BEHIND THE SCENES with Tina Antolini

Happy New Year! It's the first week in January. Any favorite New Year's food traditions?

I’ve happily adopted the Southern tradition of Hoppin’ John, a dish of black-eyed peas, and greens on New Years. Field peas for luck, greens for money: that’s the idea. I had multiple helpings of both on January 1st, so I should be set for 2016.

How did Gravy - and your non-traditional partnership with the Southern Foodways Alliance - come to be? And what's it been like to work outside the traditional public radio system for the first time?

I’d long been daydreaming about producing a show that used food as an entrance point for the kind of narrative audio storytelling I love. Most of the food shows out there—both podcasts and public radio—seemed either to be providing recipe advice or a more lifestyle/entertainment orientation towards what was on the plate. I thought there was room for a show that really leveraged food as an intersection point between a wide range of topic areas, environment to history, health to race, business to art.

I started having conversations with everybody I knew in the food world, and one of those people was John T. Edge, the executive director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). I was just looking for feedback on my idea, not a partnership. However, it turned out the SFA had been planning to start its own podcast, and so we joined forces, with me adapting my original idea to focus on the South.

I’d already had a pretty unconventional work life as a producer for State of the Re:Union (SOTRU), working from home, traveling often. Producing Gravy is a continuation of that. I work remotely from the rest of the SFA, and am producing this show mostly by myself (with a stable of contributors working on individual stories, and, as of a couple months ago, a part-time intern). It can be solitary at times, but I’m really relishing the creative flexibility of working on this podcast. I have more room to tell long, complicated stories than I’d had in most of the broadcast radio jobs I’ve held in the past decade.

Did you initially set off to tell Shirley Sherrod's story, or to do an episode on black land ownership and the USDA?

This story began with my reading historian Pete Daniel’s book Dispossession, which is an in depth examination of USDA discrimination against black farmers in the 1960s. I was astonished at how little of this history I knew. You should see my copy of the book—it’s all marked up with exclamation points I scribbled in the margins.

I received a fellowship from UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism to dig more deeply into black land loss and the USDA’s involvement in that. I knew I needed a personal narrative to hang all this history on, but I was focused at the beginning on finding an average black family farmer. Shirley Sherrod’s name popped up, though, in some of my early research. I remembered the scandal around a video that seemed to show her telling a racist anecdote, but I had no idea that was only a tiny part of her story. A conversation while I was on fellowship in Berkeley pushed me to reach out to her.

As I started to look into her story, I realized that Shirley had had a personal experience of every chapter of the history of farming and racism in the U.S. that I’d been learning about. And it was such a compelling story, one that I felt strongly would communicate the full emotional impact of this history.

Can you talk about your research process, and the choices you made when structuring the piece?

As I mentioned above, I’d started by researching the broader history of this discrimination. That involved talking to a whole bunch of historians, farmers, farmer advocates, and lawyers involved in the Pigford vs. Glickman class action lawsuit. I spent a memorable day at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., listening to oral histories recorded with Southern black farmers in the 1980’s, when they were regularly encountering some of the most obvious USDA racism.

After all of this research, I really struggled with how to balance the specificity of Shirley’s narrative with the broader historical context. I ended up using fewer voices than I’d collected or anticipated using, really zooming in on Shirley’s story and finding strategic moments to weave in the bigger picture history. There is a flow to Shirley’s story, as it dips and rises between hardships and triumphs. I thought that if I strung the twists and turns of that story together in the right way for the listener, they would help propel the history forward.

I wrestled with how much to foreshadow the more recent political scandal involving the excerpted video and Shirley’s firing from the USDA. Earlier drafts of the piece had more of that at the very top, attempting to use it as a jumping off point to frame the racial complexity of Shirley’s story, but I got feedback from colleagues that trying to wedge in too much about it at the beginning was confusing. So, I decided to more subtly tease it at the beginning, and leave the full story for after we’d learned much more about Shirley.

Though you've recently moved to New Orleans, you're not from the South originally. Is there anything you've had to learn in order to tell Southern stories?

In a funny way, I think my being a newcomer to the South has been an asset. I’m more apt to be surprised, and to notice aspects of Southern life and culture that long-term residents might just take for granted. I’m very grateful, though, for input from the staff of the SFA, especially the editor of the Gravy print quarterly (our sister publication), Sara Camp Milam. She’s a born and raised Southerner, with a great critical eye. Sara Camp and the rest of the SFA staff have a near encyclopedic knowledge of regional Southern food and history, and have helped catch me up to speed when necessary. In addition, the SFA has been gathering oral histories of everyday people involved in Southern food for more than 20 years, hundreds and hundreds of interviews, which is an amazing resource to draw on.

The kill-your-darlings question: was there a scene, anecdote, sound, or digression that you really wanted to leave in but had to cut from the final piece?

Well, one of those “darlings” is a moment from being on the plantation with Shirley that I did find a way to squeeze in at the very end of the episode's credits! [ed. note: check out the audio extra, above!] There are so many additional stories from Shirley’s life—her love story with Charles, the strength of her mother, Grace Hall Miller, who was the first black member of the Baker County School Board. There was just no way to include them all. I chose my digressions into the smaller stories of Shirley’s life strategically. There are also a number of other wonderful voices with their own stories that I would have loved listeners to hear, like that of the one-time leader of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives talking about how black farmers started their own cooperatives to avoid having to turn to the USDA for loans. There are many stories worth of material here.

Do you have a favorite kind of gravy?

ALL Gravy. What kind of Gravy host would I be if I didn’t welcome all varieties? But, here in New Orleans, we’ve got quite an original take on it: red gravy. Which is: marinara sauce.