Cynthia Graber Podcast Image

Cynthia Graber

Host of Gastropod
Cynthia Graber an award-winning magazine reporter and radio producer. Cynthia Graber also co-hosts a bi-weekly podcast, Gastropod, about the science and history of food.


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Recent episodes featuring Cynthia Graber
Are Insect Guts the Secret to the Most Delicious Kimchi?
This side dish of spicy, bubbly, funky pickled vegetables is such a staple in Korea that no meal is considered complete without it—but, recently, kimchi has found its way into burgers, pasta, grilled cheese, and even tacos. This episode, we trace the behind-the-scenes story of the “kimchi diplomacy” that turned Korea’s favorite fermented cabbage into an international food trend. And then, because we’re Gastropod, we take part in our very own cutting-edge science experiment to understand one of kimchi science’s most mysterious questions: where do the microbes that transform the sugars in cabbage into such tangy, savory flavors actually come from? Is it our hands? The soil? Or could the secret to all that deliciousness actually lie in the stomach of beetles and bugs? Listen in this episode for kimchi secrets, kimchi explosions, and a little bit of kimchi K-pop, too. “Koreans traditionally have kimchi at all three meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” food ethnographer Kevin Kim told Gastropod. Some scholars say the true origin of kimchi lies in China and Chinese fermented vegetables, and others point out that the chili pepper that gives most kimchi its distinctive spiciness is a New World ingredient. But kimchi is so quintessentially Korean that, according to historian Michael Pettid, as early as 2,000 years ago, Chinese records remarked on the special fondness that the people living in the Korean peninsula had for fermented vegetables. More recently, Kim told Gastropod, Korean politicians have invested heavily in supporting kimchi producers, kimchi science, and kimchi marketing campaigns as a “soft power” strategy to promote the country and its culture overseas. Their efforts have paid off. As Lauryn Chun, creator of Mother-In-Law’s Kimchi and author of The Kimchi Cookbook, can attest, today, kimchi is found on grocery store shelves across America, where it’s beloved for its salty, spicy, garlicky crunch, as well as its probiotic potential. Some credit the kimchi taco, which chef Roy Choi first served from his Los Angeles-based Kogi food truck in 2008, with inspiring kimchi’s cult status among foodies, but kimchi has since gone mainstream: in the past decade, the condiment has begun popping up on chain restaurant menus from TGI Fridays to California Pizza Kitchen. The microbial diversity of Cynthia’s kimchi, as plated by Esther Miller. Surprisingly, it turns out that all that deliciousness is dependent on a set of microbes—specifically, lactic acid bacteria—that are extremely hard to find on cabbages and in the field. “One thing that I find really fascinating about kimchi compared to other fermented foods is that, unlike cheese or salami or yogurt, where you use starter cultures—these microbes that you buy—kimchi is not inoculated,” said Tufts University researcher Benjamin Wolfe, who also serves as Gastropod’s in-house microbiologist. This made him wonder: if these bacteria don’t really like to hang out on cabbage leaves, and we don’t intentionally add them to our ferments, where do the microbes that turn cabbage into kimchi come from? To investigate, we team up on an experiment of our own, making multiple large jars of kimchi in an attempt to discover whether the microbes in the final ferment differ depending on the farm where the cabbage was grown. Listen now to find out the results of the experiment—and hear stories of insect-smushing, kimchi block parties, and the kimchi that was specially designed for space! Esther Miller with her sterile cabbages. Photo by Kevin White. Episode Notes Benjamin Wolfe You can find our microbiologist-in-residence Ben Wolfe at Tufts University, where he heads the Wolfe Lab, as well as on Twitter @lupolabs. He starred in our kombucha episode, as well as our episode all about cheese. Graduate student Esther Miller joined the Wolfe Lab in 2015, and her research focuses on microbial dynamics in the cabbage phyllosphere. Cynthia’s microbial terroir kimchi experiment in the lab. Kevin Kim Kevin Kim is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, in the department of American Studies. His focus on food ethnography includes research on “kimchi diplomacy.” Lauryn Chun Lauryn Chun is the founder of Mother-In-Law’s Kimchi, and author of The Kimchi Cookbook. Michael Pettid Historian Michael Pettid’s book, Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated History, is a definitive guide to kimchi’s origins and traditional cultural significance.   The post Are Insect Guts the Secret to the Most Delicious Kimchi? appeared first on Gastropod.
Menu Mind Control
At its most basic, a menu is simply a way for a restaurant to communicate its offerings and their prices to its customers. But, perhaps even more importantly, says Alison Pearlman, author of a new book on menus called May We Suggest, a menu has to persuade diners that they want what the restaurant is selling. So how do menus do that—and are they somehow subconsciously manipulating our choices? Are there universal principles of effective menu design that savvy diners can identify and outsmart? Listen in this episode as we decode the history and science of the not-so-humble menu. As long as there have been places to eat outside the house, there has been some form of menu. For most of its history, however, the menu hasn’t been the individually printed document we think of when we hear the word today. According to Pearlman, the earliest menu we’ve found is a list written on the wall of a bar in Pompeii, dating back to the second century BCE. Menus have also often been communicated verbally, or even, during China’s Southern Song Dynasty, in the form of special viewing dishes—sample dishes that servers would bring out for diners to choose between. In the U.S., the first printed bill of fare dates back to 1834. According to Josh Kun, who told Los Angeles’ history through the public library’s menu collection in his recent book, To Live and Dine in L.A, most early menus weren’t linked to restaurants, but rather to special events, as the high cost of printing individual menus only made sense for a banquet. (In Los Angeles, Kun added, the earliest menus were printed before the city’s first books. #priorities.) Nowadays, printed menus have trickled down to the rest of us—and the shifts in their design over time reveal not just the changing economics of restaurant dining, but also trends in demographics, aesthetics, and values. But what about menus as sales tools? Can menu design and language sway our choices as consumers? That’s exactly what art historian and food lover Pearlman set out to discover, by interviewing restaurateurs, visiting dozens of restaurants and analyzing their menus, and reading every book and study she could find on the science of menu engineering. To test Pearlman’s findings, we visited two restaurateurs with two very different menus: Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, owner of Alcove, a year-old fine-dining restaurant in Boston, and Ayr Muir, CEO of a small chain of fast-casual restaurants called Clover. With their help, and Pearlman and Kun’s research, this episode we get to the bottom of menu design’s many mysteries. Is there such a thing as a sweet spot on the menu—and, if so, where is it? Does anchor pricing, where a menu features one extremely expensive dish so everything else looks like a bargain, actually work? And how is the rise of digital menu technology helping restaurateurs make menus more manipulative than ever before? Listen in now for all that—and a couple of garlic cloves in a hot tub. Episode Notes Alison Pearlman and May We Suggest Alison Pearlman is an art historian and professor at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. She is the author, most recently, of May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion. TGI Friday’s menu, 1976, collection of Alison Pearlman. Josh Kun and To Live and Dine in L.A. Josh Kun is director of the USC Annenberg School of Communication, and author of To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus and the Making of the Modern City , which Nicky wrote about for The New Yorker when it was first published, in 2015. The Los Angeles Public Library Menu Collection The Owl Drug Company (various locations), 1940s. Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library. Gastropod listener Bob Timmermann wrote this introduction to the Los Angeles Public Library’s menu collection, one of the Rare Book’s divisions many and varied special collections (Nicky’s favorite is the citrus label collection). If you’re in Los Angeles, you can make an appointment to see its treasures for yourself; if not, the library has been digitizing its collection and many are available online. Alcove Restaurant industry veteran Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli opened his first restaurant, Alcove, in Boston’s West End, just over a year ago. A year before that, he started working with designer Drew Katz on the menu. Both the design and the dishes listed on it are gorgeous—do visit if you’re in town. Alcove’s menu, photographed by designer Drew Katz. Clover Clover began life as a food truck on the MIT campus in 2005; today, the fast-casual chain (which is meat-free but deliberately never uses the word ‘vegetarian’) has twelve locations throughout Boston and Cambridge. CEO Ayr Muir prioritizes local, seasonal food, makes pretty much everything in-house, from scratch, everyday, and his digital menu is cutting-edge. Both Cynthia and Nicky are big fans. Clover’s digital menu, displaying the popover sandwich. Photo by Nicola Twilley. The post Menu Mind Control appeared first on Gastropod.
Of Ghost Foods and Culinary Extinction
The earliest humans favored juicy, meaty mammoth at mealtimes. Ancient Romans loved their favorite herb, silphium, so much that they sprinkled it on everything from lamb to melon. In the 19th century United States, passenger pigeon pie was a cherished comfort food, long before chicken pot pie became commonplace. And, for dessert, Americans a century ago might have enjoyed a superlatively buttery Ansault pear, reckoned to be the greatest pear ever grown. What did these foods beloved by previous generations taste like? Well, apart from some written descriptions, we’ll never know: they’re all extinct. Join us this episode as culinary geographer Lenore Newman takes us on a tour of lost foods—and the lessons they can teach us as we fight to save our current favorite foods from disappearing forever. “Shooting wild pigeons in Iowa,” illustration from the 2 July 1867 edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (vol. XXV, no. 625, p. 8), from “Large-scale live capture of Passenger Pigeons Ectopistes migratorius for sporting purposes: Overlooked illustrated documentation,” by Julian Hume. “This project started because of a bird,” Lenore Newman told Gastropod. “And that bird was Martha.” Newman’s project is a new book titled Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food; Martha was a passenger pigeon and the last living member of her species—an “endling,” as such lonely creatures are evocatively called. Her death, on September 1st, 1914, represented the first time that humanity watched a species disappear, in full awareness of the concept of extinction and our role in causing this particular one. “There was no denying it was us,” said Newman: somehow, together, we had eaten so many pigeons that we had wiped the most abundant bird in North America off the face of the planet. But the passenger pigeon wasn’t our first culinary extinction. This episode, Newman takes us on a tour through the foods we have eaten to their end, such as the Pleistocene megafauna, which early humans destroyed as our numbers spread around the world, and the leek-flavored silphium that was so valuable its last stalks were hoarded, alongside gold and jewels, by Roman emperors. In each case, we sift through the evidence that points to human appetite as the leading cause of extinction, and unpack the response of a bewildered, bereft humanity. Gold coin from Cyrene, from between 308-250 BC; the tails side depicts silphium. The Romans clung to the belief that their beloved silphium could perhaps spontaneous reappear someday; the idea that that something could be gone forever was simply, at the time, inconceivable. The concept of extinction—along with its mirror, evolution—wasn’t formulated until the end of the eighteenth century, and it finally gave humans a framework within which to understand their actions. But, as Newman describes, the pace of culinary extinctions has only increased since then, with thousands and thousands of varieties of plants and breeds of animals vanishing in the early 20th century. Why have we allowed so many of the foods we love to vanish? What impact has their loss had—and what lessons can it teach us for the future? Listen in this episode as Newman helps us tackle these morbid questions, leaving us with some hope, as well as a whole new perspective on chicken. Episode Notes Lenore Newman‘s Lost Feast Lenore Newman holds a Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, where she is currently an associate professor of geography and the environment. Her most recent book is Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food; prior to that, she authored Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey. The Ansault pear, painted by Deborah G. Passmore on 10/13/1897, from the collection of the USDA National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland. The post Of Ghost Foods and Culinary Extinction appeared first on Gastropod.
Tiki Time!
Tiki bars are hot these days: you can enjoy a fruity tropical drink while surrounded by faux-Polynesian décor in most major cities around the U.S. and elsewhere, with new tiki spots opening every month. The trend is a revival of a nearly century-old American tradition—but the knowledge of how to make these classic tiki cocktails had been all but lost over the intervening decades. It took an amateur sleuth who went on a deep dive into cocktail archaeology and recipe cryptography to bring back the lost flavors. But, while the drinks he rediscovered are delicious, does the classic tiki bar interior, adorned with carvings that resemble traditional Polynesian gods, stand the test of time? Listen in for tales of Hollywood celebrities, backyard luaus, and a savvy restaurateur with a wooden leg. When Donn Beach, né Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, opened his bar Don the Beachcomber in December 1933, Prohibition had ended just days earlier. Marie King, beverage director at the Tonga Hut, the oldest operating tiki bar in Los Angeles, believes he must have been doing some bootlegging or rum running on the side. “He had to have some kind of speakeasy to develop all the recipes,” King told Gastropod. Beach, the son of a Texas wildcatter, had spent his youth—and his college fund—traveling the world, where he first fell in love with the South Pacific. When the money ran out, he ended up in LA, where one of his many hustles involved building movie sets for Hollywood. Beach decorated his new bar with what he called ‘flotsam and jetsam’ meant to invoke Polynesia, most of which he bought from the movie sets he’d once decorated. Don the Beachcomber was a huge hit, and the tiny space was usually filled with a who’s-who of Hollywood: Howard Hughes, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable. It wasn’t just the décor, which capitalized on a 1930s fascination with the South Pacific—it was also Donn’s inventive new drinks. The drinks were based on rum, says Shannon Mustipher, author of Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails. Cuba was nearby and willing to sell to the U.S., she said, “And so rum was the only spirit that had been readily available in the U.S. while distillers were not in operation.” Plus, she pointed out, rum was cheap at the time—a major selling point for a bar that opened during the Great Depression. Don’s cocktails blended multiple versions of rum, as well as multiple citrus juices, sweeteners, and spices in complicated, innovative recipes that took their inspiration from traditional Caribbean punch recipes but added layers of flavor and nuance, according to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, owner of the tiki bar Latitude 29 in New Orleans. This was truly the second wave of American craft cocktails, Berry told Gastropod. “Nobody ever had drinks like this before,” he said. “Nobody ever made drinks like this before.” Berry tasted his first classic tiki cocktail in the 1980s, when tiki bars had nearly disappeared and cocktails were limited to three-ingredient Harvey Wallbangers. Its balance and complexity stood out like a beacon of hope amidst the sea of cheap spirits and sickly sweet mixers that were popular that decade. But, as he set out to drink more of these delicious tropical cocktails, he realized he had a problem: most bartenders had no idea how to make Donn the Beachcomber’s original drinks correctly, and, to make matters worse, Beach had written his original recipes in code. This episode, Jeff Berry tells Gastropod about the story of how he decoded Beach’s legendary concoctions and fueled today’s tiki renaissance. And we do some detective work  of our own to investigate tiki’s rise, fall, and revival. Why did tiki bars peak in the 1950s and 60s, before nearly disappearing in the ensuing decades, and what brought about the revival today? Sarah Miller-Davenport, author of Gateway State: Hawai’i and the Cultural Transformation of American Empire, describes how Polynesian-style bars and restaurants allowed mid-century middle class white Americans to feel cosmopolitan and adventurous, in part by playing on racist stereotypes of Polynesian sexuality. These stereotypes are part of the reason that Kalewa Correa, curator of Hawai’i and Pacific America at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, says tiki bars make him, a native Hawai’ian, uncomfortable—that and the ubiquitous tikis, Polynesian-style carvings that invoke images of Polynesian gods. Are tiki bars a form of cultural appropriation, a 20th-century fad that should offend our slightly more enlightened 21st-century values, or are they a purely American invention that provides harmless, escapist fun? Listen in for the story—and the debate! Episode Notes Marie King and the Tonga Hut Marie King runs the Tonga Hut, LA’s oldest surviving classic tiki bar in North Hollywood, which was established in 1958. If you want to step back in tiki history, this is a great bar to check out. Jeff Berry, the Grog Log, and Latitude 29 Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s decades-long cocktail sleuthing resulted in the revival of classic tiki cocktails, originally detailed in his Grog Log.  You can still find copies of the original spiral-bound, photocopied version online! If that’s too pricey, his other books include Sippin’ Safari and Potions of the Carribean. Today, he runs Latitude 29 in New Orleans. Shannon Mustipher Shannon Mustipher runs the bar at the Caribbean-themed Glady’s in Brooklyn, and you can make her tiki cocktails at home from her new book, Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails. Kalewa Correa Kalewa Correa is curator of Hawai’i and Pacific America at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Sarah Miller-Davenport and Gateway State Sarah Miller-Davenport is a historian at the University of Sheffield, and her first book is Gateway State: Hawai’i and the Cultural Transformation of American Empire. The post Tiki Time! appeared first on Gastropod.
What’s CRISPR Doing in our Food?
You’ve probably heard the hype: CRISPR will revolutionize biotech, cure disease, resurrect extinct species, and even create new-and-(not-so)-improved humans. But what is CRISPR—and what’s it doing in our food? The first generation of genetically modified crops, or GMOs, were labelled “Frankenfoods” by critics and are banned in the European Union. Can CRISPR succeed where fish-tomatoes failed? And what’s yoghurt got to do with it? Listen in this episode for the CRISPR story you haven’t heard—and for a taste of our CRISPRized future. When old-school genetic modification began in the 1980s, scientists typically took a gene that conferred desirable properties in one species—say, cold-tolerance in a winter flounder—and blasted it into the genome of another species—say, a tomato. The hope was that the alien gene would be incorporated, albeit at random, in the host plant’s DNA—and that the resulting hybrid would gain a useful new function. Frost-resistant fish-tomatoes, as it happens, were not particularly successful in field trials, but they also became a symbol for everything that critics—of which there were many—saw as wrong with genetically modified foods. Next-generation gene-editing, using CRISPR, promises to be far more precise, faster, and cheaper. As Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, explained it to Gastropod, if DNA is a book, CRISPR is like a pen. “You can go in and you can edit the letters in a word, or you can change different phrases, or you can edit whole paragraphs at very specific locations,” she said. “Whereas with first-generation transgenic techniques, it was essentially throwing a new paragraph into a book.” CRISPR proponents such as Yiping Qi, a genetics researcher at the University of Maryland, say this new tool promises to transform agriculture. Researchers are already using it to edit a much wider variety of foods—not just commodity crops such as soy and corn, but also more minor vegetable and fruits. “CRISPR has been put into many, many crops—nearly all the crop plants that you can transform,” said Qi, whose lab has already used the technology to dramatically raise yields in rice, but also tweak the color of carrots. And, whereas the majority of first-generation GMOs were simply designed to be herbicide resistant, Kuzma told us that CRISPR is being used to create a much wider variety of traits, “because you don’t need to invest as much money necessarily in the development of the crop.” None of these CRISPRized crops are on supermarket shelves just yet, but several are coming soon. To understand how CRISPR will transform our food, we begin our episode at Dupont’s yoghurt culture facility in Madison, Wisconsin. Senior scientist Dennis Romero tells us the story of CRISPR’s accidental discovery—and its undercover but ubiquitous presence in the dairy aisles today. Jennifer Kuzma and Yiping Qi help us understand the technology’s potential, both good and bad, as well as how it might be regulated and labeled. And Joyce Van Eck, a plant geneticist at the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York, tells us the story of how she is using CRISPR, combined with her understanding of tomato genetics, to fast-track the domestication of one of the Americas’ most delicious orphan crops. So: should we be worried about CRISPR’s unintended consequences for the environment and human health, or excited about what it means for the future of food? Will we all soon be eating CRISPRized dishes—or are we already, and we just don’t know it? Listen in now for the CRISPR story you haven’t heard! Episode Notes Dennis Romero, DuPont Dennis Romero is principal senior scientist and technical fellow at DuPont, where he leads research and development in the company’s dairy cultures business. Joyce Van Eck Joyce Van Eck is associate professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York, where she directs the BTI Center for Plant Biotechnology Research. You can find out more about her ground cherry improvement project online here. And you can read Cynthia’s article about ground cherries, written soon after she tried her first one back in 2007, here. Yiping Qi Yiping Qi is assistant professor in the plant sciences department at the University of Maryland. Earlier this year he published a paper titled “The emerging and uncultivated potential of CRISPR technology in plant science.” Jennifer Kuzma Jennifer Kuzma is a professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at North Carolina State University, where she also co-directs the Genetic Engineering and Society Center. Transcript For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors The post What’s CRISPR Doing in our Food? appeared first on Gastropod.
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Somerville, MA, USA
Episode Count
Podcast Count
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3 days, 14 hours