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SimonThibault.com

Journalist. Food Writer. Producer.

Good Gravy

Last night, at the 2016 James Beard Foundation’s Book, Broadcast, and Journalism Awards, Tina Antolini walked up to the podium. Standing up there, she was handed a medal, emblazoned with James Beard’s face, and the name of his foundation. But most importantly, the words, “For Excellence” framed the right side of Beard’s face on the medal. Gravy, the podcast that Antolini steers with great care, had won a James Beard Award for Podcast Of The Year.

If you don't know Antolini's work, you should. Her smooth delivery pricks up your ears every two weeks, when a new episode of Gravy, The Southern Foodways Alliance's podcast, is put out.  That’s why Antolini was up there at the JBFAs.  Her instincts for stories, and her knowledge of audio storytelling are what put her up there, on that podium, with that excellent medal around her neck.

In honour of Antolini and Gravy’s win, I want to share with you some of my favourite episodes of Gravy

As journalists, chroniclers, academics, and historians, it’s not enough to just write down stories about food. It’s not enough to discuss the ethics and history of food, its role in our lives, and the politics behind it.  It’s not enough to just make sure someone, somewhere, writes down a recipe. It’s our responsibility to bring people this information and to make it as palatable as possible, yet without watering it down. It’s our responsibility to temper the sweetness of nostalgia without forgetting the bitter flavours that occasionally must be brought to light. It's about getting it just right, like any good dish served upon the table.

That’s what Gravy does. That’s what good journalism is. And that’s what Antolini does.

I had the chance to work with Antolini on an episode of Gravy last year. The whole thing came about when I met Antolini at last year’s award ceremony. She was giddy and a little beside herself as Gravy’s sister publication, a quarterly published by The Southern Foodways Alliance, had just won a Beard Award for Publication Of The Year that evening. Antolini and I talked about Gravy’s podcast, which had just begun a few months earlier. A friend mentioned to Antolini that we should work together, since I had Acadian and Cajun connections, and I was a freelance radio producer.  Tina said yes, and graciously gave me her card.

At first, I thought she was just being polite. And she was being polite. But she was also sincere. I followed up with Antolini, and sent her some of the work that I had done for CBC. Less than a year later, The Cajun Reconnection was broadcast as Gravy’s 25th episode. I’m still pinching myself that I got to tell this story on such a great platform. And now an award-winning one, as well.

But I want to talk about, to share, and to bring to light some of what I believe are some of the best episodes of Gravy.  Have a listen.

Toni Tipton-Martin also won an award last night for her book, The Jemima Code. The book talks about the whitewashing of food in the American South, especially in the way it was chronicled. In Episode 6, Antolini interviews Tipton-Martin and a slew of others to discuss the illumination and reparation of such a cultural loss.

The idea behind Gravy is to "changing American South, through the foods we eat." But what if you are sometimes defined by what you don't eat. Under the laws of kashrut, or kosher dietary law, the eating of pork is forbidden by Jews. But what happens when you're Southern, Jewish, and your access to kosher food is less than nil? In this story by Robin Amer, meet the last Jews of Natchez, Mississippi, who shared many a table, with many a dish of questionable kosher application, but never of questionable appreciation. 

This last episode, I think I listened to at least three times, and sent it to many a friend, wether they be food lovers, Southerners (or aficionados thereof), podcast fans, or just plain anyone who would give this story a listen. This story is one of resilience, faith, and good food, all set to the stirring voices of church mothers, singing and telling it all

Congratulations again to Tina, the Southern Foodways Alliance, and to all of Gravy's contributors. Kudos. And like Antolini always says at the end of each episode, "Make cornbread, not war."