I know a lot about cooking. I know the best way to butter a dish. I know the pros and cons of cooking with a convection oven. I have interesting ideas about how to use up excess rhubarb before it goes bad. I know all of these things, but I don’t really cook. Instead, I listen to food podcasts. They’re my most cherished form of self-care these days — actual cooking not included.
My love for food podcasts began last Thanksgiving, the first Thanksgiving I spent alone. It had been a tough year and I didn’t have it in me to triumph over my bad luck and introversion by joining family and friends for the holiday. After a late breakfast, I reflexively turned on my local public radio station and was greeted by the warm laughter of Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the legendary creator of the long-running The Splendid Table radio show. I’d heard little soundbites from the show over the years, but I’d never taken time to tune in to a whole episode.
On that particular day, Kasper was joined by a team of chefs, food writers and home cooks; together, they answered callers’ Thanksgiving culinary conundrums. I grabbed my map pencils and a neglected coloring book I’d acquired in some forgettable way, and I settled in for a listen. Before I could begin to ruminate on my year’s challenges and the subsequent loneliness I felt, the sunlight in my room had changed from bright to dim and I realized I was still tuned in to the sound of Kasper’s voice, delighted by her jubilant discussions about food.
My first Thanksgiving day spent with The Splendid Table turned into routine Saturday afternoons with the show’s new host, Francis Lam. Lam fearlessly uses food as a conduit for discussing diverse cultures and identities at a time when our nation is being tempted to think of anything but inclusion. I listened in recently as Lam examined the innumerable culinary contributions of Edna Lewis, a famed chef born into a village of freed slaves; hearing Lam explore the often-overlooked contributions of black chefs in American cuisine made me feel seen, by proxy. Each new episode of this podcast showcases different cuisines and traditions, and it’s a wonderful reminder that abundant culinary traditions, people and stories exist within and beyond our country’s borders.
While Saturdays are for The Splendid Table, my Sunday afternoons are softly punctuated by the Milk Street podcast, hosted by the authoritative but surprisingly warm Christopher Kimball. His predictable show structure offers the order I crave in chaotic times; when Kimball walks me through a Milk Street Basic like “a simple, flavored oil drizzled as a garnish can bring out the very best in simple soups, beans, or vegetables,” with background music that sounds like a spoon of warm tomato basil soup tastes, it’s like music to my ears. (Honestly, I’m pretty sure the Milk Street podcast activates the same dopamine receptors in my brain as my favorite Arcade Fire song.)
In addition to conducting interviews and taking caller questions with cooking industry titan Sara Moulton, the Milk Street podcast regularly includes off-the-beaten-path chats with Dan Pashman of The Sporkful podcast. I’ve found Pashman’s spirited debates about whether or not it’s okay to try ice cream samples without purchasing any ice cream to be a much-needed reprieve from exclusively thinking of food in terms of macros, calories and weight loss. So naturally, I added his podcast, The Sporkful, to my food podcast rotation.
These days, my week is structured by my soothing food podcasts. I truly believe I’m a better person for it. I’ve tried watching food TV, but something is lost when I can see every person and ingredient in front of me, rather than allowing my brain to conjure up its own ideas while I listen in. In front of my flat screen, the experience feels watered down; even though I’d watched her show a few times over the years, I didn’t really understand Ina Garten’s story and perspective on cooking until I heard her interview on Milk Street.
Sure, I still eat rice and eggs with ketchup on top for dinner. But now I know a lot about the spreading resurgence of Tex Mex and why whole wheat flour won’t yield the same results as pastry flour when baking a double layer cake. Even though I consider shrimp with veggies and rice to be a personal culinary victory, I know there are people out there comparing flour cups to flour grams and this somehow makes me feel like there’s a driver at the wheel of this topsy turvy world we’re all just trying to survive in.
I’ve thought about trying a traybake, an impossibly simple and delicious meal of meat and vegetables cooked in one pan, the flavors of each influencing each other. I’ve thought about how much more adult I’d seem if I had a go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe for future potlucks with friends. But almost a year into my steady regimen of food podcasts, I haven’t cooked a single new dish. Of course, there is a general sense of encouragement in each podcast to try my hand at making sourdough bread from scratch or tackling an aioli sauce to drizzle on top of a breakfast sandwich — but none of my beloved podcast hosts insist on me tying my self-worth to my ability to execute a recipe or to become a better cook. And that’s perhaps the most joyful quality of listening to food podcasts: The only command is to enjoy.
Photo via Getty Images.