Sophia Rink on the food podcast phenomenon
Podcasting is a ubiquitous form of media when it comes to talking about hobbies and interests. In some cases, podcast presenters can provide a narrative or background for their listeners on a variety of topics and activities, while for others the creation of — or the act of listening to — podcasts is the hobby in and of itself. They’re inexpensive or free, easy to access via an internet connection, can often be downloaded for offline enjoyment, and are typically presented in vernacular language, all of which boosts their appeal for a varied audience.
For many, podcasts are a convenient means of passing the time during a commute or between classes while remaining intellectually engaged and learning something new, or at the very least being entertained by a platform which is not ‘social media’ as such. For enthusiasts looking to expand their knowledge on new or favourite topics, podcasts are the bite-sized versions of the audiobook trend, allowing listeners to learn on the go without having to commit multiple hours to an extensive piece of work. They’re also a form of simulated interpersonal interaction without actually requiring the listener to engage verbally with a second person; listening to a podcast feels like listening to a friend or sitting in on a friendly conversation.
For all their merits, by nature podcasts lack a diverse sensory component. For many topics this isn’t an issue – for example, a roundtable about politics, dating disaster stories, gardening, or climate change doesn’t necessarily require a visual aid, but for subjects related to artistic pursuits it can be difficult to work around the question of how to effectively discuss a physical or visual action. In these situations, the podcast presenter is faced with a challenge of how to create audio content which productively talks around the missing visual elements while still offering a comprehensive discussion on the central topic. Gastronomy in podcast culture is a piece of this seemingly incongruous middle ground.
Food is an incredibly material object: in most media and in the real world, food is presented through a combination of visual, olfactory, gustatory, and physical elements. When speaking of food, the mind conjures clear mental images and the body generates physical responses such as hunger or salivation. Food – specifically when describing certain foods or food groups – is not an abstract concept, so it is strange to think about food as being an auditory experience before any other sense. There is a reason why cookbooks, blogs, and cooking channels on YouTube receive so much attention compared to audio-only programmes on the same themes: they give the audience a sensory experience which engages a more direct confrontation with food through visual aids. It’s a challenge to podcasters to talk around this lack of physicality.
This disparity has been highlighted in recent film and television. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s resident foodie Charles Boyle faced a similar problem with his weekly Brooklyn pizza email-blast; while he did have the option of including photos unlike a podcast, his rating system partially depended on “mouth feel,” a concept which was difficult to explain to Jake Peralta without the physical act of eating taking place. Remy from Pixar’s Ratatouille achieved very little success with his oblivious brother Emile on the gastronomic front until he was given the opportunity to introduce Emile to the concept of flavour profiles through demonstration. Both characters’ discussions of food are essentially nonconcrete and therefore inaccessible to visual or physical learners until their theories are transformed into sensory experiences.
Given the noted divide between auditory presentation and the ways in which we’ve become accustomed to talking about and consuming food and culinary-related materials, how can gastronomic podcasters succeed with the odds apparently stacked against them? Quite competently, it turns out. By removing food from the script which we’re used to – the script of the cookbook or demonstration video, or even the picture-laden blog – podcasters are able to bring gastronomy into the auditory arena by instead situating food as a focal point in a larger interpersonal conversations about social and global issues. Gastronomic podcasts are so popular that they’ve even inspired the creation of specific food-related categories at multiple podcast award ceremonies. Below is a beginner’s list of five well-known podcasts which happily marry the arts and acts of eating, listening, and speaking:
The Kitchen is on Fire: Available on Apple Podcasts, The Kitchen is on Fire feels a bit more like witnessing a madcap conversation between your friends or a single-take sitcom than a sit-down podcast. Hosted by James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy, neither of whom are professional chefs, it’s a “weekly offering of food-related nonsense” which is somewhat unfocused but can be quite a fun alternative to a stuffier gastro-guide. To date the podcast has over 215 episodes and has been running since 2017; it’s more entertainment-based than it is truly educational, but its ‘laddish’ hosts might help ease the transition into programmes about modern gastronomic practices without being too technical. However, this permits listeners to remove themselves from the idea of talking about food as a precursor to eating and allows them to instead feel as though they’re sitting in on the kinds of conversations one might hold around the coffee table over food but not necessarily about the food.
Spilled Milk: Launched in 2014 and up to 400+ episodes in 2020, Spilled Milk is “the show where we cook something delicious, eat it all, and you can’t have any!” The majority of episodes revolve around hosts Molly Wizenberg and Matthew Amster-Burton waxing poetic on a single dish or item to the extent that they can within their own personal experiences, and thus the episode lengths can range wildly from around 25 minutes up to nearly an hour long. Molly and Matthew are giggly and relaxed but Spilled Milk still comes off as a more professional production than The Kitchen is on Fire; guest appearances aren’t as common as with other podcasts (in some cases, hence the shorter timestamps) but the hosts are pretty quick-fire with each other and maintain a comfortable and engaging rapport while they indulge the urge to go down food-related rabbit holes.
The Racist Sandwich Podcast: Unlike the previous two options, the hosts of Racist Sandwich have created a show geared towards food as a sociopolitical tool. Situated at the intersection of race, class, gender, and what these things have to do with food and consumption, the podcast has changed hands from co-founders Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed to current hosts Stephanie Kuo and Juan Diego Ramirez since its start in 2016. Virtually every episode features a guest host/interviewee who speaks to the place of food within the experience of minority communities, which is something of an undervalued topic. Hosted by and in conversation with people of colour, Racist Sandwich is a valuable source of authentic expression told through the medium of food. It’s a fascinating, more serious-minded choice for those who are curious about how we can contextualize food in the cultural and political spheres.
Out to Lunch with Jay Rayner: Hosted by a restaurant critic, Out to Lunch is filled with well-known names without the world of culinary careers. The podcast’s premise is simple despite its multi-member production team: the series revolves around Jay Rayner of the Observer and a celebrity guest stepping out to eat, drink, discuss food, and be merry. Given his career path Rayner is obviously well-versed in restaurants and culinary achievements but he’s surprisingly approachable in the series, which only entered its second season in late 2019. “I find interviewees really open up over a meal,” he explains, and his theory gives listeners an opportunity to think about the spaces in which we interact with strangers and how the introduction of food can vastly change those interactions. Season 1 episode 3 with Stanley Tucci is a soothing listen for a late-night podcast foray. James Acaster and Ed Gamble’s podcast Off Menu is a runner-up for productions linked to big names outside of the traditional gastronomic circles.
Gastropod: One of the better-known food-oriented podcasts, Gastropod contains a plethora of clickbait-y episode titles but is actually a series centred around the history and science behind food and eating habits. Over five years old at this point, Gastropod is now in its 14th season and airs a new episode every two weeks. Hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber comb through the historic and scientific backgrounds of gastronomy and consumption in order to present their audience with a comprehensive but easily digested 40-50 minute breakdown of food-related myths, questions, and components. Twilley and Graber are the Mythbusters of the food-cast world, and Gastropod features a roster of interesting and educated contributors whose experience and authority help boost the podcast into the educational sphere. The season 12 episode “Eating to Win: Gatorade, Muscle Milk, and…Chicken Nuggets?” is a particularly fun talking point for those with competitive athlete friends.
Podcasts are a valuable resource for anyone who values an intellectual lifestyle while being short on time. Within food-related productions alone there are podcasts which cater to multiple levels of engagement with society and politics and others which are designed as a means of entertainment and enjoyment. Regardless of host and aim, podcasts about food are a worthwhile tool for those interested in diving deeper into culinary culture. By removing the physical, visual, olfactory, and gustatory components of food, gastronomic podcasts create a thinking and talking space which can help us redefine and resituate the ways in which we interact with food in the wider world.