A Feast For Your Ears

GastropodPhoto courtesy of Gastropod.

Somerville-grown ‘Gastropod’ tackles culture, history, and biology through food

“What the hell is a Fluffernutter?!”

Any good Somervillian knows the answer. But to properly answer the question, you should really go back to the Egyptians’ use of the mallow plant, touch on the sugar trade, and include the invention of the egg beater—or at least, that’s what journalists Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley would tell you. 

And they do just that in an episode of their podcast, “Gastropod,” that’s devoted entirely to an investigation of fluff: the history, science, and groundbreaking technology that led to its genesis and popularity.

“I’m totally obsessed with food,” says Graber.

But listeners don’t have to be. Food is just an entrypoint to explorations of culture and community, the environment, physics, biology, history—you name it.

“We always joke that we’re a science and history show, masquerading as a food show,” says Graber.

Graber and Twilley let their imaginations and inquisitiveness roam in their storytelling. Why is good vegan cheese so hard to make? Why are there Chinese restaurants in nearly every town in America? Questions that many people might wonder about but then forget, they investigate.

“One of the things, I think, that both Nicky and I are best at is taking a totally new topic, doing crazy amounts of research, thinking it through, and coming up with a cohesive narrative that turns all that information into one story,” says Graber.

And while they appreciate talking with experts and authors, Graber and Twilley also invest in their own direct experiments and far-ranging expeditions to get a better story. They’re game for an adventure, whether it’s  visiting a synthetic flavor lab or making their own Kombucha or evaluating baked goods in Belgium. Instead of hearing someone talk about making olive oil, they’ll actually seek out the sound of olive oil being made by a small producer in Italy.

The hosts’ deep curiosity, irreverence, and chemistry have captivated a growing and financially supportive audience since the podcast started in Somerville in 2014.

While “Gastropod” has racked up prestigious industry awards and accolades over its 10 seasons and more than 75 episodes, the show doesn’t have the backing of an NPR station, a podcast network, or a production staff.

Instead, Graber, a Somerville local, and Twilley, who lives in Los Angeles, are both co-hosts and the show’s entire production staff, aside from one volunteer who works one hour a week.

“When we decided to do this, we kind of figured we were either going to do it right or not do it, and actually that’s partly why it has consistently morphed into being more and more work as the show has gone on,” says Graber. “Frankly, we just didn’t want to half-ass it,” she adds.

Graber and Twilley met at a food journalism fellowship in 2013 and found they had similar interests, work ethics, and, perhaps most importantly, senses of humor.

“We’re both dry and sarcastic and like to laugh at things,” says Graber, who adds that she likes “getting a rise out of people.” She enjoyed feeding her partner bitter melon, for instance.

“He totally freaked out, and that always makes for good tape,” she says.

Episodes are “tightly written,” as opposed to looser, unscripted shows, with plenty of quips littered throughout, says Graber. It’s a style that you either love or hate, she says.

The duo spends at least three hours on the phone together every day, writing scripts and notes into shared Google documents.

“We talk to each other as much as, or more than, our respective partners,” says Graber.

With 15 years of radio experience under her belt when they started the show, Graber helped Twilley, who was a radio novice, learn the ropes—from recording tips to writing in your own voice and for the ear.

They honed the Gastropod voice—“a mix of NPR and British-style humor” and “nerdy… with charm”—rather than trying to copy Ira Glass or Sarah Koenig as many do, says Graber.

“I think the intimacy of podcasts and the feeling of connection that listeners have with podcast hosts is a really crucial part of what can make or break a particular show,” she says.

Decades of journalism experience contribute to their success as well. Their goal is “telling a story in a way that will bring the audience along with you and be compelling, maybe funny, maybe elucidating,” says Graber.

“We don’t talk down to our listeners,” she adds.

For about a year and a half, Graber and Twilley worked on the podcast for free, treating it like a startup while they built their audience. They’re still not pulling in the salaries they’d like based on their levels of experience, but a mix of ads, grants, and listener support keeps the show afloat.

There’s a lot of bootstrapping involved. Graber says she records her narration from a roomy walk-in closet and does all the editing and post-production work using the affordable editing software Hindenburg.

Though they still can’t afford a third paid staffer and would like to work less “insane” hours, there are definite advantages to their independence, says Graber.

“Being independent means we don’t have to get anyone else’s approval,” she says.

The show sometimes touches on “hot” topics, taking on Gwyneth Paltrow’s vitamin line or the cultish devotion to La Croix seltzer, but doesn’t profess to be newsy. There’s freedom to explore and “we very rarely shoot something down,” says Graber.

“We don’t think we’ll ever run out of ideas, because food is life, right? It interacts with every aspect of life,” she says.

The show launched around the start of what many call the “golden age” of podcasting. The attachment to smartphones, the shift to listening on demand through apps, and the accessibility of at-home podcasting equipment and editing software helped drive the boom. Breakout hits like Serial have fueled the trend, too.

The public’s passion for podcasts isn’t going anywhere and “will only rise,” Graber predicts. The challenge is more about getting noticed.

“Discoverability” is the current buzzword in the podcast world. Upping their listenership is key to meeting budget goals and taking the podcast to the next level, according to Graber.

“We think that we have a huge, huge potential audience,” she says.

The Boston-area audience has certainly shown its enthusiasm. “Gastropod” starting doing live shows in Boston in 2016 as an additional source of revenue and later took the show on the road across the United States.

Fans found out about the first show via Twitter and the “Gastropod” newsletter, and in less than 30 minutes all 300 tickets were scooped up. The tickets sell out quickly every time, Graber says.

Though the live shows are a ton of work to write and memorize and perform, they introduce new people to “Gastropod”—and make money.

“It’s an additional source of income, which we need. But it’s also a really amazing way to connect with the fans. I mean, people drive for hours to get to the show,” says Graber.

“Gastropod” will put on three live shows in 2018—Graber and Twilley held a Boston show in February and will have shows in Florida and Wisconsin later this year. In addition to creating the biweekly podcasts, the duo has plenty of side gigs: Graber teaches radio classes, while Twilley writes for the New Yorker and is finishing two books.

The hosts do take breaks—and when they’re taking a break in the middle of an episode, it’s often to eat a little more of what they’re covering.

During the making of “Who Faked My Cheese?” “a lot of cheese was consumed,” Graber admits. “It can get a little dangerous.”

But gastronomic exploration is part of the plan, she says.

“The goal [of “Gastropod”] is to help people be curious and explore their world through new eyes, and hopefully help them try new things and laugh and taste and think,” Graber explains.

Jonathan Barlam contributed reporting.

This story appears in the Food, Glorious Food! issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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