Sunday, July 1, 2018

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

Rosalind Bentley's Great Aunt Lucy and one of her cookbooks, featured in Gravy's "Hostesses of the Movement". (Photo: Gravy Archives)

Amer: So would you fast on Yom Kippur?
Lehmann: Yes.
Amer: And you’d break your fast with . . . 
Lehmann: Pork roast.
  Gravy, Episode 14: “The Last Jews of Natchez

Gravy is the name of a print publication and an affiliated podcast, both produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Gravy, the podcast, is actually not where you want to turn for recipes or cooking advice – though you might come away from the episode “Hostesses of the Movement” with an overpowering desire to make, or hunt down, lemon icebox cookies. (Here, let me help you with that.) Instead, Gravy is a collection of radio documentaries on the food culture of the American South. Episodes range from nineteen minutes to just over an hour long – with the vast majority coming in at under half an hour. Each is dedicated to a single topic, so it’s a cinch to select what interests you and to skip what doesn’t.

I’d recommend that you not skip too many episodes, however. Take a long road trip and work your way through the collection. Gravy reliably ferrets out the unexpected – the touching, nostalgic, and quirky tales of southern food culture. Don’t expect fried chicken and collard greens, though: at this writing, the podcast is approaching 100 episodes, but there is exactly one – Episode 16 – dedicated to fried chicken. Instead, look for a story about families from the Gujarat region of India who own – and cook in – the hotels across the American South (“Dinner at the Patel Motel”). Or download the episode that explains the inexplicable: why Jell-o salads were not just trendy, but actually status symbols in rural Kentucky around the middle of the 20th century (“Jell-o Makes the Modern (Mountain) Woman”).

The founding producer (and founding host) of the podcast, Tina Antolini, deserves much of the credit for the show’s consistently high standards. By her own reckoning, she has written and scripted stories, edited the work of freelancers, and scored and mixed episodes. And the stories are simply great. As a bonus – the gravy, if you will – Antolini has an impeccable sense of exactly when and how to use music to enhance the narrative – to set a mood, for example, or to punctuate somebody’s funny comment and transform it into a punchline.

The American South's most unlikely status symbol: Jell-o. (Photo: Getty)

Understandably, Gravy focuses on the foodways of the American South, but that doesn’t mean that its appeal is limited to southerners. A number of episodes are about topics that would interest any food lover – high-end bourbon, for example, or heirloom apples. A standout episode is “The Cajun Reconnection,” about the mutual rediscovery, in the middle of the 20th century, of the cultural kinship shared by the Cajuns of Louisiana and their long-lost Acadian cousins. This rediscovery took place 200 years after the Great Expulsion (Le Grand Dérangement), when thousands of Acadians were removed from the Maritime provinces because they refused to swear an oath to England. Many of these ended up in Louisiana, at the time still French territory. There, over time, they contributed to – and were exposed to – the diversity of southern Louisiana’s population and ingredients, and their characteristic foods were transfigured by new ingredients, particularly the spicy ones. Folklorist Barry Ancelet notes that, after the reconnection, distant cousins from “Church Point, Nova Scotia and Church Point, Louisiana” shared their signature dishes with one another and “it was heartwarming and hilarious to see the crowds of Acadians just fascinated by this long lost sister food, but sweating up a storm after the first three bites.”

Journalist Simon Thibault, who tells this story, grew up in Nova Scotia. His great uncle was a key figure in the reconnection many decades ago, and Thibault has the photos to prove it. In fact, several of the most riveting episodes of Gravy are told by narrators who have personal or family connections to the foodways they’re investigating. This gives them a personal claim to their narrative and unprecedented access to some of the protagonists.

While these personal anecdotes and family connections might seem like narrow beginnings, they unfurl as tales of much broader historical importance. In addition to “The Cajun Reconnection” there is Rosalind Bentley’s recent “Hostesses of the Movement,” about the women who housed and fed the activists of the civil rights movement: Bentley’s great-aunt, Lucille Burton of Albany, Georgia, was one of those women. The very segregation that activists were trying to dismantle meant that many restaurants and hotels in the American South were not interested in, or open to, their patronage. Bentley interviews her own family members for this story; but she also interviews Juanita Abernathy, the wife of famed civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy. It’s no surprise to learn that Juanita Abernathy regularly fed and housed some of the most famous activists of the movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr.; but she also insists that she “wasn’t just a cook” – that she had Bachelor’s degree in business and a professional identity outside of the kitchen. Abernathy’s cooking was her contribution to the cause; it was not her identity. Still, the stories of Lucille Burton and Juanita Abernathy make it clear that the women who opened their homes in support of civil rights were as essential to the movement as the protesters in the streets; that they were as essential at the time as they are underappreciated now.

Juanita Abernathy in 2014 at the Rosa Parks Commemorative Luncheon. (Photo: Rowan University)

Another episode that begins with family connections is Robin Amer’s “The Last Jews of Natchez.” Amer reports on her own family’s 160-year history as part of a once-thriving Jewish community in Natchez, Mississippi. Early in the story, she provides listeners with basic background about what it means for food to be kosher – or its opposite, treif. She follows up with this: “A lot of modern secular Jews completely ignore these rules. I mean, I didn’t grow up keeping kosher. My Dad’s signature dish for New Year’s Eve was a shrimp cocktail. But Jewish food culture in Natchez defies kosher law in a way that dazzles and surprises, resulting in strange, delicious combinations that you won’t find in the secular north.”

And that’s it: you’re hooked for the rest of the story.

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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