September 18, 2020Podcasts
When you consider all the shows on the Food Network, the popularity of The Great British Baking Show, and the ubiquity of food porn on Instagram, you’d think it would be impossible to find a fresh lens through which to examine what we put on our plate and in our glasses. But The Sporkful must have some superstar researchers because every week they seem to find a new and fascinating topic to share with listeners. In the most recent episode, 8/10/20 “The Hidden History of Regional Burgers”, host Dan Pashman speaks with George Motz, who is billed as a “renowned burger historian”. That’s definitely a job I’m interested in, although who knew that was a thing? 7/25/20 “This Butcher Wants You to Eat Less Meat”, we learn about Cara Nicoletti, who is unique in that she is a female butcher (still extremely rare, apparently) and that she has perfected a process of making sausage that is up to 35% vegetables. And in the 2/24/20 episode “The Great Data-Driven Restaurant Makeover”, The Sporkful partners with the Planet Money team to examine an under-performing table at a Manhattan restaurant. They enlist the services of a Cornell professor (Go Big Red!) to find a way to drive more revenue from Table 101.
Episode length is tightly managed, rarely running more than 40 minutes, usually closer to 30. The Sporkful is produced by Stitcher, and is a “premium podcast”. This means there are typically about 25 episodes available for free at any time (on your podcast app or on The Sporkful site itself). If you subscribe you can get access to hundreds more, given the show has been running since 2010.
Thoughts From Your Pop Culture Concierge
Back in the early aughts I read a book called Word Freak^ by Stefan Fatsis. It is a fascinating examination of people who play competitive Scrabble. I can pinpoint this experience as the moment I realized something: For ANY subject in the world that most people think about for maybe a minute or two in passing, there will be a small group of obsessed aficionados who think about it ALL THE TIME. On The Sporkful, we meet more people like this, who devote untold hours to food/beverage related topics. For example, before the episode on 5/25/20 (“What Makes Some Seltzers Sparkle?”), I was vaguely aware that sparkling water had become a much bigger deal in the past few years. I consume a lot of La Croix myself. But now I know so much more about carbonation, how you can compare one sparkling water to another, and that there is a podcast called “Seltzer DeathMatch” I’m probably going to start listening to. The Sporkful takes what can feel like obscure material (“New Jersey’s Pork Roll-Taylor Ham Wars”) as a jumping off point to tell great stories.
Each week I’m impressed with how Dan Pashman and his team can tackle fun and light-hearted topics like sparkling water but also more serious and thought-provoking subjects like the recent upheaval at Bon Appetit magazine and their YouTube channel. As host, Dan does a great job managing the full range of topics. As he is speaking with his guests, he asks questions with curiosity and without judgment or discomfort. This is the case whether he’s trying to understand the concerns of a call-in listener (8/10/20 episode) objecting to the naming conventions of salads (potato salad, for example, is not a salad by her estimation) or discussing with author Samantha Irby (5/11/20 episode) the various health problems she writes about (including irritable bowel syndrome and difficult periods). Like some of my other favorite podcasters, Dan always seems uber-prepared, referring to past works of the guests and listening carefully to what they say in their interviews. He has an excellent food vocabulary - it’s very descriptive without being pretentious. And he’s obviously having a fantastic time with this show - he has a totally unguarded laugh (a cross between a guffaw and a cackle - a gulackle?) that he lets loose each and every show. It’s both authentic and contagious - guests and listeners alike are bound to be laughing along.
While I definitely enjoy podcasts that are geared toward current events, I really appreciate how you can pick up on most episodes of The Sporkful at any time. Of the episodes currently available for free, only those devoted to the ongoing turmoil at Bon Appetit magazine are probably best consumed sooner rather than later. Otherwise you can pick and choose whichever tickles your fancy at whatever time.
If you were looking for a place to start, I’d recommend the combination of “The Art - And Joy - Of Recipe Writing” (3/16/20) and “Dorie Dreams of Cookies” (4/20/20). You can listen to one without the other, but they are nice companions. The first episode unpacks what it takes to write a good recipe, and interviews the keepers of the Joy of Cooking flame. Dorie Greenspan’s cookbooks are mentioned as the gold standard for well-written recipes, so it’s extra fun when Dan interviews her a few weeks later. He visits her at her home (which includes a refrigerator JUST FOR BUTTER) and while her expertise is apparent, it’s her humor that makes the interview a hoot. (If you like these episodes, you might also enjoy reading My Life in France* by Julia Child. Through a collection of her letters it tells the story of her true food awakening in Paris, and how she and her writing partners went about creating Mastering the Art of French Cooking*).
To hear how The Sporkful handles more serious topics, you might want to check out “Can a Restaurant Be For Everyone?” (June 1, 2020). In this episode, they talk about decoding the signals (including staff, decor and music) that might indicate which customers will feel welcome in which restaurants. It’s a tricky subject but carefully handled, without avoiding some of the more uncomfortable questions that need to be asked.
I also appreciate that The Sporkful has a great website with robust show notes. For all the episodes posted you can find links to more information from the guests and resources they mention, a complete show transcript, recipes and even a playlist of the music included. This attention to detail, combined with the well-produced episodes that still seem to leave room from spontaneity, make The Sporkful a real winner for me. Needless to say, it’s particularly fun to listen to while you cook!
Disclosure: Books marked with an * are linked to Bookshop. I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
^Word Freak is not currently available on Bookshop, so I've linked to one of my favorite bookstores, Politics and Prose.