and sugar and water, but it wasn't until some years later when I first went to prison, I was cooking in the kitchen. This guy was in the bakery. He could bake all kind of pastries and make all kinds of candy. I was fascinated with the candy. What I saw before my eyes was like a science being revealed.
My name is Robert "King" Wilkerson. We used to get milk practically every day, butter and sugar. They would put it on your tray, whether you drank coffee or not, so I used to get the guys to save the sugar. Sometimes I was fortunate enough to get pecans. They got a lot of pecan trees around Angola, and they had some officers, once they tasted the candy, making sure I had pecans. We would bribe the orderly. Sometime, you'd get a fruit can, a peach can, but most of the time, it was Coke cans. They were easy to get. Just peel the top and then peel another can, triple it up, maybe 18 inches long, and have toilet paper, roll it up, and turn it into like a burner.
I would definitely use them. They would come in and conduct a shakedown, and get the pot, get the candy and everything else and then write you up. I wa--kind of enjoyed the thrill of going outside the box a little bit, making candy and then giving it away, you know, especially the guys on death row, because I just wanted them to have something that they hadn't had in a long time.
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Unidentified Man: Good afternoon. This is KLSP, 99.7 FM on your radio dial. And we broadcast daily from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. I'd like to take this opportunity to wish all of the brothers up on death row a very beautiful day, and I'll tell you what...
Ms. ANNE HARKNESS (Activist): King was released in 2001. On the very first day he's released, he's making candy. He was sitting there just stirring, stirring real slowly, sugar candy, Freelines is what he calls them.
Mr. WILKERSON: I call them Freelines. I mean, I wanted them to rhyme with pralines. When I first got out, I went to the French Quarters and I went through every candy shop, and I thought I could do better having--what I say, I just perfected my candy while I was in prison.
Ms. HARKNESS: He uses it for a fund-raiser. When he goes to events, political organizing events, a lot of times, he'll bring some candy and so that's kind of been the way that he's made some pocket change. It's been really important to him because after 30 years in solitary confinement, it's not that easy to just go out and get a regular job. My name is Anne Harkness. I'm activist and have been King's pecan supplier pretty much since he got out of prison. Everywhere he goes, he'll just bust out in some candy-making.
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Mr. MALIK RAHIM (Common Ground Relief): My name is Malik Rahim, co-founder of Common Ground Relief and resident of New Orleans in the community of Algiers. King and I was raised together. His back yard was adjacent to my back yard. Freelines is something that he's doing to subsidize his income. That's the only option that really he had, was by making candy. On his wrapper, it's not just no logo of King. It's Free The Angola 3, about his two comrades that are still incarcerated. He'd always looked at that injustice. His kitchen will reflect this.
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Unidentified Woman #2: ...really hard to tell where we are right now, because all the street signs are submerged in water, 10 to 12 feet deep at least. It is full of debris. It is some of the dirtiest, toxic soup you can imagine. Reporting in New Orleans, I'm...
Mr. WILKERSON: It was a few days before Katrina. I had made a batch of candy (unintelligible). But I could have went to the Superdome, but there was no place to keep a dog. Kenya--that's the name of my dog. I got him when she fit in the palm of my hand, you know, so I elected to hold tight. There were some people who came by in boats. We exchanged food. I gave mostly candy away. There were dogs screaming who had been locked up in houses, and my neighbor next door, I had to break in the house, but I sealed it back up. I had to go in there and feed her dogs. She had two of them. I had to fight them to feed them, you know, and I had been in the water twice to save two birds whose wings had gotten wet.
I was hearing about so much death and devastation that was going on around me. I felt it imperative that I save a life. I think I cried more in those 16 days that I was in the house after Katrina than I did in 31 years I did in prison. It not only took so much away from me as an individual, it replicated this hundreds of thousands of times. I think candy is a collateral. My doing what I'm doing, keeping focus on the injustices that were taking place in Angola, and doing so by cooking and making candy, open up kitchens, can produce money to aid them, so be it. Maybe that's my calling.
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MONTAGNE: And those Freelines--you can find a recipe at npr.org. King's Candy: A New Orleans Kitchen Vision, was produced by The Kitchen Sisters. On Monday, we'll have a conversation with Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva about their new book, "Hidden Kitchens," inspired by this series.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.