Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Sporkful

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Vital stats:
Format: food talk, but specifically eating talk
Duration: ~20m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

Sporks march shamefully in my Gen-Y internet perp walk right alongside monkeys, robots, pirates, and ninjas. The presence of any is usually a strong disrecommendation in and of itself, a red flag of sensibility, tone, or (worst of all) “irreverence” mechanically prioritized above substance. Then again, The Sporkful [RSS] [iTunes] is hosted by Dan Pashman and Mark Garrison of public radio’s “short-lived but much-beloved” The Bryant Park Project, public radio being the busiest intersection of belovedness and cancellation. Despite having never caught that program, I’d heard it was kind of neat, so I figured I’d put my spork-related qualms aside and give their new food show a chance.

Though The Sporkful is podcast-only, Pashman and Garrison have evidently retained a good deal of that distinctive energy radio-y radio beats into you. They speak rapidly and forcefully, as if with eyes fixed on the ticking clock. (The especially nice thing about podcasting, I’ve always thought, is that there is no ticking clock, but hey.) As a firm believer that podcast episodes should be no shorter than my favorite Tarkovsky film, I admit to having eyed their twenty-minute episode lengths dubiously. How on Earth to cram a nuanced discussion of poutine into such a compressed time frame? Bit here’s the thing: the hosts aren’t food critics; they’re sports commentators.

Now, as an aficionado of public radio and Tarkovsky, I have no idea what sports commentary sounds like, but, culinary content aside, this is how I imagine it. The rapid-firing Pashman (who sounds like a second cousin of Stop Podcasting Yourself’s Graham Clark) and Garrison are opinionated, argumentative, and all about the action, the down/dirty physical realities of food and eating. They bill the show as “for eaters, not foodies,” and that’s about right, especially given the sheer number of debates they get into about how best to bite into various comestibles. Occasional guests, like Radio Lab’s Robert Krulwich on sandwiches [MP3] or Marc Maron on coffee [MP3], can get pretty het up about these matters.

To top pumpkin pie or not to top pumpkin pie; the optimal coffee-dunking speed of a yeast donut; the hosts’ eternal struggle about bite consistency versus bite variety: these are important questions to anyone who eats, and that most of the media’s food conversation ignores them comes as a surprise. This isn’t a show concerned with exotic ingredients or elaborate preparatory flourishes; it’s all about being the best, most pleasure-extracting eater you can be. Whether this is more or less hedonic than all those foodie tracts about Belgian endive and Azerbaijani puff pastry I have yet to resolve, but it turns out to be one of the very few stripes of populism I can get on board with.

The most recent peak of The Sporkful’s usefulness, for my money, comes in its episode on buffet strategy [MP3]. (If we’re going to speak populistically, we might as well take it to the limit.) Though Pashman and Garrison’s techniques differ in the details, they agree solidly on one thing: when you approach the buffet, in the name of all that is good and pure, blow past the landslide of starches restaurants always place at the beginning and survey the whole thing before you take any food. That way, you can load up on the precious, expensive proteins rather than, say, potatoes, which is just what the management — your enemy — wants you to do. File this discussion in the Why-They-Hate-Us folder if you must, but it’s more relevant to the landscape we actually navigate every day than the last hundred hours of election analysis you listened to.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]