Gravy

Gravy

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

Episodes

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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Transplanted Traditions: From Southeast Asia to North Carolina (Gravy Ep. 48)  

In Chapel Hill, there’s a farm that’s much more than just a spot to grow food: it’s a gathering place for refugees, including a group of Karen teenagers from Burma. In this episode of Gravy, those teens report on the farm, their lives, and the ups and downs of trying to be both Karen and American.

Radio producer Alix Blair spent a week teaching Ree Ree Wei, Hla Win Tway, Talar Hso, Aw Kaw Joon, Eh Paw (who goes by Tatha), Kawla Htee, and Hickrihay Htee about the basics of radio recording. She sent them off to interview one another, and tape themselves at home and around the farm. From pop songs on the radio to intimate moments in the kitchen with their families, they provide us, in this episode, with a little glimpse into their world.

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What Is White Trash Cooking? (Gravy ep. 47)  

In 1986, Ernest Matthew Mickler of Palm Valley, Florida, published White Trash Cooking. It was a loving ode to his people—rural, white, working-class and poor Southerners—and their recipes: tuna casserole, baked possum, white-bread tomato sandwiches.

Mickler died of AIDS in 1988 at age 48, but White Trash Cooking continues to sell. In this episode, Sarah Reynolds explores its lasting influence. 

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Repast (Gravy Ep. 46)  

One spring day in 1965, a waiter in Greenwood, Mississippi gave an interview for an NBC television documentary. What he said has made him an unlikely Civil Rights hero… and the subject of an opera oratorio. In this episode of Gravy, the story of that waiter, Booker Wright, put to the music written about him.

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Dancing the Shrimp Dry: How Chinese Immigrants Drove Louisiana Seafood (Gravy Ep. 45)  

Imagine this: deep in the Louisiana wetlands, a wooden platform the size of three football fields, covered in shrimp, drying in the sun… which are being danced on by Chinese immigrants, to rid them of their brittle shrimp shells. Now multiply that vision by a hundred, and you have some idea of the vast dried shrimp industry that existed in South Louisiana in the late 19th century. In the new episode of Gravy, Laine Kaplan Levenson, host of Tripod, brings us a story of Chinese immigration, family businesses, and how dried shrimp globalized Louisiana’s seafood industry.

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The Leftovers In A Coal Miner's Lunchbox (Gravy Ep. 44)  

For decades, Ronnie Johnson woke up in the late afternoon, and fixed a lunch to bring with him 2,000 feet underground, as he worked all night in a coal mine. In this episode of Gravy, his son, Caleb, tells the story of the evolution of his father’s lunchtime ritual, as the mining industry in Alabama has changed.

Caleb tells a personal narrative of his dad’s lunches and the logistics of eating a meal so far underground, but it’s also one of a family reckoning with a changing economy, and the story of coal’s impact on Alabama.

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An Apple Quest (Gravy Ep. 43)  

You’ve heard of explorers discovering new lands, but new… fruits? Fruit exploring has a long and abundant history, including in the American South, a region once rich in apple orchards. In this episode of Gravy, a couple of young fruit explorers scour the South on a hunt for the perfect cider apple. Reporter Mary Helen Montgomery takes us on their search, and along the way delves into the little-known story of apple-growing and cider-making in this region.

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Schnitzel and the Saturn V (Gravy Ep. 42)  

How did Huntsville, Alabama become home to a whole host of German restaurants? It has more to do with rocket science, than with Southerners’ love of spaetzle. In this episode of Gravy: a story of space exploration, World War II, nationalism—and the food that emigrated to Alabama along with a rocket scientist named Werner von Braun. Reporter Dana Bialek explains how his arrival in the South not only led America into the space race; it led Huntsville into an ongoing fondness for schnitzel.

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