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Appetizing Audio

Cynthia Graber (’00) records Gastropod, an award-winning podcast on the science and history of food, from inside her walk-in closet in Somerville, Mass. Photo by Scott Nobles

How the intriguing and the offbeat blend to make an award-winning podcast on the science and history of food

By Andrew Thurston

As they bobbed around in a snorkeling boat off the coast of Belize, science journalist Cynthia Graber’s guide pulled meat from freshly caught conches.

One part was long, thin, gelatinous and edible raw. The guide encouraged Graber, her partner and a fellow diver to tuck in.

Graber missed the part where he mentioned it was nature’s Viagra. She didn’t figure out until too late what part of the mollusk she was eating.

“The good part,” the guide said. Conch penis.

Cynthia Graber (’00), right, and Nicola Twilley sampled gruits, beers made with an herb blend instead of hops, at Earth Eagle Brewery in Portsmouth, N.H., for “Everything Old Is Brew Again,” an episode of their podcast, Gastropod.

Cynthia Graber (’00), right, and cohost Nicola Twilley sampled gruits, beers made with an herb blend instead of hops, at Earth Eagle Brewery in Portsmouth, N.H., for “Everything Old Is Brew Again,” an episode of their podcast, Gastropod. Photo by Kathi Bahr

She wasn’t on assignment, but the story became perfect fodder for Graber’s popular podcast dedicated to the science and history of all things culinary, Gastropod. Graber (’00) and her cohost, journalist Nicola Twilley, aired the show’s first episode—on the surprisingly fascinating world of cutlery—in September 2014. Since then, Gastropod has earned a growing fan base, been lauded in Wired and won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, which recognizes achievements in electronic journalism. At the time of writing, it ranked ninth on iTunes’ list of top food podcasts. During the five seasons to date, episodes have covered topics such as what makes us like some foods, but not others; the science behind the perfect cocktail; and the history of food crime.

The tale of the conch popper inspired “The Food of Love,” episode two of Gastropod’s fourth season.

“I can’t say we had any dramatic activity when we got to shore,” Graber’s partner, Tim, reported during the episode’s opening segment.

“Yes, no immediate clothes ripping off, as it were,” added Graber.

In “The Food of Love,” the hosts take listeners on a tour through aphrodisiacs of yesteryear and examine whether there’s any scientific way to measure the potency of snacks claimed to add a little va-va-voom in the sack. Like every Gastropod show, it’s stocked with a mix of quirky and highbrow facts. A food historian (handily, also a former adult shop manager) points out that most aphrodisiacs scoffed by ancient and modern people are either animal genitalia or vaguely resemble human private parts—oysters apparently landing in the latter group. Two gynecologists discuss the results of a study of natural aphrodisiacs (ginseng seemed to have some positive effect). And the hosts and their partners gamely try Roman author Pliny the Elder’s romantic recipe of crushed garlic and coriander seeds in white wine. It doesn’t spark any bedroom action: Graber and her partner decide it would be a better marinade for chicken.

Graber’s audio career started while she was studying science journalism at COM. She landed an internship—which became a full-time position—at Public Radio International’s Living on Earth. Since then, she’s reported for numerous public radio outlets, while also regularly turning out articles for print stalwarts such as Scientific American, the Boston Globe and the New Yorker. She and Twilley met during their 2013 stints at the University of California Berkeley’s Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship.

“When we launched the show, we decided we were going to look at it as a start-up,” says Graber. “We worked for almost a year and a half for zero pay with it being almost a full-time job for both of us.”

Today, with advertisers on board and regular fundraising drives, Gastropod is inching closer to paying the two what they consider a full-time wage. The pair do everything themselves, from research and interviews in the field to editing and promotion. Both record from inside their closets—Twilley in New York City, Graber in Somerville, Massachusetts. Until this year, Graber recorded under her bedcovers.

“You can’t just be under a sheet because that doesn’t make it soundproof enough—it was my sheet and my duvet cover,” she says. A recent home move meant an upgrade. “It’s very common for audio journalists to tape in their closets against their clothes and use the clothes as a sound barrier. My old closet didn’t work for that, but my new apartment has a much more spacious closet.”

Listeners would never guess that Gastropod is so homespun—or that its hosts are 200 miles apart. “We know each other fairly well and we know how to play off each other, but when I edit it, I edit it tightly so that we come a little closer to talking over each other, the way we would in person,” says Graber, who adds that they go through hours of scripting, a read through, and a bunch of editing. “It’s scripted to fit our natural voices, but this is not an ad-lib show: We couldn’t cover science and history, create a story arc and have it be tight, and have it be ad-libbed.”

“I knew if we wanted to create a show that people wanted to come back to, episode after episode, it wasn’t enough to have an interesting show: They had to actually want to be spending time with us, Nicky and Cynthia.”—Cynthia Graber (’00)

With every show clocking in at roughly 40 minutes—about right for a city commute or cooking a vegetable soup—it can’t just be a recitation of facts.

“Audio is an incredibly intimate medium,” says Graber. Presenters aren’t shouting from an auditorium, but chatting from across the kitchen counter. “I knew if we wanted to create a show that people wanted to come back to, episode after episode, it wasn’t enough to have an interesting show: They had to actually want to be spending time with us, Nicky and Cynthia.”

That doesn’t mean a show packed with tales of their daily adventures, but a conversational one peppered with stories like the conch tasting: “bits of  humor from our own lives that are related to the stories so that people feel like they know something about us.”

While many traits of good science journalism—everyday language, handy analogies—apply to any medium, Graber says writing for audio does require some changes in style. She uses “you” much more often to talk to listeners and limits herself to one killer statistic per section, rather than the bevy of numbers a print reader might appreciate. In a print piece, “if you get a little confused, if your mind drifts, you can stop and say, ‘I missed something’ and go back and reread it. If that happens in audio, and if Nicky and I explain something in a way that makes us lose the audience, they’re not going to rewind it and listen to it again, or they rarely will, so you just have to be even clearer, even more straightforward and even tighter.”

Fantastic Food Facts

CLEVER CUTLERY The sensoaesthetic study of cutlery has found that the material a spoon is made from can have a big impact on the taste of food. Reactive metals like copper interact with the acids in a spicy tomato dish to make it taste metallic and bitter, but if you use copper cutlery to eat cream, those same reactive properties will enhance the sweetness. For mango sorbet, use gold—it’s less reactive and allows the mango to shine through unadulterated.

DELINQUENT LEMONS Can we blame lemons for the mafia? According to author Helen Attlee, lemons were a hot commodity in 1860s Italy, and growing them required a big up-front investment. As a result, mafia-like operations began supplying necessities like water and transportation—on enigmatic contracts. Turn down those services later, whatever the cost, and the intimidation and violence would begin.

Source: Gastropod

One of the perks of running their own audio series is that Graber and Twilley get to explore just about any story they choose. Some ideas come from listeners—such as an episode on caffeine—and others from experts in the field, but most just come from the hosts following their interests and hoping listeners enjoy the ride.

“Part of it is about finding the stories that you want to do that you can’t always sell,” she says. “That’s really fun because as probably all freelance journalists know, it can be challenging to sell all the stories you want to write.”

In May 2016, Gastropod hosted its first live show, at Boston’s Museum of Science. Tickets sold out within hours, confirming that good podcasts can be big draws in today’s market.

“Podcasts are taken very seriously as a really popular and influential media,” says Graber. She gives the example of Marc Maron (CAS’86) hosting President Barack Obama on his WTF podcast.

Much of that popularity is due to a show that debuted in the same year as Graber’s: Serial. The tale of a murder investigation was podcasting’s first phenomenal hit: It was downloaded 80 million times as of February 2016, according to a Washington Post report. The podcasting format, which first came to public attention in the mid-2000s, was revitalized. In April 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that the percentage of Americans listening to podcasts had doubled since 2008 and that one-third of Americans over age 12 had listened to one.

The growth of podcasting also owes something to improvements in technology that make it easier to create and listen to podcasts. But Graber, who has taught podcasting at MIT, says that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make a good show. “Some people say anyone can podcast: You can use your iPhone as a recorder, you can throw up anything you do on SoundCloud. My response is, well, that’s great if you want only your parents to listen to it.” Learning how to write, edit and promote something well is not a simple task, she says.

During the episode “The Maple Boom,” Graber makes a bourbon cocktail, mixing whiskey with maple syrup, maple water and lime juice. “What could be bad?” she jokingly offers in a short review of the cocktail. “It’s bourbon and maple.”

Much like learning to eat cilantro. The herb—loved by many, but loathed by Graber—got its own Gastropod episode in season three. The hosts talk to a botanist about cilantro’s history and to a scientist about a possible genetic basis for liking or hating the leafy herb. A food scientist also tests a desensitization technique on Graber to see if he can help her learn to enjoy it.

Haltingly, grudgingly, failingly, she works through small doses of a pesto made with cilantro. “I’d love to be able to travel around South America and not try to pick out green leaves and stems all the time,” she tells listeners as the experiment founders. “I just have a hard time imagining that something that inspires such intense dislike for me would ever change.”

In typical Gastropod fashion, it provokes some gentle ribbing among the cohosts—and then a discussion of the science behind different experiences of smell. “There’s so much variability in the human genome,” suggests guest scientist Charles J. Wysocki, “that no two individuals are experiencing the same olfactory world.” In other words, it’s okay for Graber to keep picking out those green leaves.

Cilantro aside, perhaps, Graber says every episode reinforces her passion for food and eating. “I feel like each topic we cover, I both eat more of whatever that thing is and think about it more.” Since reporting on maple syrup, for instance, she feels “a deeper appreciation for what it is. I’ve started cooking with it more.” During the episode “The Maple Boom,” Graber makes a bourbon cocktail, mixing whiskey with maple syrup, maple water and lime juice. “What could be bad?” she jokingly offers in a short review of the cocktail. “It’s bourbon and maple.”

“I think that’s really what happens with Gastropod; whenever we report on something, I just want to eat that thing all the time,” she says. “Except maybe the episode where Tim and I recount eating grasshoppers in Oaxaca.”

And maybe that whole incident with the conch penis.


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