Secrets of Sourdough

Today, you can find a huge variety of breads on supermarket shelves, only a few of which are called "sourdough." For most of human history, though, any bread that wasn't flat was sourdough—that is, it was leavened with a wild community of microbes. And yet we know surprisingly little about the microbes responsible for raising sourdough bread, not to mention making it more nutritious and delicious than bread made with commercial yeast. For starters, where do the fungi and bacteria in a sourdough starter come from? Are they in the water or the flour? Do they come from the baker's hands? Or perhaps they're just floating around in the foggy air, as the bakers of San Francisco firmly believe? This episode, Cynthia and Nicky go to Belgium with two researchers, fifteen bakers, and quite a few microbes for a three-day science experiment designed to answer this question once and for all. Listen in for our exclusive scoop on the secrets of sourdough.


Green Gold: Our Love Affair with Olive Oil

Olive oil is not what you think it is. According to Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, an olive is a stone fruit like a plum or cherry—meaning that the green-gold liquid we extract from it "is, quite literally, fruit juice." And, while we're blowing your minds, have you ever stopped to wonder what "Extra Virgin" means? "It's like extra dead or semi-pregnant," Mueller said. "I mean, it doesn't make any sense at all." This episode we visit two groves—one in the Old World, one in the New—to get to the bottom of olive oil's many mysteries. Listen in this episode as we find out why the ancient Romans rubbed it all over their bodies, and whether the olive oil on our kitchen counters really is what it says on the label.


Women, Food, Power … and Books!

From "The Flintstones" to Focus on the Family, the stereotype has long been that men hunt and provide, while women just stir the pot. Thankfully, today many women—and men—reject both that biological essentialism and the resulting division of labor. But what can science tell us about the role our earliest female ancestors played in providing food for themselves and their communities? Meanwhile, given the fact that women have been confined to the kitchen for much of recent Western history, how have they used food as a tool of power and protest, escape, and resistance? Just in time for the holiday season, this episode we dive into two books that take on the science and history of women's relationship with food. First, science journalist Angela Saini helps us upend conventional wisdom on "women's work" and biological differences between the sexes; then food historian Laura Shapiro reveals an entirely new side to six well-known women through their culinary biographies. Join us this episode as we hunt, gather, and cook with women throughout history, from feral pigs to Shrimp Wiggle.


Crantastic: The Story of America’s Berry

It's nearly Thanksgiving, which, for most Americans, marks the one time a year their dinner table is adorned with jewel-like cranberries, simmered into a delicious sauce. But hundreds of years ago, cranberry sauce was a mainstay of daily meals, all around the U.S. How did this acidic, tannic berry, so hard to love in its raw form, become one of the most popular fruits in America, and how did it fall so deeply out of fashion? Meanwhile, as cranberry sauce was relegated to Thanksgiving, cranberry juice became a popular drink—and mixer. But why is the juice so widely believed to combat urinary tract infections, and does science support that claim? Join us this episode for all that, plus a tour of the cranberry bog of the future. …More

Cannibalism: From Calories to Kuru

For most of us, it's unthinkable: human is never what's for dinner. Sorry to burst any bubbles, but this episode, we discover that not only is cannibalism widespread throughout the natural world, but it's also much more common among our own kind than we like to think. Spiders and sharks do it; so have both ancient and modern humans. So why does it sometimes make sense to snack on your own species—and what are the downsides? From Hannibal Lecter to the Donner party, cannibals are now the subject of morbid fascination and disgust—but how did eating each other become such a taboo? Join us this episode for our Halloween special: the science and history of cannibalism!


Eataly World and the Future of Food Shopping

In just over a month, the world's first theme park devoted entirely to Italian food will open its doors—and Gastropod has the scoop! Among Eataly World's delights will be hunt-your-own truffles, baby lambs, beach volleyball, and custom Bianchi shopping bike-carts. But there’s a bigger story, and it’s that Oscar Farinetti, the founder of the Eataly empire, has somehow managed to make money by merging two businesses—grocery stores and restaurants—that are both incredibly challenging when it comes to turning a profit. In the process, he’s transforming the way we shop for food. Join us this episode as we tell the story behind the life and death of the great American supermarket—and take a trip to Italy for a sneak peek at its future.


What the Fluff is Marshmallow Creme?

If you're not from New England, you may never have heard of Fluff, or its legendary sandwich-based incarnation, the Fluffernutter. The sticky sweet marshmallow creme was invented exactly one hundred years ago in Somerville, Massachusetts—at the time, the Silicon Valley of candy innovation. To celebrate, we're diving into the history of the disruptive technologies that led to Fluff's rise, as well as the secret behind its soft yet sturdy consistency. It's a story that involves Howard Stern, Fanny Farmer, and the fabulously named Archibald Query—so listen in and join this festival of fluff!


Lunch Gets Schooled

Across the United States, school lunch is being transformed, as counties and cities partner with local farms to access fresh vegetables, as well as hire chefs to introduce tastier and more adventurous meals. This is a much-needed correction after decades of processed meals that contained little in the way of nutrition and flavor. But how did we get to trays of spongy pizza and freezer-burned tater tots in the first place? While it seems as if such culinary delights were always part of a child's day, the school lunch is barely a century old—and there are plenty of countries in the world, like Canada and Norway, where school lunch doesn't even exist. This episode, we dive into the history of how we got to today's school lunch situation, as well as what it tells us about our economic and gender priorities. Listen in now for all that, plus the science on whether school lunch even matters.  …More

Sour Grapes: The History and Science of Vinegar

It's found in almost every home, whether it's destined to dress salads or clean surfaces and kill fruit flies. But, effective as it is at those tasks, most of us struggle to get excited about vinegar. Today, however, a handful of enthusiasts and entrepreneurs are trying to launch a vinegar renaissance—one in which we appreciate vinegar (nearly) as much as the alcohol from which it's made. This episode, we visit vinegar attics in Italy, conduct an epic tasting in a backyard vinegar shed in west London, and chat with our in-house microbiologist, Ben Wolfe of Tufts University, in order to explore vinegar's long, frequently accidental history, its rumored health benefits, and its culinary potential. Plus: is the balsamic vinegar on your shelf the real thing? Listen now for all this and more!


The Birds and The Bugs

Chicken is such a mainstay of the contemporary American dinner table that it seems hard to imagine that, just a century ago, it was rare and expensive. But over the course of the 20th century, both chickens and the chicken industry exploded in size. Much of that growth can be attributed to the miraculous properties of antibiotics, which were developed to fight human diseases but quickly began to be fed to farm animals in vast quantities. Journalist and author Maryn McKenna weaves these two intertwined tales together in her new book, Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats. In this episode of Gastropod, she describes the consequences of decades spent feeding chicken antibiotics, in terms of chicken flavor, poultry well-being, and, most significantly, human health.