Friday, April 27, 2018

What to Listen to if You Like to Cook (and Eat) – Part I

Cherries! (Photo: Dean Morley)

I like to listen to food podcasts while I’m cooking and also – maybe this is ironic – while I’m exercising. And there are a lot of podcasts out there to choose from. The two described here are actually radio shows, but they’re available as podcasts, so you can download them and listen to them anytime, anywhere.
PRI’s The Splendid Table might well be the most famous food show on North American radio, especially since its chief competition, America’s Test Kitchen Radio, went on hiatus last spring. But if you stopped paying attention to The Splendid Table because you thought you knew what it was all about, take another listen. As always, each episode offers a variety of segments about cooking and foodways. In 2017, though, the show’s longtime host, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, announced her retirement and passed her job on to food writer Francis Lam. And he’s her ideal heir: like Rossetto Kasper, he’s a careful, sympathetic listener, which comes in handy when he’s interviewing world-class chefs and food historians, or when he’s answering questions during the call-in segment of the show. Like Rossetto Kasper, Lam also knows how to cook: he graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America, so he offers useful, nuanced, and often creative advice to callers. And his background in creative writing serves him well when he needs to come up with just the right phrase. (John T. Edge’s most delightful laugh is “a full porcine snort.”) Lam has a gentle voice and a spontaneous sense of humor, which I appreciate because I exercise (and so listen to food podcasts) early in the morning before I’ve had any caffeine: gentle and funny are just what I need.

But if Lam carries on many of the traditions begun by Rossetto Kasper, he also offers a different, and illuminating, take on the many subtle connections between food and identity. His approach is never preachy and it offers a deep, genuine respect for the wide-ranging origins of various cuisines and for the people who make and eat them: “It’s probably a little weird to call a cuisine ‘the next big thing,’ which is what a lot of food writers have been saying about Filipino food,” Lam reflects. “I think it’s weird because, of course, it’s always been a big thing for the people who eat it and cook it; but there is something happening with Filipino food in America right now.” When he interviews Sean Sherman, “The Sioux Chef,” the discussion ranges widely from the traditional plants of Lakota cuisine to Sherman’s own innovative creations. And then the subject turns to frybread – that concoction of flour, lard, salt and sugar that’s widely associated with Native American cuisine but that, in Sherman’s words, “is everything that isn’t Native American food.” In a follow-up commentary, Lam describes how many Native Americans were displaced from their homes by the U.S. government, lost access to the plants and animals that were familiar to them – and so to their traditional foodways – and were forced to turn to commodity foods. For many different communities, then, frybread became the staple replacement for a variety of healthier indigenous dishes. Sean Sherman and others highlight its calories and fat and link frybread with growing rates of obesity and diabetes in their communities. But Lam also recalls novelist Sherman Alexie’s characterization of frybread as “the story of our survival” – as a symbol of perseverance. And he finishes with a sympathetic observation that acknowledges the complexities: “Cultures by nature love their foods. But how strange and hard it must be if the staple food of your culture leaves you feeling so conflicted.”

Sean Sherman, the "Sioux Chef", in front of his Tatanka food truck. (Photo: University of Minnesota Press)

Evan Kleiman, the host of KCRW’s Good Food, became my personal hero in the summer of 2009, when she made a pie a day for the entire summer in an effort to perfect her craft. Mind you, she’s a professional chef who once ran a restaurant: she already knew perfectly well how to make a pie. But she wanted to master the art, so she did what masters do: she assigned herself a task and repeated it with variations long past the point where any sane person would have given up. She carried out the project in public – blogged about it, talked about it on her radio show, and recorded a separate podcast just about the pies. In this way, her obsession came to be shared by a community of listeners, who were inspired to contribute their own pie stories and family recipes. Kleiman was more than happy to collect those stories and spread that wisdom. The project eventually led to the institution of an annual pie-making contest in the Los Angeles area.

Kleiman’s Good Food is undeniably Californian. Its weekly segment, “The Marketplace Report,” for example, is a survey of what produce is available and in season at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. If you live in a cold climate – as I do – there might be times of year when this is torture; or, if you’re a better human being than I am, maybe it will offer you hope that one day you too will eat cherries again. After all, somebody, somewhere is eating cherries, so clearly they still exist. Kleiman has also regularly interviewed L.A. restaurant critic Jonathan Gold since long before he became the (to-date) only food writer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. Gold generally reviews restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area, so unless you live there or are likely to visit soon, you might assume that what he has to say is of little use to you.

But to dismiss KCRW’s Good Food as merely a regional food show would be misguided. Over the years, I’ve learned from this show what verjus is, and that a well-kept cast iron skillet has a (sort of) non-stick surface. I also found out that I probably don’t want to buy unsourced shrimp because it might well be the product of slavery. (Kleiman interviewed Martha Mendoza, co-author of a brilliant, shocking, Pulitzer-Prize-winning AP series on slavery in the seafood industry.) Because of Good Food, I discovered an online cooking school shortly after it went up, and immediately purchased a lifetime membership. From that online school, in turn, I learned about knife skills and the miraculous properties of gluten, and I gained access to scores of video recipes. In the end, even the regional segments of Good Food are enlightening: Jonathan Gold has a knack for explaining the niceties of various cultures’ traditional dishes as he encounters them in LA restaurants; and the Marketplace Report often kicks up fascinating information, like the fact that some figs are “wasp-obligate” – and the fact that fresh cherries do still exist, even though perhaps you haven’t seen one in months.

And I just realized that, considering everything I’ve learned from KCRW’s Good Food over the years, I should probably go make a listener donation.

Ellen Perry eats, cooks, and keeps bees in central Massachusetts. She teaches classical archaeology at the College of the Holy Cross and is the author of The Aesthetics of Emulation in the Visual Arts of Ancient Rome, the co-editor of Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption, and has written a number of articles on Roman art and architectural space.

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