If This American Life were born in New Orleans and obsessed with fried chicken, it’d be Gravy, The Southern Foodways Alliance’s new podcast. After the success of their magazine by the same name, which was recently the James Beard publication of the year, we can all celebrate the arrival of new content. It won’t take long to figure out that Gravy isn’t your average cooking podcast or blog. There are no fresh recipes for kimchee inspired collard greens or profiles on up-and-coming chefs here. Instead, each episode begins with Gravy’s carefully considered mission: to share “stories of the changing American South through the foods we eat.” Sounds simple, right? But they’re not talking about the history of mac and cheese or the evolution of ambrosia—this is storytelling that will leave you hungry for another episode in the same way that good Southerners should be familiar with. So if you’re tired of hearing the riveting legend of how Grandma perfected her lattice topped pies when you look up Southern culture, don’t worry—you’re going to be pleasantly surprised.
Gravy is a hard podcast to describe due to its constantly shifting angles—is its focus preservation or renovation? Food or politics? It seems like Gravy’s answer is always ‘both.” Some episodes consider agriculture and food production while others highlight the changing cultures and complicated stories around the foods that we eat. Gravy is all about forgotten perspectives and muddled narratives that you thought were clear. Its goals match the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Mission—to “document, study, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the changing American South… black and white, rich and poor —all who gather…may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.” Sounds good to me.
Discussions of the South are hard, but Gravy remains unapologetic about its pride for their heritage while handling its complex histories fairly. Take, for instance, “The Jemima Code (Gravy Ep. 7),” (which they covered long before NPR) where Toni Tipton Martin, a food writer in Cleveland, explores why there are so few cookbooks by black people or respected black owned restaurants, or “The Fight for Water and Oysters (Gravy Ep. 3),” which tells the story of the dying oyster industry through the lens of Apalachicola Bay’s fight with the city of Atlanta over water control. You leave episodes like these feeling educated about experiences you were familiar with but never truly explored. And then there’s the story of the heritage of the derby pie—The Pie Formerly Known as Derby (Gravy Ep. 8)—which features a cast of older southerners having the most interesting conversation about copyright you’ll ever hear. Episodes like these take trivial Southern stories and turn them to the right angle so that the importance of the modern Southern story is clear.
It’s not a perfect podcast, of course. Guest-produced episodes are rarely as seamlessly curated as ones created by Tina Antolini, the primary host, whose rich voice and genuine curiosity is just the right balance of familiar and professional. While “Live at Fred’s Lounge" (Gravy Ep. 4) gives a similar vibe under Eve Troeh’s confident control, “Our Bourbon Street or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hand Grenade” (Gravy Ep. 10) is as much of a drag as the wordy title, and deserves a skip—Rien Fertel is a bore with a patronizing PBS-reject of a voice that sucks the life from the interesting history of Bourbon Street. His failures highlight what a gift the usual host and producer Tina Antolini is. Her voice is direct, comfortable, and capable of guiding you through perspectives you would never expected—a French restaurant reviewer’s hip-hop inspired guide through ‘very bad and scary neighborhoods (aka where my cousins live)’ of Atlanta, the Lumbee tribe’s stories of their makeshift Thanksgiving feast, a Chapel Hill chef’s impact on the music scene—without ever becoming condescending.
With episodes titled “Hip Hop to Bimbap,” “Brothers, Soldiers, Farmers,” and “The Pie Formerly Known as Derby,” every other week Gravy explores all the corners of Southern cooking that it can find—the lore and the logistics, the history and the future. Running under thirty minutes every time, it’s a good podcast to start up during a short ride across town or maybe while preparing the meal for the day. I’m pleasantly and consistently shocked by how many voices Gravy can have—it balances translations of Guatemalan migrant workers of the Kentucky Derby’s tamale recipes and Cajun dancers explaining the importance of drinking at 9 a.m. on a Saturday without missing a single beat. Its iTunes description says that Gravy “dishes the South you don’t yet know and have longed to taste.” And trust me, it’ll be good to the very last bite.