Deciding where, what, and how to eat has never been more complicated. What exactly does it mean for ingredients to be sustainably sourced? Are there environmental benefits to going dairy/meat/sugar/gluten-free? Which farm-to-table restaurant is the trendiest and most authentic? How hard is it to get in? (Ironically, the longer the line, the better.) There have never been so many factors—or players—influencing our dining choices.Increasingly, podcasts have become a popular way to navigate this complex world of gastronomy and the big business surrounding it. Podcasts have surfaced opportunities for new and different voices to be heard, thanks to lower production costs than many of their media counterparts—like documentaries, TV programs or culinary magazines. With just a mic and a story to tell, food podcasters are going beyond the flavor profile of a popular seafood dish, and instead telling the backstory of the fisherman who caught it or examining the ethics of the seafood industry as a whole.
Heritage Radio Network (HRN), a New York City-based nonprofit radio station, is home to a diverse collection of food podcasts hoping to have an impact on the way we think and eat. The Network’s shows feature a wide variety of themes, ranging from cultural appropriation in the culinary world to inspiring women in the industry.
“Our mission is to create a more equitable, sustainable, and delicious world by expanding the way that eaters think about food,” says Caity Moseman Wadler, executive director at HRN.
Operating out of a pair of shipping containers in the backyard of Roberta’s Pizza in Bushwick, Brooklyn, HRN produces 35 podcasts on average each week, receiving between 800,000 and 1 million weekly “listens.” One of the Network’s longest-running shows, “What Doesn’t Kill You,” dives deep on the often opaque and convoluted business of food production, while the recently-debuted “Food Without Borders” dissects the impact of immigrants and international cuisines on American food culture.
Though Heritage Radio Network does not put forward a particular agenda, the organization does have a goal to create more transparency in our food system and help people better understand the food they eat.
“While it would be great if everybody could switch to an all-local, all-sustainable food purchasing model, the reality is that not everybody has that choice,” says Wadler, noting the access and cost barriers that often prevent consumers from changing their food purchasing behavior. “The hope is that we’re building awareness...but also creating a general pressure to improve the food system, whether you do that by voting with your dollar or your actual vote.”
The impact on listeners runs the gamut. While some foodies may swear off meat entirely or choose to only buy organic in response to a podcast, the average consumer’s reaction is likely more nuanced. Wadler notes that some listeners have reported that they’ve been empowered to seek out restaurants sourcing more sustainable meats, for example.For San Francisco resident and food writer Tessa McLean, the podcast influence is evident in her own kitchen. “My favorite food-related podcast shows inspire me to be a better cook,” says McLean. “I’ll jot down unique tips or new ingredients I wouldn’t have otherwise thought to try, and then test out them out at home.”
One Bay Area podcast is taking a local spin on the human element of our food culture. “Menu Stories” tells the narrative of the people who bring our favorite restaurants, cafes, and delis to life, diving into their backgrounds, passions, hardships, and successes. Created and hosted by Rebecca Goberstein, a San Francisco-based product designer and entrepreneur, “Menu Stories” examines the city’s culinary culture through the people who built it.
“There are so many wonderful mom-and-pop places that have been serving our community for a very long time, and I always wondered what their backstories were,” says Goberstein. “This project has given me the opportunity to learn more about them, and it turns out I’m not the only one who’s curious.”
In an early episode of the podcast, Goberstein chats with Chef Gonzalo Guzmán of Nopalito, an admired Mexican restaurant in San Francisco’s Nopa neighborhood. Guzmán tells his story of growing up in a one-room home in Veracruz, Mexico and watching his mother grind corn for tortillas at the town’s center. He didn’t always have a dream of opening his own restaurant or even being a chef, but after years of working in kitchens to make ends meet, he grew to love cooking, which eventually led him to open Nopalito.
“Menu Stories” wasn’t originally designed to influence listeners’ dining behavior, but it’s been successful in doing just that. Diners have reported to Goberstein that they’ve discovered restaurants they wouldn’t have otherwise heard of, or that the podcast has helped them find new appreciation for their long-standing neighborhood favorites.
Goberstein also hopes that in hearing the human stories behind San Francisco’s restaurants, diners will have a better understanding of the food they’re eating. For example, in hearing about the challenges that many new restaurateurs face with skyrocketing rent prices in the city and the high cost of locally sourced ingredients, perhaps consumers will be a little more accepting of the prices they see on their menu.
One unique surprise? It wasn’t only the community of diners who found the stories compelling. Goberstein was enlightened to learn that the restaurant community itself—chefs, restaurateurs, and aspiring small business owners—were getting inspiration through their peers’ stories and learning about the varied backgrounds, techniques, and cultures that shape the San Francisco food scene.
From SF to NYC, there are hundreds of food-related podcasts streaming through our earbuds, which means there’s something for everyone. “The Sporkful,” an award-winning show focused on thoughtful conversation around food, gives us better understanding of the cultural and environmental impact of what we choose to eat. Others, like food-comedy hybrid “Spilled Milk,” remind us of the humor in all of it with deep dives on topics like Pop Tarts or parsnips.
Wherever your culinary curiosities lie, there’s a podcast for that. Find them on Apple’s podcast app, Spotify, or online.
Header image by Juja Han on Unsplash.
Jackie is a freelance writer and and digital marketer based in San Francisco. She loves exploring new cities, learning to cook local dishes, and telling stories through words and images. When she's not hanging in SF with her dog, Milo, you'll find her racking up airline miles to anywhere with palm trees and sunshine.