Gastropod podcast delves into food science, history
SOMERVILLE — Who knew spoons affect the taste of food because of the interaction of saliva with metal? A copper spoon elicits more bitterness than stainless steel while a gold spoon makes things slightly sweeter.
How about this: The French word terroir, used widely today to talk about geological influences on food and drink, was historically a derogatory word. Literally “of the soil,” terroir originally implied impure or unrefined.
Cynthia Graber, 41, and Nicola Twilley, 36, tell these stories and more in their new Gastropod podcast, launched in September as a monthly program, mostly from Graber’s apartment in Somerville (Twilley lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.). Gastropod is an analysis of food through the lens of science and history. The podcasters delve into archeological digs, visit labs, and talk to experts to report stories that often elude daily media. They also manage to mix knowledge with conviviality.
Gastropod is free via Gastropod.com and several other audio websites. There are four shows available so far; averaging about 42 minutes each, and three shorter “bites” podcasts. The women describe themselves as naturally curious guides for listeners. “Food is the primary way we [all] negotiate the world around us,” Graber says. “It’s a daily negotiation with our environment, both cultural and natural. We hope we can make you think about having a thoughtful relationship with it.” Adds Twilley: “We both are food lovers but there are plenty of people who aren’t. But food is a big topic. We try to ground the abstract with science and history.”
Gastropod has nabbed some impressive guests, given its nascent profile, notably Dan Barber, who was the single guest in the October podcast. “Dan Barber’s Quest for Flavor” focuses on the James Beard award-winning chef’s acclaimed new book, “The Third Plate.” On Gastropod, as in his book, Barber talks about the necessity of eating from what an ecosystem offers, rather than picking and choosing only favored ingredients. The newbie podcasters nabbed the celebrity chef for Gastropod through a network of professional contacts.
Jennifer Eastman of Maryland learned about Barber’s book through Gastropod, and is now eager to read it. In fact, she had never downloaded a podcast until Grist, an environmental news website she follows on Facebook, recommended the new show. She has now listened to all of Gastropod’s limited collection. Gastropod is similar to public radio “because it takes the most obscure topic areas and really goes into it in depth and makes you think about things that are not really in the forefront of the food world,” says Eastman, who writes her own blog, The Scrumptious Harvest. “I’m not very learned in science but they captured me with the food, then explain the science in an approachable way. It also helps that the show has nice dialogue and they have really great rapport.”
Graber and Twilley met last year, during a food and farming journalism fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, run by author Michael Pollan. Twilley, a UK citizen with a degree in art history, has worked in museums in London and Philadelphia. She is a freelance writer and has authored a blog, Edible Geography, for the past five years. Graber graduated from Boston University with a master’s degree in science journalism. She is a freelance radio and print journalist (contributing, in the past, to the Globe).
Each woman brings a repertoire of work that is incorporated into Gastropod. The current episode, “The Microbe Revolution,” piggybacks on research Graber conducted in the cassava fields of Colombia for the UC Berkeley fellowship. Twilley conducted interviews for “The Golden Spoon,” the first episode, while visiting London. The women are funding the podcast themselves. Because they lack a professional studio, Graber records additional audio in her apartment, under a duvet, to obscure ambient noise. Twilley records in a closet. “Try doing that in New York City in the summer,” says Twilley.
The pair decline to provide estimates on how many listeners they have because, they say, their podcast is very new. But they’ve been told their audience numbers are higher than expected for a podcast so young. They hope to build their audience in order to attract advertising income.
The timing for Gastropod might be just right. The audience for all podcasts is growing, according to the Edison Research, a New Jersey-based market research company. Edison studies have found that weekly audio podcast consumption has grown 25 percent from 2013 to 2014. About 39 million people have listened to a podcast in the past month.
Eastman, the Maryland listener, plans to hang around for Gastropod’s ride. “I’m enjoying the journey. I’m anticipating the next [episode],” she says. “I travel an hour to and from work every day so I’m grateful for the length. I just wish new episodes would come every two weeks.”
A few Gastropod clips: