Gastropod: The New Podcast That’s Like Radiolab for Food

This new podcast explores the science and history behind what we eat.

With the exceptions of Heritage Radio Network and that pork bung/calamari story on This American Life, I’m pretty much used to consuming a lot of in-depth food news from a written source. Lynne Rossetto Kasper and I might plan a Greek feast on a Sunday afternoon, Lopate and I share Friday lunch and I savor snippets of Last Chance Foods when they run. I mostly read NPR’s The Salt though, and expect a lot of my audio intake to follow WNYC’s scheduling.

Now enter Gastropod: a new podcast co-hosted by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley that’s dedicated to exploring the science and history behind what we eat. The show’s only about six months old and has explored topics ranging from the relationship between cutlery design and how and what we eat, as well as what it’s like to live on Soylent (which doesn’t require cutlery, or even teeth for that matter). It’s also already welcomed authors Bee Wilson and Dan Barber for longer chats that are as intellectual as they are well produced. Think playful music, witty banter and engaging narratives that communicate topics of science and history in all of their mind-blowing complexity. Basically, it’s like Radiolab for food.

The episodes generally come in two forms: longer, roughly 30 minute stories and shorter 15 minute “bites.” Cynthia and Nicola converse throughout and share their own expert opinions as longtime science, design and food reporters. Like Jad and Robert (who we interviewed a few years back), they interrupt to question, deconstruct challenging concepts and communicate otherwise nebulous concepts in everyday language. And, as sometimes needed to lighten up dry science, they’re funny.

We recently chatted with Cynthia and Nicola to learn more about how the show started, what we can expect in future episodes and one of the host’s confession of being “in the closet.”

The following interview has been edited for both brevity and clarity.

Edible Manhattan: Can you tell me more about how Gastropod began? What was the inspiration?

Cynthia Graber: It’s is a fun creation story. I have the radio background and about a about a year and a half ago, Nicola and I met when we were inaugural fellows in the Food and Farming Fellowship at UC Berkeley that’s overseen by Michael Pollan. We got along, we edited each others work and we stayed in touch. Then over the past year, I’ve been thinking of starting my own podcast and realized that the topic that I’m really passionate about is this connection between food, science and history. So I wrote up a pitch for a couple of friends of mine and I ended up sending it to Nicola just because she has so much expertise in this space with her great blog Edible Geography. She wrote me back and said that she thought it was a great idea and that she wanted to co-host it with me…

Nicola Twilley: Wait a minute, I didn’t say that I wanted to co-host, I asked if you would like me to co-host…

CG: You may not of put it quite that way, but it was clear that I wasn’t going to look for somebody else. I thought it was a great idea; it didn’t even occur to me that she would even be interested in co-hosting, but we’ve transformed it in to something way beyond what I had been thinking of at the time.

EM: Cynthia, tell us a bit more about your radio and audio work.

CG: I’ve been in radio and audio (it’s hard to just say one nowadays) for about fifteen years. I started my career at the NPR show Living on Earth. I was there for five years and I won a number of national radio awards for my documentaries. I then worked on a show for about seven years about poverty and justice that isn’t on the air anymore and I do magazine and online work as well. I’ve also done podcasts for Scientific American, I’ve worked on radio shows such as The World and Studio 360 and a bunch of others.

EM: And Nicola, judging from your blog, you have a design background as well as a strong interest in landscape. Can you tell us more about how these fields influence your writing about food?

NT: I’ve been writing Edible Geography for five years, which makes me like a granddad in the world of blogging, I think. But it is exactly what you said: my interest in food comes out of an interest in landscape and design, as well as a background in art history of all things. But I’ve found that food is this really interesting constraint. You know how when you’re writing and you really don’t know what to say or how to package it? I found that really 99.9% of the things that I find interesting could be approached through food somehow. So that’s how I got started. Also, I’m an incredibly lazy person and that’s why a blog was so great because I could just dive in to things that I otherwise might have found interesting, but I might not have explored further. And it’s led to some really great things. Because of my blog, I got to write a piece about refrigeration.

EM: Yes, we read your recent piece in The New York Times Magazine.

NT: Yes, so that what the piece that came out of the UC Berkeley fellowship. One of the great things about that fellowship is that you have a whole week of workshops to work on your pitch while getting all of this great input from amazing editors and fellow fellows. I mean, Cynthia rewrote that pitch for me (laughs). It was so great; I really couldn’t have reported that without the fellowship because the Times didn’t really want to take a gamble with someone who hadn’t written for them before and send me all the way to China — I mean, it’s an expensive story to report. But because of that trip, I’m now working on a book about refrigeration and I’ve actually just joined The New Yorker, which is very fun. But I had never done anything in radio and when Cynthia sent this pitch my way I thought that I would like to be doing that. I mean I squeeze in a podcast wherever I can. There’s a huge quantity of food podcasts but there’s not one that’s blending food, science and history in a way that Cynthia and I could do it — so I was very glad when she said yes!

EM: Wait, did you just say that you are lazy? It seems like you’re quite prolific…

CG: Yea, I totally don’t believe that. I just don’t buy it.

NT: You know, given the way that I live my life, it’s really all an elaborate structure to make sure I can’t be my naturally lazy self…

EM: Yea maybe we have different ideas of laziness… So one of the things that we’ve really enjoyed about Gastropod is that, starting from the beginning of the first episode, you have a distinct focus in not wanting to include recipes and in you saying that, how do you see Gastropod comparing to other food-related audio programs like The Splendid Table or The Sporkful; how do you see Gastropod as being different than what already exists?

CG: When I think about Gastropod it’s more similar to something like Planet Money where they take an idea and they kind of explore it in different ways and you learn all sorts of quirky things about topics in economics that you wouldn’t necessarily be interested in. Now food is a little different — it’s such a compelling topic to so many people right now. And while the podcasts that you mentioned are great, they’ve never approached food the way that I am personally passionate about; it might have been something that they’ve touched on, like some science thing or some ancient history thing or something about how food fits in to society. But with Gastropod, I think of it as a food podcast for nerds. I don’t mean that it’s just for nerdy people, but I really want to get at the quirky, the unusual, the interesting while approaching it from both the perspective of science and history and explore what that means. I did a lot of market research before starting Gastropod and each time I would bring it up to somebody they would say: “Oh, that should totally exist. Why doesn’t it?” So yea, I really think it’s different than what’s out there. I dunno, Nicola?

NT: I think that’s exactly right and the other this is that the podcasts that I enjoy the most, like Radiolab, is that they have that “now” factor as in “I feel like I need to tell someone about this now.” I think that is less of what you get in the food podcast world. I could be wrong but both Cynthia and I love food; we love cooking it and eating it and I love those two podcasts, but yea, Gastropod felt like it was missing. It felt like it existed for science in the form of Radiolab and design in the form of 99% Invisible, but it didn’t exist for food.

EM: What’s been the inspiration for the stories that you’ve produced so far? Do you think they lend themselves to audio storytelling in any particular way? What can we look forward to in the future?

CG: We got up and running really quickly. We started talking about this in May, we were working on it in June, and the first episode was out in September. At the very beginning it was: What are we interested in? What do we think will work well? What can we put together, now? The first episode with the cutlery was something that Nicola had already covered before, so we begged to interview contacts like Bee Wilson. Luckily before then, I happened to have a trip scheduled to London (where scientist Zoe Laughlin, who we interview in the first episode on the taste of different metals, lives), so I emailed her like three times, I called her to beg for the interview, then we met up and it was perfect. Dan Barber’s new book just came out and we’re huge fans. Luckily, we were able to interview him in person at Stone Barns. And the third long story that we had in mind when we started and that will air in November is based on research that I did for the [UC Berkeley] fellowship in part, which is on soil microbes and farming. It was a long form story on Nova and it was a really short radio piece on the radio show The World. I have so much amazing tape out in Columbia in the fields and in Switzerland and we’re going to use that and add on to that as well. After that, we have lots of ideas.

EM: But, considering that you don’t live in the same place, how do you record shows? Practically speaking, how are you able to create such a high quality product without being together in a studio?

CG: We live in different states, so we never record together, and actually I’m not sure that we could given the way that we’ve set this up. So I’ve been in radio for a really long time although I do have experience with a studio, I was at a show where we all worked remotely. So I’ve set up a system at home to sound like I’m in a really awesome studio space: I sit on my bed and I pile all of my covers on top of me and I hold the mic to my mouth and I look at the computer and it works.

EM: This sounds like perfect material for shooting a behind-the-scenes video recording of how the podcast is made.

CG: My editor at Scientific American called me “the undercover reporter.” I asked Nicola if that worked for her because some radio reporters will actually stand in their closets and that doesn’t really work for me. I think my sound is great. I think it sounds better than a lot of stuff out there and she was game. We work very intensively on the scripts, since there’s only two of us…

NT: Cynthia, I have to break something to you: I am no longer under the covers — I am in the closet now.

CG: Oh you are?!

NT: I’ve been meaning to tell you, but…

CG: You have come out of the closet (laughing). So it works for different people in different ways — my closet’s never felt like a comfortable way to set it up. [To record], we’re on Skype with our computers in front of us, we are on Skype with each other in one ear, and then we have or mics and our headphones on the other ear. Nicola then sends her sound file and then I cut everything. I put it all together.

NT: Yea, I couldn’t really deal with the covers. Here’s the thing: I was under my duvet in New York with the air conditioning off for the noise, so I was sweating like crazy, and I looked like I had just taken a bath. Now I actually hang my duvet over the edge of my closet and I wrap my t-shirts around me like a shroud.

CG: Hey, whatever works. Plenty of radio people hang out in their closets.

EM: Yes you should definitely post photographic evidence of this.

CG: Oh we’re planning on it.

NT: We want people to be able to picture the romance.

Featured photo credit: Facebook/Gastropod

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Ariel Lauren Wilson

Lauren grew up on her family's farm in the North Carolina mountains. She now lives in New York and is the editor of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn.