Photograph by Maryn McKenna
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The lone survivor of my boarding school cutlery. My full name is engraved on the back
Photograph by Maryn McKenna

A New Podcast Delves Into the History and Science of Food

The boarding school I attended as a kid imposed some rules on new students.

You had to be Catholic; it was run by French nuns. You had to be able to afford, and keep track of, the multiple pieces of clothing it required, from the winter skirt, blouse, coat and cap to the summer dress, blazer and boater and the separate uniforms for outdoor and indoor sports. And you had to buy, and have engraved with your name, a set of silver cutlery—knife, fork and spoon—and contribute them to the school’s dinnerware collection.

My school took dining very seriously. Every day, we filed into the hall to sit at facing tables of 10 girls each; the two seats closest to the aisle were reserved for senior girls who took serving dishes off carts and scooped the contents for us younger ones. Lunch was served on china, with glassware to match, and the most fun you had all meal was turning the cutlery over to see whether you had gotten a fork with your best friend’s name.

The nuns patrolled the room in full floor-length habits, yard-long rosaries looped into their belts and swishing. If they thought badly of our table manners—clinking our spoons on the soup plates or, the worst of sins, spearing an entire potato on a fork—they visited our afternoon classes to upbraid us. The Americans in the school (there were, maybe, six) struggled every meal with the peculiar English habit of keeping the fork in the left hand, tines down. At least one of us got a public scolding once a week.

I hadn’t thought about this ordeal for years. Then I listened to Gastropod, a new food podcast by two journalists, an American and an English expat. In their first episode, they explore the evolutionary influence of cutlery, the chemistry and metallurgy of spoons, the social anxiety imposed by too many forks, and the conviction, on each side of the Atlantic, that the other side is holding its silverware all wrong—and all my British schooling, and its influence on me as a traveler and an eater, came rushing back.

Gastropod is fascinating and charming, and also different. Certainly there are plenty of food podcasts—the Kitchen Sisters, the Sporkful, Good Food and many others—but as someone who comes to food writing from the wonk side, its focus on food history and science feels new to me. Its producers are Cynthia Graber (the American), a writer and radio journalist, and Nicola Twilley (the Brit), a New Yorker contributor and the creator of the long-running blog Edible Geography. The two met in the inaugural class of the UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming fellowships, run by food-journalism guru Michael Pollan, where Cynthia was researching a long story on soil microbes and Nicola was exploring the rise of frozen food in China. They clicked, and a project was born.

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Cynthia Graber is an America radio producer and print reporter.
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Nicola Twilley is a British writer and radio journalist.

“There are plenty of great food podcasts,” Graber told me. (Disclosure: Like most journalists who cover the same topics, we’ve been acquainted for years.) “But when I was doing market research, I couldn’t find any podcast that occupied this space. Every time I brought it up, people were incredibly enthusiastic. It was almost like, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done something like this yet?’”

Twilley added, “Having that format constraint—that we have to get at both the science and history of whatever we want to talk about—forces us to think about topics in new and unusual ways. Food is the most wonderful topic to write (and now podcast) about: it allows you to get into so many different aspects of the infrastructural, environmental, and social worlds that we’ve built and that we negotiate everyday.”

The pair plan a pattern of alternating long and short episodes, each on a roughly monthly schedule. The debut episode, which argues convincingly for gold-plating your dessert-spoons, was followed two weeks later by what they call a “Bite”: 13 minutes exploring the nutritional promise of wild plants and the necessity of protecting an endangered salmon fishery. In their next 40-minute episode, which will post next Tuesday, both hosts will interview chef and sustainability champion Dan Barber, author of the new book The Third Plate.

“We’ll discuss the history of different agricultural ecosystems in Spain and the US, and how plantation owners and slaves created a farming ecosystem in the South,” Graber said. “Also, a squash so cutting edge it doesn’t yet have a name.”

Listen to a Gastropod podcast about the American food system and how it could taste if more sustainable measures were implemented.

After that, they’ll look at soil minerals’ effect on flavor, take a trip to Colombia, and examine what Twilley calls the “funky, stinky, marginalized aspects of food.” (She added, alluringly: “Car park-based pigeon-roasting is involved.”)

Like most new podcasts, Gastropod is free, and a labor of love. Emphasis on the labor: Graber lives in Boston, Twilley in New York, so creating an episode is a many-hour effort of phone calls, Skype, and improvised recording booths. For those who care about such things—I do—it’s also a woman-owned effort, in a field where the big podcasts are owned and fronted by men. The pair’s take on food and culture is so different that I hope to hear more of what they have to say—but it will take more listeners than me to make that happen. So give a listen, if you can.

Visit Gastropod’s home page for subscription options including iTunes and Soundcloud. New episodes are flagged on Facebook and by @Gastropodcast on Twitter.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.