Rank #1: Biscuit Blues
Delta blues found its voice and audience on the airwaves of KFFA’s King Biscuit Time, a daily broadcast out of Helena, Arkansas. Bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood Jr., who would go on to become legends, interspersed their own songs with advertising jingles. King Biscuit Time, which launched in 1941, gave unprecedented exposure to African American musicians while selling everyday grocery staples like flour and cornmeal. And it's still on the air. Reporter-producer Betsy Shepherd travels to Helena to tell the story for Gravy.
Rank #2: 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.
Rank #3: Comfort Food
This week, we bring you Gravy's first foray into fiction. It's a story of macaroni and cheese and maternal love, set in the fictional Canard County, Kentucky.
Robert Gipe is the author of the novels Trampoline and Weedeater. He teaches and coordinates the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community College.
This is the last episode of our summer season. After a short hiatus, Gravy will return with new episodes in the fall.
Rank #4: The Mason Jar Pickle (Gravy Ep. 24)
They’re everywhere: in your fancy cocktail bar and your down home country restaurant. In the hands of farmer’s market shoppers and 7-Eleven Slurpee slurpers. How did mason jars get to be so ubiquitous? How did they come to be embraced by the DIY canner and the hipster chicken & waffles restaurant? And what does their omnipresence tell us about the cultural cache of the South?
In this episode of Gravy, Gabe Bullard takes on the cultural politics of the Mason Jar: how it became hip, and what that hipness means.
Rank #5: The Magical, Meandering Life of Eugene Walter
Eugene Walter (1921–1998) of Mobile, Alabama was a novelist, a poet, a playwright, an actor, a costume designer, and a food writer, among myriad vocations and avocations. He had a deep love for the Mobile of his youth, which nurtured his creativity and informed much of his writing. He spent thirty years in Europe, acting in and translating films, hosting and carousing with artists, actors, and literati. Mobile called him home for the last chapter of his life. His surviving friends agree: Walter changed everyone he met. Twenty-one years after his death, producer Sara Brooke Curtis asks: Why don’t more people know about him?
Rank #6: 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.
Rank #7: The New Old Country Store (Gravy Ep. 36)
Every week, Cracker Barrel provides 4 million Americans with a studied version of down-home Southern food and hospitality. The dumplins and the chicken-fried steak. The country knick-knacks and the rocking chairs. What are we really consuming, culturally, along with the hashbrown casserole? In this episode of Gravy, Besha Rodell ponders the restaurant chain, the trickiness of Southern nostalgia, and how all of that has ended up informing her understanding of family.
Rank #8: When Menus Talk
What do restaurant menus have to say about the identity of a restaurant or the point of view of the chef? It turns out, menus are more nuanced and revealing than we might suspect. They reveal narratives that extend far beyond the bill of fare. They are collectors' items and rich historical documents. They are highly curated and sometimes distinctly engineered texts. They may impact the dining experience more than you think. Reporter Sara Brooke Curtis explores menus as text and menus as literature.
Rank #9: 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.
Rank #10: 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.
Rank #11: Wanting the Bourbon You Can’t Have (Gravy Ep. 35)
When it comes to a certain kind of bourbon, it doesn’t matter who you are or how much money you have—you can’t get it unless you’re exceptionally lucky or you’re willing to break the law. In this episode of Gravy, we teamed up with the podcast Criminal to bring you the story of the cult of popularity surrounding Pappy Van Winkle… and how it’s driven some to crime. The Pappy frenzy has law enforcement, bartenders, and even the Van Winkle family themselves wringing their hands.
Rank #12: 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.
Rank #13: Fried Chicken: A Complicated Comfort Food (Gravy Ep. 16)
It’s easy to love fried chicken. The light crunch of a crisped wing or leg, followed by the moist meat of the interior; it’s understandably beloved. But there is more going on with this comfort food than you might think. Fried chicken has both been the vehicle for the economic empowerment of a whole group of people—and the accessory to an ugly racial stereotype. How can something so delicious be both? In this episode of Gravy, Lauren Ober goes from a Virginia Fried Chicken Festival to a soul food restaurant in Harlem to find out.
Rank #14: 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.
Rank #15: 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?
Rank #16: Kimchi and Cornbread
When you sit down for a meat and three in Montgomery, Alabama, say at the Davis Café, you choose from the menu and you get one plate all for you, but at a Korean table in Montgomery – or anywhere – your plates are all shared. And there are many of them. Meat and six or seven, you might say.
Since the Hyundai plant opened in Montgomery in 2005, Koreans have been moving there, some for work at the plant, but others because they see the growing community of Koreans and Korean businesses in this small capital city in Alabama. So, a small southern K-Town is cropping up in the strip malls along the Eastern Boulevard.
Reporter and producer, Sarah Reynolds travels to Montgomery to eat at several Korean tables. And Chef Edward Lee joins her – a Korean–American chef who made his name in Louisville, Kentucky. He borrows from Korean and American Southern cuisines to make collards and kimchi, grits and galbi. What’s happening in Montgomery reveals a shared hospitality and love of food between these two cultures.
Rank #17: 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.
This episode was produced by Sarah Reynolds.
Rank #18: 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.
Rank #19: Hostesses of the Movement
The hostesses of the Civil Rights Movement: They were school teachers, church ladies, and club women. Their subtle contributions played a vital role in the change that was to come.
While others hit the streets, marching, singing protest songs, and risking arrest, these women made their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in their kitchens. They opened their homes to the architects and strategists of the Movement, providing home cooked meals, places to rest, and safe rooms for plotting attacks on Jim Crow.
Rosalind Bentley is a longtime journalist, but she didn’t know how a very special aunt became one of those stealth contributors. She traveled to Albany, Georgia to learn more about how that aunt became one of the Hostesses of the Movement.
Rank #20: Y'all Have Chilaquiles?
With its vibrant take on Mexican breakfast, Con Huevos restaurant is bringing Louisville, Kentucky, brand-new answers to the question of what to eat for breakfast. Answers like tortas, chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, and poached eggs with chipotle gravy. Con Huevos, which opened in 2015, has quickly become one of the most popular breakfast spots in Louisville. On this episode of Gravy, reporter-producer Parker Hobson bellies up to the counter to find out why, to meet the Mexican-Americans that make it go, and to think about what its popularity might mean for this historic river city.