Around the Table: Media Spotlight

This month on Around the Table, I am chatting with Laura Carlson, producer and host of the podcast The Feast. In other posts this month, we’ll read about many different experiences and methods for teaching with recipes. Here, Laura will tell us about her idea for incorporating food and recipes into her teaching, and how that turned into a popular podcast and unexpected career path.

When you started The Feast, you were also on the faculty in the Department of History at Queen’s University at Kingston. What sparked your interest in podcasting about food while working in Academia? Has teaching influenced your approach to podcasting about food history?

The idea for The Feast was born out of my experience in teaching history and classics at Queen’s University. At the time, I was experimenting with different types of sources in my syllabi as well as new formats for student research projects and presentations. I had also been incorporating food into my medieval history courses; students loved it, but there wasn’t an opportunity to do more within the course I was teaching.

I had been a fan of podcasts for a long time and I was interested in using podcasts as another source type for students to examine how medieval history and food was being used and discussed in the non-academic sphere. Beyond that, I also thought podcasts had incredible potential as a medium to communicate research and spark dialogue, but also to find interesting and immersive ways to talk about history and food. Because podcasts are free, the medium offered a fantastic way of reaching beyond the university community.

Although I listened to several food and history podcasts, none had struck the right tone that balanced research (engaging with sources, current research, experiments in the kitchen, etc.) with what I saw as a natural format for storytelling. That was really my goal in starting The Feast: a podcast focused on food history that I could feel comfortable assigning my students as part of a syllabus, but one general enough that anyone could listen to an episode and enjoy and (hopefully) learn something about a historical topic through the medium of food.

You strike a great balance between academic and popular in your show; it is a comfortable space for listeners with all degrees of training and interest in the topics. You also have something to offer to listeners interested in a wide array of chronological and geographical areas. How do you decide on your topics, and where do you like to go for sources and guest experts?

Thank you! How we figure out what will make a good Feast episode really depends; over the years, we’ve taken so many different approaches to coming up with show ideas and how to research. Many of the early shows came out of areas or topics I was already interested in or already knew there was source material for. For example, one of our earliest shows was about medieval pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. As the Feast developed, story and episode ideas really started to come from everywhere and anywhere. I’ve been able to collaborate on several episodes with other food historians and even some former history students of mine from Queen’s; one former student was even an associate producer on an episode focusing on Swedish cuisine in North America, inspired by her own family history.

A dish prepared on The Feast from an ancient Roman recipe: hypotrimma with honey spelt biscuits.

Inspiration for new episodes will often start with a single source and build out from there (for example, our episode on Alexander Dumas’ food dictionary). We’re also always inspired when we hear about other great food history projects or often when we’re travelling. My family is based in Arizona, for example, so it was always important to me to highlight some Arizona food history in the episodes. The same is also true for Canadian food history (as I now have a home in Toronto).

I know this is a big topic, but would you mind sharing a little about how one starts a podcast? What technology basics should you know before getting started, and what kinds of things can you learn along the way?

It’s one of the most often stated phrases in the podcast industry that “Anyone can have a podcast.” And, to a certain extent, that’s true. In terms of equipment and technical know-how, it can be very simple. Back in 2016, I started The Feast on a Macbook Pro laptop using pre-loaded Garageband software with a Blue Yeti microphone huddled in the closet of my condo. We just started trying things out to see what worked as far as mic technique, writing scripts to be read aloud, and understanding what went into having a show. As we got deeper into making the show and podcasting became a larger part of my life (and now my full-time job!), I wanted to learn more about equipment and technique.

One of the previous setups for recording The Feast.

So many online resources and new equipment have made it very easy for anyone to make a podcast. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of resources devoted to helping you record, edit, and publish your podcast online (like Transom.org, AIR, and NPR).

With so many resources available, I’d tell any potential podcaster not to get discouraged by technology or equipment. What’s more important is a strong concept to a show: why are you starting the show? What is its audience? Length and durability are also important to consider. Can you think of what your first 10 episodes can be about? What about your first 100? Is your idea focused but flexible enough so that you and your audience will still be interested in the subject in a few years?

Also, it’s also very important to set up a reasonable time commitment to your podcast. If you want to have an interview show, you might spend an hour interviewing a guest, but five hours editing the interview, two hours putting up a show page, an hour posting about it on social media. It really adds up. Consider what’s a reasonable amount of time you can devote to your show on a regular basis.

Has working on The Feast influenced your other research interests and recent projects?

100%! It has been a fantastic way of learning about subjects and periods, not to mention research folks are doing all over the world.

Laura Carlson leading a food tour in Toronto.

For example, since I was living in Toronto at the time, I really wanted to do an episode of The Feast that focused on Toronto food history. But it took me quite a while to find the right angle for an episode. We stumbled upon this great obscure piece of history about the two department stores in Toronto that faced each other for over 100 years. Both of them opened these opulent dining rooms at the same time. And both were very proud of their chicken pot pie recipes. I loved doing this episode because it meant I could focus on Toronto history. But it also inspired me to submit to lead a public history walking tour through the city agency, Heritage Toronto, about the history of food and dining in the city.

I have also been able to use a lot of the research that I did for Feast episodes that didn’t make it into the final cut to other articles or even other podcasts. I’ve also used some of our episodes, such as our holiday special on history of egg nog episode, for inspiration for other podcasts, like one about the history of the orange in North America on America’s Test Kitchen’s podcast, Proof

I also now work full-time as a podcast producer, both pitching stories to food podcasts such as Proof but also working with folks like NPR and Bloomberg to edit and produce popular podcasts. I also even teach food media at local colleges in Toronto. I’m also in the middle of writing a book on some of the topics inspired by Feast episodes. I continue to be surprised how many opportunities podcasting opens. What began as a side project to teaching history has become a diverse and rewarding but entirely unexpected career path.

Thanks, Laura, for chatting with me! You can follow Laura and The Feast on Instagram and Twitter @lauramcarlson and @Feast_Podcast, or on Facebook @thefeastpodcast. You can also reach Laura by email. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.