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Heritage Radio's Studio in Brooklyn
Heritage Radio's Studio in Brooklyn
Bonjwing Lee

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Welcome to The Golden Age of Food Radio

How a 1970s Italian pirate radio station is still shaping the conversation about how we eat.

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few days before the steadfastly anonymous authors of the book Thug Kitchen were scheduled to appear on Evan Kleiman's radio show Good Food, they outed themselves. The cookbook, based on the writers' wildly popular blog of the same name, uses a profanity-laced, street slang-laden persona (its subtitle is Eat Like You Give a F*ck) to present vegan recipes. So when they revealed themselves to be a young, white couple living in Hollywood, accusations of their perceived appropriation of black culture started flying.

Kleiman and her supervising producer Gillian Ferguson knew immediately that the straightforward Q&A they'd been planning to do with the authors was going to have to change. As Kleiman explained at the top of the episode when it aired on its home station, Los Angeles's KCRW, the conversation had "shifted from Brussels sprouts to race and vernacular."

The Thug Kitchen authors, Matt Holloway and Michelle Davis, still appeared on the show (Good Food is hallowed ground for any cookbook author; with 120,000 podcast listeners that month and an additional 25,000 during weekly on-air broadcasts, it's a prime stop for anyone with a project to promote), but the conversation didn't sound much like the usual book tour banter. Just before Holloway and Davis's segment, Kleiman had aired an interview with Bryant Terry, a food justice activist who had written a thoughtful critique of the duo — condemning, among other things, their use of the racially-charged word "thug" — for CNN.com. "People take issue with what they see as these two white people living in Hollywood profiting off a stereotype of black men," Terry explained to Kleiman during his interview.

Kleiman had made a decision not to hold back; it wasn't often that a cookbook gave rise to a pointed conversation about race.

Well before Holloway and Davis entered the studio, Kleiman had made a conscious decision not to hold back in her interview with them; it wasn't often that a cookbook gave rise to a pointed conversation about race. On the air, she explained that the issue readers had with Thug Kitchen wasn't the swearing, it was "swearing within a context of an identity, of a pose." She asked the authors to discuss their use of this appropriated language, and to explain why they hadn't responded to the backlash online. Davis defended their practice of removing critical comments from the book's Facebook page, saying she'd only deleted posts if they contained "slurs or spam." Kleiman pushed the conversation back to the heart of the debate: "I just find it interesting that you delete comments that contain slurs when so much of the language [in your blog and book], some people feel is a slur."

In the month after Thug Kitchen came out — the period most publishers consider to be a book's most crucial publicity window — Holloway and Davis made numerous appearances and gave plenty of interviews. But of all of them, their appearance on Good Food was the only one where they were directly confronted with the critiques of their writing personas. For Kleiman, the controversy presented a rare opportunity to take what was on the surface a food story and conduct a serious discussion about race and cultural appropriation, using her notoriously pleasant voice and patient yet probing method of questioning as tools to confront the scandal head-on. And to anyone who regularly listens to the show, that kind of unedited candor didn't come as a surprise. That's just the magic of radio.


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n 1975, in the northern Italian town of Bra, a charismatic young activist named Carlo Petrini was one of the operators of a small but formative pirate radio station. At the time, the Italian government held a monopoly on radio broadcasts, and Radio Bra Onde Rosse ("Radio Bra Red Waves"), which aired everything from the meeting agendas of leftist assemblies to underground music, was constantly at odds with the police. The station's transmitter was seized multiple times and, ultimately, Petrini himself was dragged into court.

His arrest was widely covered in the media, and as a result Petrini gained a platform for further activism. Radio Bra Onde Rosse went silent in 1978, and in its short broadcasting life it had dedicated little of its airtime to issues concerning food, but Petrini decided to turn his attention to the creeping influence of fast food on Italian culture. In 1986, he organized a gathering of penne-eating protesters on Rome's Spanish Steps, a demonstration against a McDonald's that was planning to open near the historic site. When he formally launched the Slow Food movement in 1989, it ignited a radical international culinary conversation about the importance of protecting regional traditions and biodiversity in food.

Four years before the launch of Radio Bra Onde Rosse, in the summer of 1971, a shy teenager from Los Angeles named Evan Kleiman was also in Italy. She was staying with the elderly inhabitants of a grand old villa on the Florentine hillside, where she observed with quiet fascination their rituals of Italian market shopping, stovetop espresso preparation, and simple, traditional cooking. Kleiman's mother had always been more keen to unwind with a scotch and a cigarette after an exhausting day at work than to labor over a fresh, home-cooked meal, and so it was in Italy where Kleiman was first exposed to the significance of food's connection to family, identity, and culture.

It was an inspiring visit that spawned many others, and in 1984, Kleiman — by then an experienced cook — opened Angeli Caffe, a restaurant that introduced her deep love of the Italian trattoria to L.A.'s diners. She had spent the intervening years visiting Italy regularly, where she steeped herself in the culture that fulfilled her longing for a personal history. On one such trip, she had come across a copy of Petrini's print publication, La Gola ("The Throat").

"It was exactly what I had been looking for," Kleiman recalls, characterizing the magazine as "a kind of semi-academic, intellectual collection of essays about food." For the first time, she had became aware of a conversation happening around food and culture that echoed the culinary philosophy she had been developing on her own for years. "That's when I understood there were other people who thought like me."

Evan Kleiman

Over a decade later, in 1998, a friend officially introduced Kleiman to Petrini's Slow Food movement during one of her extended visits to Rome. When she made the trek north to attend the second iteration of the organization's biennial Salone del Gusto food fair in Turin, she at last made the connection between La Gola, Slow Food, and the man behind them both. At the Salone she also met a young protégé of Carlo Petrini named Patrick Martins. The two became fast friends — Martins founded the American arm of Slow Food two years later, and Kleiman launched a Los Angeles chapter shortly thereafter.

Only months before arriving at the Salone del Gusto, Kleiman had taken over as the new host of Good Food, a show on public radio station KCRW. Having made a name for herself in Los Angeles as a respected chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author, she was a frequent on-air guest during the first two years of the program's life, when it was hosted by chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken. When the original hosts moved on, the station asked Kleiman to step in. Inspired by the discoveries and friends she had made at the Salone, Kleiman was excited to place the show's chef interviews and L.A.-centric food segments into the larger context of a global food system. "That was when I really saw that there was a venue for creating a conversation about food and culture in a more serious way," she says of her time in Turin. Capitalizing on her platform as a newly minted radio host, she wanted to extend that conversation beyond the Slow Food circle, and into mainstream food media.

Kleiman's dedication to the principles of Slow Food is evident through her appreciation for telling slow stories. Her investigation into the notion of culinary authenticity is ongoing, an often imperceptible hum beneath her weekly on-air conversations with chefs, restaurant critics, and food writers. Individual episodes of Kleiman's shows sometimes focus on a wide-ranging theme like travel; other times they meander unpredictably, unified by a focus on the collision between food and culture. An episode might launch with a meditation on barbacoa, before taking a deep dive into bro-chef culture, farm labor conditions, or the phenomenon of fat-shaming.

On air, the listener takes up residence in every exhale and umm of an interview subject struggling to respond to a question

But sometimes the slow story picks up in speed and intensity, as was the case with the planned coverage of the Thug Kitchen cookbook in 2014. That segment, with its inclusion of Bryant Terry and the directness of its questioning of Holloway and Davis's choices, epitomizes Kleiman's gift for inviting the right voices to a conversation, and her comfort with the space between discoveries. On air — absent television's visual information or the purposeful word-choice and editorial asides of a piece of writing — the listener takes up residence in every exhale and umm of a subject struggling to respond to a question, teetering on the brink of revelation or regret.

One wall of a corridor near the Good Food studio's entrance is collaged with hundreds of autographed Polaroids of guests of the show. Looking at the faces of the musicians, actors, authors, and chefs who've come to the KCRW studios over the years, each with a story to tell or a project to plug, it's hard not to be struck by Kleiman's sheer tenacity. She devotes her life to communicating the stories that engage her, even when they're not always in tune with pleasant, cozy narratives about food. "The worst evils of humanity and the most joyous things in life are in the food space," Kleiman says, considering the thousands of conversations she's had. She pauses before letting out a laugh that settles into a sigh. "Which is why it fascinates me, and why it never gets old."


W

hat Good Food does on air is nearly unrecognizable from the programs that launched food radio in the early twentieth century. When radio first took hold, food-centered programs focused exclusively on cooking as an exercise in homemaking. In the mid-1920s, fictional homemaker Betty Crocker shared baking tips and recipes, and answered questions for American housewives on The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air. The show ran for almost a quarter century, and while conflicting accounts exist about the voice behind "Betty," there is no doubt the voice had power: a 1945 Fortune survey named Betty Crocker the second best-known woman in America, behind only First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The golden age of radio went on to broadcast a number of other programs intended for the homemaker, a genre of recipe-oriented shows that evolved into a style that still exists on AM frequencies. It can also be argued that those early radio shows naturally evolved into the first wave of American television cooking shows in the late 1940s, a phenomenon which helped rouse the nation's dormant postwar interest in making good food at home.

"The political thing has only gotten sexy within maybe the last five years."

In the 1990s food radio met the public airwaves, ushering in a new era of coverage concentrating on the culture and politics of food as much as recipes. As a pioneering public radio voice focused on food, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of the now legendary American Public Media program The Splendid Table, was responsible early on for introducing to American listeners now-ubiquitous ideas about organic ingredients and sustainability. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, an icon in both the food world and Black Arts movement, who came from the Gullah culture in of South Carolina's Lowcountry, used her National Public Radio series Seasonings to draw deep connections between food and culture. When Evan Kleiman took to the KCRW airwaves in 1998, neither the listening public nor her producers were entirely accustomed to food radio covering the politics of food, but she was determined to attach food stories to the issues underscoring the recipes and restaurants of the day. Still, it was an uphill battle. "The political thing has only gotten sexy within maybe the last five years," she says.

Now the rise of podcasts is re-shaping food radio once again, granting millions of listeners immediate access to audio content that might previously have been limited by studio access or regional distribution. Some of the most popular podcasts have no radio affiliation at all: Molly Wizenberg and Matthew Amster-Burton host and independently produce their popular food and comedy podcast Spilled Milk out of Amster-Burton's Seattle dining room. Others only came to the networks later on: Dan Pashman's The Sporkful, recorded in the host's Long Island basement from its start in 2010, got picked up by WNYC four years later. But today's highest concentration of food-centered programming is found on the non-profit Heritage Radio Network, improbably run out of two repurposed shipping containers in the backyard of Brooklyn restaurant Roberta's. The station's forty-plus shows — all of them food, drink, or farming-focused — stream live online, a computer-only radio station, and all have robust second lives as podcasts.

As with Kleiman, Heritage Radio owes a debt of inspiration to the Slow Food movement. Its founder is Patrick Martins, Kleiman's friend from Turin and Carlo Petrini's former protégé, the same man who brought Slow Food to the United States. After launching Slow Food USA, Martins put the organizaiton's ethos into action, founding a purveyor of heritage breed meats called Heritage Foods USA. As he worked to figure out new ways to introduce issues surrounding the industrial food system to the American consciousness, he never forgot his mentor's early independent radio efforts in Bra. In 2009, Martins launched his online radio network with a lineup of shows obsessing over food-focused topics ranging from farm nerdery to food music to urban foraging.

"It seemed unfortunate and unnatural that so many issues that were central to food and the environment were being ignored by the mainstream media," he says, recalling the inspiration for the network's launch. Martins had long been inspired by Kleiman's show, but his vision was for a conversation on a larger scale. "Food is a full-time subject," he said. "We just felt that it deserved its own radio station."

Heritage's on-air talent is unpaid, though some get a share in any sponsorship revenue their shows bring in. For most of them, hosting a radio show isn't their full-time job. They occupy roles across the spectrum of the food system, as a result bringing unique experience and insight to their programs. Science-minded chef Dave Arnold's Cooking Issues helps solve listeners' culinary conundrums; Radio Cherry Bombe is an audio extension of the biannual print publication that champions women in the food space, until recently hosted by writer Julia Turshen, who just stepped down to focus on her upcoming book; Heritage Radio's executive director Erin Fairbanks investigates the current state of agriculture on The Farm Report; and Jessica B. Harris, an expert on the foodways of the African diaspora, takes a lyrical monthly look at the travel, culture, and music surrounding her personal culinary experiences on My Welcome Table.

Beyond their interest in food, the common thread among the Heritage hosts is that they're drawn to radio, as a medium, for the authenticity and urgency it fosters when exploring a subject, and the unpredictability of performing those explorations live on air. As Julia Turshen explains, "Radio encourages incredibly honest, meaningful moments that can only occur during unedited, real-time conversations."

In this way, Heritage Radio Network represents a mix of old-fashioned approaches and cutting edge media, the same way the message of Slow Food is both a return to the old way of dealing with food and also very of-the-moment.

Alice Waters and Carlo Petrini. Courtesy of Heritage Radio

C

arlo Petrini was heartsick over the state of American food when he first visited this country, stepping onto the soil of a nation where you weren't even allowed to make raw milk cheese. "Era come rimuovere la mia anima," he said. It was like removing his soul.

He was speaking with Alice Waters in front of a group gathered at Roberta's — the restaurant where Heritage Radio is located — at an event honoring the twenty-fifth anniversary of Slow Food. Speaking in Italian with Patrick Martins translating ("Not speaking English is also an example of biodiversity"), he explained that in order for conditions to improve in what he called the "criminal food system," young people would need to create new paradigms. In the recording of the speech, Petrini's voice is gruff and impassioned. At sixty-six, the father of Slow Food still knows how to fire up a crowd. "You can't go anywhere in the world without turning the T.V. on and someone's cooking with a pan," he said. "Blah blah blah. This is not gastronomia!"

Although Petrini's rapid-fire Italian was delivered in powerful bursts, the translation made the speech move slowly, an audience of primarily non-Italian-speakers savoring the emotion behind Petrini's words before Martins' translation followed. The ease with which Martins captured the rhythm and passion of Petrini's remarks was a potent reminder of their shared history, and their shared goals. Both want to cut through the zeitgeisty clutter of trendy food culture to get to the heart of why food matters.

It is a goal shared with Kleiman as well, who now finds herself part of what she calls the "million-ring circus" of food media. For Kleiman, the solution to finding her place in this densely populated landscape lies in the tension between authenticity and relevance. In the same episode that covered the Thug Kitchen controversy, she featured an unrelated interview with Los Angeles chef Hans Rockenwagner, discussing his decades-long arc from running fine dining restaurants to his current casual bakery-cafe. Kleiman began her interview by pointing out their similarities: "As someone else who had a rather long career in restaurants," she said, "[I know that] sometimes it's hard to find a way to keep being relevant as the years go by, and as the culture around one changes."

Nearly two decades into Good Food's run, it remains utterly relevant, a trusted source for fresh content delivered by way of Kleiman's omnivorous view of the food world. Every episode is layered with the textures of food's pleasures and politics.

That wide-ranging scope is, to Kleiman, the very soul of the show, her tool for converting casual listeners to her brand of intelligent curiosity. Good Food will have failed, she says, if it ever gets to a place where it's known for its coverage of any one particular aspect of food culture. "You make a choice about going after what interests you, hoping that there's an audience out there for it," she says of her commitment to eclecticism. "And also hoping you can frame it in a way that engages people who tune in looking for twenty different ways to prepare a chicken breast."


Check out Eater's own foray into the world of radio: our podcast The Eater Upsell features weird, wonderful, wide-ranging conversations with the most interesting people in the food world, including David Lebovitz, Michael Solomonov, Anita Lo, and more.


Allison Gibson has written about books, food, art and design for Electric Literature, The Millions, Los Angeles Magazine, L.A. Weekly, The Wirecutter, HuffPost Arts and Apartment Therapy, among other places. She lives by the beach in Southern California.
Photos: Header image of Heritage Radio, Bonjwing Lee; photo of Evan Kleiman courtesy of Evan Kleiman; photo of Carlo Petrini and Alice Waters courtesy of Heritage Radio
Editor: Meghan McCarron

Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to note that Julia Turshen is no longer host of Radio Cherry Bombe, and neglected to mention that not all Heritage Radio hosts share sponsorship profits.

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