In Departure from Radio: Food Podcasts Offer Diverse Perspectives
Poet Rubí Orozco Santos reads a poem from her new book Inventos Míos, a book of poetry about nixtamalization, on Andi Murphy’s Toasted Sister podcast. Seated at my home office desk, window cracked and welcoming in the cool English spring air scented with freshly cut grass, I close the glowing screen in front of me for a quick break, and close my eyes to listen.
‘I’m writing about nixtamal.’ I say.
white man at the table is first to speak
eagerly lists chemical reactions
molds periodic table into steeled speculum
inserts cold metal
up my grandmother’s skirt.
I nod politely – a survival strategy
imprinted in every cell for at least four generations.
Or nod for your life.”
Orozco Santos continues;
“These seeds are not for you.
These poems may or may not be for you.
You see, despite my ‘C’ in Chemistry
I connect with, listen to
percussive seeds arriving
I observe these relatives
rinsing their bumpy, wet bodies activating, greeting
human relation, this
Podcasts like Murphy’s and stories like Orozco Santos’ have been the worn-thin thread I’ve clung to over the last year on this island, missing the sounds of home and everywhere other than this little plot to which I have been rooted (read: trapped). It’s been two years since I’ve seen my mother or sister in Ohio. The world for me, and many like me, has never felt so far out of reach. To hear the sounds of somewhere else—a somewhere or someone I don’t know, that rather than evokes prickled feelings of longing and loss, instead sparks curiosity or excitement, like that of a new friendship. Like I, too, could know this place one day— it feels luxurious, reassuring, and personal. It’s like they are speaking just to me.
These days you would be hard pressed to throw a stone and not hit someone with their own podcast. There are currently over 2 million podcasts listened to monthly by around 32% of Americans, with rapid growth taking place in Spanish-speaking countries like Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Mexico amongst others. As Point of Origin podcast host Stephen Satterfield predicts during our phone conversation a few months ago, this is only the beginning of the era of podcast explosion. This is partially because, as we can see with the growth of social media and other customer/individual-led forms of media, advertising has finally caught onto audio’s influence on listeners. A format, which largely stems from producer Ira Glass in the late ‘90s with his narrative journalism show ‘This American Life’, has turned into a way for many across the globe to reach individuals on a personal level. Food stories and narratives, enhanced through the use of audio, have grown both in number and visibility over the last few years, though as Nicola Twilley, co-host of the science-meets-history-meets-food podcast Gastropod, tells me, she and Cynthia Graber have benefited from being ‘under the radar’ just enough to have the freedom to experiment.
With so much less access to people through food-sharing and the stories that are shared alongside, many of us have tuned in to a food-based podcast to help fill the holes; from dinner inspiration to company keeping, food-centred storytelling connects us to culture in tangible ways, and satisfied (somewhat) a longing for connection during the last year of isolation. Though perhaps more poignant now than in years past, food-centered audio is not a new form of entertainment. Radio shows like Splendid Table have been running since 1997, and others like Kitchen Sisters, Spilled Milk, Milk Street, Burnt Toast, Radio Cherry Bomb, The Sporkful, and so many others were soon to follow. In 2019 there were nearly 5,000 podcasts classified as “food themed” on Apple Podcasts. Within this historically white, male-dominated field of podcasting, which catered to a largely white, male audience, the voices and stories of many other people and communities have often been left out or quieted within mainstream radio. Thankfully, this homogeneity is changing.
A new space in food podcasting is being created, as access to technology for both producers and listeners increases. Carved out by hosts whose subject matters and identities haven’t yet made it into mainstream radio, they are no longer confined to an agenda that must cater to the masses in order to gain an audience. These hosts are building their own listening communities. This relatively new, independent form of food podcasting provides listeners with a window into a more nuanced range of cuisines, neighborhoods, politics, and perspectives that often differ from more mainstream food radio; giving storytellers access to speak to a specific subject matter or experience without the mandate to code switch in order to be heard.
Andi Murphy, who is Diné (commonly referred to as Navajo in the US), has spent the last four years showcasing, through food stories, the histories and experiences of Native Americans and Indigenous communities—voices, culinary traditions and stories that aren’t often heard outside of the Native community. Her work, including Orozco Santos’s poem in episode 73, Food Poetry on her Toasted Sister podcast, is part of the Indigenous food sovereignty movement building momentum and visibility in the US. Episodes are wide ranging and rooted in details, including personal stories from Guatemalan migrant workers, a visit to a wild rice processing plant in Minnesota, an interview with a Native death doula, traditional Pueblo bread makers, and a Native, female-owned brewery, and more. Murphy says;
“Storytellers have been using audio to broadcast stories since the radio was invented. Back then radio was reserved for a few producers, hosts, and shows. Today, anyone can start a podcast about any subject, and that means that people from small communities suddenly have a platform to tell their stories to an audience of 20 to 20,000. They’re taking ownership over their stories and educating the public about the issues that are important to them.”
She adds; “I think food podcasts work because they can be very specific. Hosts have the ability to tell stories that are important to them no matter how small and marginalized the community they come from.”
Murphy is not alone in her quest to explore, unpack, and celebrate stories and traditions from smaller, or simply less visible, communities. As producer Stephen Satterfield reminds listeners in the trailer to Point of Origin’s first season, diverse gatekeepers lead to more diverse storytellers, stories, points of view, and cultural empathy. Whetstone Magazine founded by Satterfield and from which Point of Origin stems, is the first of just two Black-owned food magazines in the US. The podcast features voices, sounds, and stories from around the globe, weaving together food, history, politics, and personal narratives. One episode will deep dive into the farming and political practices involved in growing Haas avocados in Mexico, whilst another is built around the revival of making the oldest spirit in the world in Palestine. Another episode interviews ‘third culture’ kids in the US, now grown and working to showcase their layered identities through culture-crossing food businesses. The music and atmospheric sounds add their own invaluable depth and richness to the storytelling.
“It’s my favourite medium”, says Satterfield. “We make it sticky for listeners. I think investing in the atmosphere and the transportive quality is a creative mandate for us. We owe to the people who have made it possible – doing everything we can as creators to make the product more pleasurable to listen to.”
Creating a protected space to discuss identity through food is one of the reasons MiMi Aye and Huong Black began their podcast The MSG Pod. Both are 2nd generation UK immigrants (Aye’s family from Myanmar and Black’s from China and Vietnam), mothers, and in inter-racial marriages. Having grown up in an earlier era, they offer a perspective different from some of the other popular Asian podcast hosts who are in their early 20s.
Although Aye and Black discuss their Asian backgrounds and identity complexities on the show, guests are from Asian and non-Asian backgrounds, including Tim Anderson, Evelyn Mok, and Nigella Lawson amongst others. Aye sees this as a way to encourage and engage an equally diverse and inclusive audience. Discussions range from rice cookers and stick blenders to cultural appropriation, Myanmar’s military coup, and socialism – much under the guise of food and infused with a lot of laughter and humor. The MSG Pod works to inject lightness into serious subject matters and a bit of ‘mildly salacious gossip’ aka MSG. Aye—who is a writer editor, and cookbook author— says:
“There is so little media out there for specifically East and Southeast Asian listeners. And, [within that] there isn’t much entertainment media out there that’s actually fun.”
“We’re trying to get people to listen to it who might have thought it was just about recipes or cooking, and then we get them to listen to wider issues. The podcast lends itself to a conversation where writing doesn’t.”
British podcast producer Lucy Dearlove also leans into the conversational aspect of audio with her podcast Lecker with her warm, often domestic-based interviews, enhanced by the recording of the environment from frying and chopping sounds to traffic. When it comes to creating a product around food, Dearlove says she never saw it as a visual-dominant subject, due to how much it is talked about in daily life. “The reason that people like to talk about food so much is that we always have – that’s how recipes were passed down. It’s how people make connections. I always saw [the podcast] as an extension of that” she says.
Dearlove started podcasting just after the popular narrative podcast Serial in the US, but the same audio culture was not yet present in the UK. By choosing to include her own voice, rather than the trend of using of a well-known presenter within the production, Dearlove was stepping into new territory. Recording episodes largely from the home kitchens of her guests, Dearlove works to highlight lesser known voices and stories within the UK food scene, whilst embracing the deeply personal, often messy side of cooking, domestically or otherwise. Lecker’s very first episode features an interview with the mother/daughter team behind the family-owned, female-run Pakistani restaurant Masala Wala; daughter Saima interviewed again two years later on living and eating with terminal cancer — a moving and disarmingly honest interview — amongst other personal accounts on food cultures from a variety of perspectives and experiences. Lecker sits uniquely in a place between audio and the written word; environmental sounds are used to create a sense of intimacy, environment, and rhythm resembling that of poetry or music.
The ability to combine audio with writing to showcase rhythm and pace alongside a narrative journey is how hosts Catherine Campbell and Jonathan Ammons approach their show The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour, aired monthly out of Asheville, North Carolina. Fiction writer Campbell, and musician Ammons bring together a mix of chefs, activists, and hospitality workers for their monthly show alongside carefully selected music; the bulk of the show’s writing, illustrations, and narration is done by those within the service industry as a means of gaining professional experience which will hopefully lead to more paid work within the creative industry.
Ammons says: “Our hope is that we are able to give people experience so they can go on and find other opportunities for paid work. That’s the thing with creative work – no one will pay you if you don’t have any experience. We want to get it to a point where we can compensate all creative people for creative work.”
Campbell remarks, “I think when people are listening, actively listening, and they hit that kernel of universal truth, that’s a really beautiful feeling. And I think when you are able to do that through the unifying factor of food, I think it just heightens that experience and the idea of humanity. If the only thing you have to pull you in is the story [rather than photos], it puts more weight on the story and makes us choose better stories”.
Over the last year, food podcasts of all kinds have helped listeners as well as hosts connect to a sense of community, identity, and perhaps even vulnerability in a way that feels safe during a time of deep isolation and fear. Such is evident by Samin Nosrat and Hrishekesh Hirway’s popular podcast Home Cooking. Throughout the series not only do Nosrat and Hirway infuse episodes with laughter, emotion, and expert kitchen tips, they also explore parts of their heritage, concerns, and complex identities in ways more mainstream forms of media tend to avoid. Listeners feel a real sense of authenticity, complexity, and vulnerability from the hosts resulting in a deeply craved connection to them as people, rather than personas, making the show just as comforting as it is informative.
Ruby Tandoh’s new uniquely made-for-audio-cookbook Breaking Eggs, also dives into identity complexity, vulnerability, and agency (alongside baking of course). A highly visible name in the UK food world since her appearance on the Great British Bake Off many years ago, Tandoh has worked to forge her own path with the intention of creating agency and transparency over her narrative and voice. Her new made-for-audio cookbook also provides a new form of accessibility for those who might also be struggling with feeling overwhelmed during the pandemic (as many confessed to being unable to focus or even read at its onset), are sight impaired, have trouble following a written recipe, or prefer audio-based learning — all of which are often overlooked within the cookbook publishing industry.
Breaking Eggs covers more than just baking, it addresses wellness, diet culture, and class alongside a devotion to tactile and sensory-rich pleasures, like baking and eating without guilt. Like Nosrat, Tandoh uses the opportunity her name gives her to invest in the complex identities and issues around food that are often filtered out within more traditional media outlets.
She says, “It’s both very novel in the sense of professional cookbooks and publishing— it’s not done a lot and not new at all. Having someone in the kitchen talking you through everything is maybe the oldest form of cooking. It’s trying to put a very old way of sharing knowledge into a new format.”
Storytelling through podcasting is changing the dynamics around power and control, though there is still a long way to go. And, as Satterfield says, this is just the beginning of what’s yet to come.