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Deep dives on pasta and gum

When Cynthia and Nicola say their podcast is not a show about cooking, you know there’s a universe of connected ideas out there that certainly doesn’t end with the word ‘food’.

When Cynthia and Nicola say their podcast is not a show about cooking, you know there’s a universe of connected ideas out there that certainly doesn’t end with the word ‘food’.

If there’s one thing that we all have to engage with, at some level and in some form, it’s food. No matter what your dietary preferences or meal routine are, whether you cook, order in, or eat out — it’s something that both occupies time and demands attention. Practically every cultural group in the world loves talking and thinking about it, and many enjoy making and serving it. And if it meets that mysterious thing called personal taste, we might even enjoy consuming it. If the popularity of media content about cooking and baking and beverage mixing is anything to go by, we even enjoy watching other people do all of these things.

Going back in time

But the fascination with food goes beyond the food itself. During mango pickling season (as I write, the varieties perfect for the spicy avakkai of my state are ready for the picking) the conversations in many households revolve around the size of the pieces, the aroma of the oil and the redness of the chilli powder. Women will reminisce about the many types that used to be made “in the old days”, the implements and the ingredients, and alongside, they recall other stories, memories of process and product and people and pasts.

That’s why conversations about food are never just about food, or just the making and serving of it. That’s why, when co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley say their podcast,  Gastropod, is not a show about cooking, you know there’s a universe of connected ideas out there that may start with the word ‘food’ but certainly doesn’t end there. Why  Gastropod? Nothing to do with molluscs, they hasten to add, rather, it is “better than the best snail you’ve ever dreamed of”.

Training the lenses of history and science on the subjects of food and farming — from the raw ingredients that make it to the markets that commoditise it and turn it into an industry, to the geopolitics that drive availability and construct taste — the podcast deals with it all. So, while you may not find a cookie recipe in there, you will be treated to a colourful — and deeply researched — history of how the cookie (or biscuit) made its way around the world with American soldiers and became the world’s first industrially made food.

The platter that Graber and Twilley serve up is quite diverse in terms of themes covered but as may be expected from a Vox Media production, fairly North America centred in perspective. Some recent episodes go further afield; for instance, an exploration of the date, thought to be among the most ancient of fruits, and a critical look at the global palm oil industry.

One episode I particularly enjoyed dealt with the sticky and centuries-old history of chewing gum, which may be traced back to the ancient birch-tar chewers of Scandinavia and the Aztec’s use of the chicle bark (hence ‘chiclets’) to pacify children. We listen to the intrepid hosts actually try some of these foul-tasting substances; and they do not spare the microphone their disgust!

The hosts bring on board relevant experts — historians, archaeologists, cultural critics, scientists, economists and engineers — to offer both fact and perspective, lending weight to the stories they tell. Graber and Twilley’s easy back and forth, laced with humour and anecdote, make the episodes easy on the ear despite being chock full of information.

Gastropod has an archive that is close to eight years deep, and new episodes drop fortnightly.

Usha Raman, Hyderabad-based writer and academic, is a neatnik fighting a losing battle with the clutter in her head.

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Printable version | May 14, 2022 12:22:19 pm |