Gravy

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Gravy is a biweekly podcast that tells stories of the changing American South… through the foods we eat.

Episodes

The Mala Project: Chinese Flavors, Tennessee Family  

What happens when a white family in the American South adopts an 11-year-old Chinese girl who’s never eaten a meal other than Chinese in her entire life and has no intention of starting now? Fear and frustration on all sides give way to a solution in this fiery story of creating a family from strangers by cooking Sichuan food. Fongchong steers clear of traditional American food both inside and outside her new home, but eventually finds her place in the New Nashville by befriending other immigrants and refugees and their food, while remaining fiercely loyal to her own cuisine. 

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Bluegrass Tacos  

In the northwestern part of Lexington, Kentucky, just inside the city’s loop road, there is a little bit of Mexico. In all directions, there are signs in Spanish – a bakery, a restaurant, a grocery store, a daycare, a church. And just down the road more of the same, including a bilingual public library. But at the crux of any diaspora is food – the familiar flavor of the old home mixing with a new one – tacos, in this case. And Lexington, Kentucky is expressing just that.

 

At Tortilleria and Taqueria Ramirez, husband and wife team Alberto and Laura make their very Mexican tortillas from local Kentucky corn, farmed just down the road in Hardin County. They’re holding up an ancient tradition from Mexico with Kentucky’s help. In a small shop shop in Lexington, they pump out thousands of tortillas a week with an old tortilla-making machine they hauled all the way from Mexico nearly 20 years ago. They sell them one bag at a time – 28 tortillas per bag will cost you $1.90.

 

Dr. Steve Alvarez taught a class at the University of Kentucky last spring called Taco Literacy and sent his students out into the Mexican community to learn about politics and history and the cultural literacy of this food and these people – that Mexican foodways are southern foodways, too.

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Separation of Church and Coffee  

How many of us would be lost without our regular coffeeshop? In the age of wifi and telecommuting, cafes have become more than purveyors of lattes and cappuccinos. They’re the office, the community hub, and the conference room as much as the provider of our caffeine fix. And now—are they also a surrogate for the church?

In cities and towns across the South, an increasing number of the folks offering up latte art and high-end pourovers are devout Christians. Is it an unlikely and subtle tool for proselytizing? Or a more nuanced expression of 21st Century Christianity, intertwined with social events and professional endeavors. We sent writer T Cooper to explore the coffee scene in the famously bible-minded city of Knoxville, Tennessee, to find out.

 

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Going Whole Hog in Israel  

When you think about Israeli cuisine there are a few things that may come to mind; hummus or shawarma, shakshuka and baba ganoush. What probably doesn’t come to mind is pork. After all, Israel is the self-proclaimed home for Jews in the Middle East. A large portion of the population follows kosher law, which outlaws pork, shellfish, and mixtures of meat and milk.

 

On this episode of Gravy we go global to explore the spread of a prolific Southern food to an unlikely place: pork barbecue in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. We’ll take a look at the state of pork back home as well, learning about the relationship between Jews and pork in the American South, and how the nature of trayf barbecue is changing below the Mason Dixon line, as well as abroad.

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How A Texas Vine Saved European Wine  
Thanks to Texan viticulturist Thomas Volney Munson, you should probably think of Texas when you think of that French wine you're drinking. During an agricultural crisis in France in the late 1800's, his tough grafted Texan vines saved the industry from total collapse. And many of the vines in Europe are still growing strong from that rootstock today. This week's episode tells this story of T.V. Munson and how his obsession with grape vines saved old world wine.

 

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Farmer's Blues  

Imagine you’re a young person wanting to be a farmer. If you don’t inherit land from your family, the challenges of finding and affording farmland might make your dream a non-starter. The average farmer in the United States is in her late 50s, and much of this country’s farmland is at risk of development or buy-out for intensive monoculture.

In this episode of Gravy, Caroline Leland explores these challenges along with some of the keen individuals and organizations working to overcome them.

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Halal Memphis  

Chicken shawarma might not be the first food that comes to mind when you think of Memphis. This episode of Gravy takes us inside Ali Baba Mediterranean Grill to meet Mahmoud al-Hazaz, who made his home in the U.S. South after being forced to leave his native Syria.

Syria shares borders with Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon. Those countries also share a history and—equally important for us—they share a larder. By peeling back the layers on Mahmoud’s story, producer Rose Reid get a picture of the miles traveled and hardships endured by other Middle Eastern immigrants to Memphis.

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Booze Legends  

Striking up a conversation with a stranger in a bar is accepted, even expected. And storytelling is a big part of that engagement.

But when it comes to origin stories behind cocktails, Wayne Curtis has noticed a shift in focus over the last ten years. Hand in hand with the recent cocktail revival and the increased professionalization of bartending, an obsession with fact over fancy has emerged. “I started hearing a phrase in bars that I don’t think had ever been uttered before inside a bar: ‘What’s your source on that?’”

In this episode of Gravy, Wayne Curtis reflects on what’s lost and gained as cocktail and spirits writers—as well as curious consumers—seek out well-supported history over well-spun stories behind the bar.

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Corned Beef Sandwiches in the Delta  

It’s the season for communal meals, like Easter dinners and Passover Seders. In the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville, members of the Hebrew Union Congregation synagogue have been hosting a community meal on the past 130 years. It brings together hundreds of Jews and gentiles from all over the Delta to share a corned beef on rye. 

In the past twenty years, Greenville’s once thriving Jewish population has dwindled to just a few dozen, and there wasn’t enough synagogue members to make the 1,500 sandwiches for the luncheon. So the Jews of Greenville got a little help from their friends - Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and Episcopalians.

Each year the number of Jews in Greenville gets smaller. Some older residents have died. The children have moved to places like Atlanta, Jackson, and Memphis. Even Esther Solomon - the matriarch of Greenville’s Jewish community whose great-great grandmother started the tradition in the 1880s - is leaving after this year’s luncheon to be with her adult children in Atlanta. Solomon worries that even with the help of Christian volunteers, the days of the luncheon - and the Jewish community in Greenville - are numbered, and the 130-year old tradition of Jews in Greenville and the deli lunch will disappear.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Chili Powder Cheat: A Tex-Mex Story  

 

Texas: the land of BBQ, breakfast tacos…and of course Tex-Mex. But what if we told you Tex-Mex wasn’t created by a Texan or Mexican, but a German immigrant? On this episode of Gravy, we tell you the story of William Gebhardt, the inventor of chili powder.

Gebhardt loved the chili con carne of the streetfood sold in the plazas of San Antonio. He adapted it back at his café, but quickly ran into a problem: chili peppers proved expensive and difficult to import. So he devised a solution. Gebhardt dried the peppers in an oven and used a hand-cranked coffee mill to grind them into a dust. He then mixed together the ground peppers with cumin seeds, oregano and some black pepper until he reached the right flavor. The end result? Gebhardt’s Eagle Chili Powder.

As it spread, chili powder came to define the taste of Tex-Mex. Chili, enchiladas, fajitas, nachos are all dishes built on the spice. And today, Tex-Mex dominates; traditional cuisines of the region are less popular.

Gebhardt’s history is a typical inventor tale. But he essentially took what poor Mexican-American streetfood vendors made, changed it and sold it for wider consumption. And boy, did Gebhardt market the heck out of it. Gebhardt’s slogan was “that real Mexican tang.”

Ryan Katz looks into the issue of chili powder’s authenticity.

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Southern Food Gets Christopher Columbus-ed  

So much of our national culture—food, music, dance—has come from the South. Where would American dance be without Jane Brown? Where would American music be without Robert Johnson, the Delta blues player? Where would American modern food be now if you didn't have grits and fried chicken and biscuits on every menu around the country, from fine dining restaurants to fast food establishments?

But what happens if these cultural expressions become so generic as to no longer be associated with anywhere in particular?

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Korean BBQ in Coolsville: A Memphis Report  

What happens when Korean barbecue goes from suburban strip malls to restaurant rows in cities like Atlanta, New Orleans, and Memphis? On the latest Gravy, new host (and old SFA director) John T Edge reports from DWJ Korean BBQ in Memphis, Tennessee, where kalbi (grilled beef short ribs) is the money dish.

Looking back to his grad school days, when he wrote a paper about the Italian-inspired Memphis dishes barbecue pizza and barbecue spaghetti, Edge argues that this traditional-seeming barbecue town has long been a hotbed of multicultural experimentation and innovation.

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Reclaiming Native Ground  

For centuries, the bayous and lowlands of coastal Louisiana have fed the Point-au-Chien Indian Tribe. From cattle to crabs, oranges to okra, the fertile landscape provided almost everything they needed to eat. But now, the land is disappearing,  and the Point-au-Chien are joining together with other tribes to figure out what to do next. In this episode of Gravy, Barry Yeoman reports on the rich food traditions of tribes in South Louisiana, the threat to them posed by coastal land loss, and intertribal efforts towards solutions.

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Ironies and Onion Rings: The Layered Story of the Vidalia Onion  

If you know and love the Vidalia onion—an onion sweet enough, its fans say, to eat like an apple—you likely also know it as a product of Georgia, as proudly claimed as the peach. But the story of the Vidalia’s popularity is far more complex than just one of a local onion made good. In this episode of Gravy: an onion’s success story, born of clever marketing, government wrangling, technological innovation and global trade.

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Hungry in the Mississippi Delta  

While civil rights activists worked in Mississippi in 1964, they encountered a poverty they could never have imagined. People were hungry, starving to death from malnutrition, particularly in the Mississippi Delta.

Doctors and medical professionals, including Dr. Jack Geiger, joined together to form the Medical Committee for Human Rights. Geiger founded a community health center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi where he and his medical team wrote prescriptions for food, started a farm cooperative, taught nutrition classes, and ultimately reduced hunger in the region.

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ENCORE: The Emotional Life of Eating  

Many of the stories we hear and tell about food are positive—food’s power to nourish, to comfort, to bring people together. But it also has the potential to cause shame, fear, disgust and a whole host of other uncomfortable emotions. Today on Gravy: personal stories around food that aren’t so sweet.

These are the kinds of stories Francis Lam wanted to explore for a presentation he gave at the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual Symposium. Francis is an editor at large at Clarkson Potter Publishers and a New York Times Magazine columnist. He’s also someone who’s spent a lot of time eating in the South and writing about it. (You can check out some of his SFA oral histories about Biloxi, Mississippi’s shrimping industry here.) Francis was curious about the food stories that often go untold because they deal with topics we’d prefer not to talk about.

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A Tale of Two Krauts  

Sarah Reynolds takes us into the kitchens of Louise Frazier and Sandor Katz to learn how fermenting vegetables has helped them both carry on through illness and aging. Frazier learned to ferment from her mother in the 1920s, while Katz studied the the practice after moving to rural Tennessee from New York City.

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The Southern Story of Coca Cola (Gravy Ep. 51)  

You might think of Coca Cola as an iconic American brand… and you’d be right. But: it was born in the South. How did Coke’s Atlanta birthplace shape what the soft drink became? And how has Coke shaped the South? It’s a story that includes many surprising twists turns, from Civil War wounds to temperance movements, racist fears to philanthropy, small town soda jerks to Peruvian coca farmers.

 

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Beyond the Golden Leaf (Gravy Ep. 50)  

For generations, farmers in western North Carolina have relied on tobacco as a core crop, their lifeblood. It was more than just income, though: tobacco supplied these families with a cultural backbone, a way of ordering their year—and their meals. So: what’s happening to that culture as the tobacco industry has changed? In this episode of Gravy, radio producer Jen Nathan Orris tells the story of two farmers following different paths, and how food is part of the solution for each.

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Maize Migrations (Gravy Ep. 49)  

Corn is a ubiquitous part of Southern food—from bread to whiskey. But how did it get to be that way? In this episode of Gravy, we go on a hunt for the origins of corn, and how it came to be so fully embedded in the South. Stephen Satterfield is a fifth generation Atlantan who can trace his ancestors back to the plantations on which they were enslaved. His family has been eating corn for more than a century. In this story, Stephen takes us along in his quest for corn’s prehistory. On the way, he stumbles upon some delicious ideas about corn’s future too.

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