When I started listening to the Pickle Shelf Radio Hour, I was excited to learn about Appalachian cooking traditions, local ingredients, and sustainable farming and foraging. But what I didn’t expect to learn about, episode after episode, are the ways that food tie Appalachia to people and places around the world. One way or another, Chinese and Vietnamese Lunar New Year dishes, Polish Easter cookies, Spanish blood sausage, Kurdish dolma and Turkish eggplants have made their way into Appalachia and onto the podcast.
Last week, I sat down (virtually) with co-creators Mike Costello and Jan Pytalski to talk about the Pickle Shelf. We discussed the inspiration behind the podcast, storytelling methods, the connections between food, culture, and community, Appalachian identity, and much more.
The Pickle Shelf Radio Hour is produced in collaboration with Lost Creek Farm and the Daily Yonder. You can catch up on the first four episodes and find brand new related content on the show page. Episodes are also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts.
Anya Slepyan, Reporting Fellow at the Daily Yonder: Easy questions to start out. How did you all meet and how did you come up with the idea for the podcast?
Jan Pytalski, Associate Editor at the Daily Yonder: I’ll start, because that’s a pretty romantic story, which is, we were both at the time working for 100 Days in Appalachia as contributing writers and editors. We met at one of the retreats for the staff. I was sort of quasi familiar with Mike’s work through 100 Days. And I just thought it would be cool to sort of get to know each other, and that was an opportunity. And the idea for the podcast came up when I spotted, what’s the proper name for it? Not a competition. A contest. At the time they were pitching it as podcast proposals for shows that would highlight urban rural divide. And so I was in DC. Mike was in West Virginia as he still is. And so I kind of thought that we could naturally make that work in that setup. And so I reached out, and we kind of went from there. Obviously it morphed since then quite substantially and is something else now, but that’s kind of how it started. And needless to say, we didn’t make the show about urban-rural divide with the contest.
Mike Costello, Chef at Lost Creek Farm: Yeah, it morphed from the original idea, but I think in a lot of ways, the sort of like original sentiment, even though it didn’t necessarily fall along urban and rural lines was sort of the same from the first time we kind of hung out. We were talking about all these sort of surprising similarities. When Jan would come out to Virginia, we would talk about how either the place looked kind of similar or certain things about culture, and most of that was around food, right? So there was a lot that was similar when Amy and I would cook certain dishes, there would be its equivalent, whether it was farmer’s cheese or this kind of like salted fish or sausage making traditions or whatever it was.
Mike: Right. Yeah. So that kind of influenced the name too, because we sort of would like geek out on pickles and either pickled cucumbers here or pickled herring that Jan would bring from Poland or something. So yeah. There was so much similarity and sometimes we would get the chance to kind of hang out and sort of experience these things together that were very rich and story worthy.
And his experiences overlap that it was other people that we knew through our community here in West Virginia, like the Spanish sausage makers. So when we go and experience these things, it was like even more overlap on all the different sides. Right? So that’s what kind of led us to kind of adopt this storytelling model, where we were looking at things, at least in this first season, kind of things that were sort of in our immediate circle in our community here in West Virginia.
But we were being able to look at them through different lenses based on different perspectives and backgrounds. We had different backgrounds and could look at things very differently, but there was so much overlap. And that’s what we kind of wanted to highlight was both the similarity and the differences.
Jan: Yeah. And so what Mike said was a really cool experience, because when we started hanging out, we came out to Lost Creek Farm and very quickly I realized that I recognize from just the general landscape too, like Mike mentioned, different foods and styles and traditions. And we started talking, and soon enough, I learned that there was indeed a large Polish population in West Virginia. At one point that it was one of the places where certain migration waves came in and made their mark, along with other groups, Italians, Spaniards and so on.
It went from this uncanny, it was a positive uncanny feeling, that I already know certain things or did they seem very familiar, to understanding that there’s good historical reason for that. It’s a very exhilarating experience when you realize that the two places that you would never sort of naturally connect in your head, turn out to have this undercurrent of shared history and tradition. So that’s kind of what got us into thinking and doing the show and what also allowed for it to be such an enjoyable experience, because you have those aha moments around every corner, and that kind of helps you just have a lot of fun and eat good food along the way.
DY: Yeah. So that ties in with the next question that I was going to ask. To me the most interesting part of the show is about how it connects Appalachia and Appalachian people to people in places all over the world. Just from the first three episodes, there’s Vietnam, China, Northern Spain, Iraqi Kurdistan.
And I think that’s really interesting, especially since so much of the media that I see about Appalachia, but also coming from Appalachia, really kind of sets it as a place apart. And I think there’s this narrative of Appalachia as an isolated place. What do you all achieve by challenging that narrative and why does it matter that your show is showing a completely different story than a lot of people might think about when they think of Appalachia?
Mike: Yeah. Well, I think there’s a couple of things here. One of them just to kind of hop back, I can tie this into the first question, is that, in some ways, Poland to the rest of Europe has a little bit of a relationship like Appalachia does with the rest of the US. So there were some cultural similarities that we found from there. But most of how I’ll answer this question is just that as a chef who, I work through food, but I actually work more through the stories behind the food. So, and part of that is to be able to tell a story about this region. And I think sometimes that’s to change the way that people outside the region see it, but oftentimes it’s the way to change the way that people inside the region sort of see ourselves.
And sometimes, as a chef, I like to spark conversations that challenge the notion of what Appalachia is, because you’re right. There is this sort of sense that Appalachia is isolated, and is cut off, and is sort of entitled to its own Appalachian-ness that sort of exists in this stereotype somewhere out in the zeitgeists. And it shows up when I cook, and I go out and I tell stories and I serve a dinner. And if I serve something like that Spanish sausage, that was from our second episode, someone will challenge me and will say, “Well, I came here thinking that I was going to eat Appalachian food, but this is actually Spanish food.” And it starts this conversation of well, what do you think is actually Appalachian?
And sometimes it’s like, well the sort of biscuits and gravy or whatever. And then they talk about who they think Appalachians actually are. And it sort of, sometimes it comes down to like, well, it’s mostly like Scots-Irish people. But in my community, it’s not. My community here in West Virginia, it is truly a melting pot. And I like to start these conversations that sort of say like, okay, Appalachian food is food of the community, meaning of people who live in the community. So why is this person of Scots-Irish descent any more or less Appalachian than someone of Vietnamese or Chinese descent, who lives in the community and is, ingrained in the community in the same way?
So I think it’s like the story is one of coming and going and being connected to the rest of the world. So that’s not a story that gets to be told a lot, but food is sort of the perfect vehicle for that. Because it’s sort of the most tangible way that we can realize, how certain things come from all these different places to influence the makeup of a community and a region.
DY: And you grew up in Appalachia, right?
Mike: Yeah, I did.
DY: So was it something that you kind of always saw and recognized as Appalachia being this multicultural representation, present and past? Or was that something that you figured out later on? Or just how did you come to that?
Mike: Yeah, it’s a really good question because I think you go through phases when you grow up here, and you sort of see media representations. And part of that phase is this knee- jerk reaction to feel and hold onto this very unique sort of sense of Appalachia-ness. And I don’t want to say that there is not a unique sense of Appalachia here, but maybe it’s more like an Appalachian exceptionalism or something where you sort of want to hold on to everything that you think is unique and different about the region, but then the more you think about it, the more you think of the implications of that sentiment, and the more you do discover that if part of what you are upset about in the way that the region is being portrayed is the lack of nuance and authenticity.
Then it becomes your responsibility to be a voice or to lend a platform of sorts to the people who live in Appalachia, but never get [considered in] what it means to sort of be Appalachian. So I think it is something that you, in my experience anyway, that I kind of came to over the years, but also I think I have this unique perspective in that my mom is from West Virginia, but my dad is originally from New Hampshire. And having a little bit of a mix of both Appalachian roots, and a little bit of an outsider’s perspective, has helped me see things in a different way than I think I would’ve, had I grown up here. Or not having grown up here, but have maybe both of my parents have been here for generations because, say for instance, this sausage making family, a lot of times we talk to people and they don’t really know, they don’t really understand that their stories can be special or valuable to other people because it’s sort of like this, oh, well, this is just how we’ve always done it.
Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to remind us that our stories are special. And that seems to be a thing that we’re realizing a lot with this show.
DY: Yeah. And so another part of the show that I find really interesting is the way that you also connect the food to social and cultural experiences of the people who cook it. So you talk about immigration, factory workers, refugees, all of that matters. And so I guess, can you tell me a bit about why it matters to contextualize the food? It’s not just a cooking show. It’s much more than that.
Mike: Right. Well, I mean, food is a story about people. When you’re talking about food, you’re talking about it being a mark of somebody’s culture, somewhere. And then in that regard, you’re talking about it being a story about people. And it’s about their experiences. And I think in a lot of times, like for me as a chef in Appalachia, when I talk about stories of our own food, we contextualize things because the prevailing narratives are often very damning, and very detrimental to the people who eat these cuisines. And so I’ll give you an example is whether it’s country ham, chow chow or whatever, I’ve found over the years, there are a lot of people who don’t eat these things that were traditional in their families, because they were sort of conditioned to think that they were associated with hard times.
And it was food that they didn’t eat because they wanted to, but it was food that they ate because they had to. And I think in Appalachia, you sort of have this unique… It’s not unique, but it is certainly uniquely prevalent here. And that’s the extractive industry has done this good job of using things like food and culture to keep people down and to feel like they don’t control their own destiny. So what has happened is we use food to sort of shame ourselves and other people around things like poverty. We don’t really tell the story that poverty in Appalachia is the condition of extractive industry, or the broader system. We try to make it sort of like product of a personal failure of some sorts.
When that happens, people will do things like distance themselves from the food of their culture. But when we sort of flip the narrative a little bit, and we say that the story of this food is not actually about how shameful we are because we were ever poor, it’s actually about how sort of proud we are about how innovative we were. And how creative we were and how thrifty we were to create something beautiful and delicious with very few resources. That’s sort of is that from my Appalachian perspective, but it shows up in stories, or in the Vietnamese story, AuCo had this story about sort of being shamed over the sort of the smell, and the association with certain dishes.
There’s a lot of parallel in the way that we talk about immigrant food as being a sort of signifier of class, and therefore all these other things, in the way that we talk about food in Appalachia and having sort of the same symbolism. I think, it’s all that to say is that we contextualize things to sort of take control and recapture these narratives that are about them, and about their culture, that are often being told by somebody else.
Jan: I think there’s plenty of stories, well, everywhere, but in Appalachia, since we are looking at the region closer. That once you start contextualizing those things, you realize how many stories about different things are behind the food that is being, in the end, presented on the plate. Right? One of the earliest examples that I’ve learned about was the example of ramp harvesting in West Virginia, in Appalachia, where it’s a wild garlic or however you want to classify it, but beyond just picking it in season to use in your cooking, it’s a story about the traditional foraging. It’s a story about foraging in a sustainable manner, that allows you to go back year after year to those patches. It’s a story about families and people having their spots that they go back to and take care of, and look after. It’s also a story about what happens when powers that be, try to capitalize, yet again, on somebody else’s culture, right?
We’ve looked at what happens when a certain ingredient goes from being frowned upon to being cool and trendy, and all those restaurants in DC and New York, wherever, recognize that it’s a cool thing now. They start extracting it from the region, which can be destructive in the long run because it’s a quick profit. They often don’t pay fair money for it. But for folks who are in dire straits, it might be attractive to do it anyway. It’s this web of connections that is very interesting, and important, to kind of expose. At the end of the day, what you get on the plate, and the way it’s presented, it has all those layers of stories behind it from where it came from, to how it was procured, prepped and so on and so forth.
Mike: Yeah, there’s a lot of, food can be a very cautionary tale in that regard. I think what’s funny right now is that across Appalachia, there are all these conversations about how we diversify the economy. There’s also a lot of sort of honing in on things that we think are uniquely Appalachia, and ramps is certainly one of those things. There are all these initiatives to beef up ramp harvesting, and try to get more people to buy ramps in other places. I don’t really know how I feel about that because I think if we’re not careful, food can just become another extractive industry where if you’re paying a guy $2 a pound to rip up an entire ramp patch, and not paying any mind to sustainability. And you’re selling it for $30 a pound in DC, or however much on a plate at a restaurant, does that help or does that hurt the region?
Unfortunately, it sort of reinforces that culture of extractive industry and sort of exportation of the wealth. I mean, that’s an issue that I think in the coming seasons we want to look at more is the sort of conundrum about things like that, and ramps specifically. That was one of the ones that we had really sort of hoped to do some recording around this spring, but, and COVID really threw a wrench in everything for all of our production. There weren’t very many community ramped dinners this spring that we could go check out.
DY: Switching gears just a bit, so one of the, maybe more intense scenes, in the podcast is the one about when you went to collect fresh blood for the sausage. I’m usually a bit squeamish, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I ended up finding it really touching, which I didn’t expect. I’m just wondering what conversations you all had as producers about that scene and deciding to put that in there, and the way you wanted to tell that story?
Mike: Yeah. It was interesting. I mean, I think from the get go, we knew we were going to include it rather prominently because it is such an important part of this process of making this specific kind of sausage compared to other kinds. I mean, there’s so many people around here [who] slaughter their own hogs and make their own sausage, but I think what is particularly unique around here is that that sort of represents yet another sort of bridge in the community. And that oftentimes is a person who’s raised the animal during the slaughtering who is making the sausage, right? A lot of the sausages around here is you’ll slaughter your own hog, you’ll make your own sausage, but in this case the Spanish families have this long history of connecting with other farmers who are doing the slaughtering. There’s all these stories that play here. One is about sort of, this kind of culture of thrift and using everything that you have. But there’s also, I think, someone had briefly mentioned in the episode, this stigma around using the blood and that it was the poor people who have to eat the scraps, right? That’s who eats the blood.
That’s so disgusting. That’s gruesome that these people are using this blood and slaughtering these animals. But I think for us, we did have some conversations about it, and it always came down to the fact that for one, we want to be really authentic about telling people where food comes from. From the moment that Jan started coming out to visit us, the sort of reality of living in rural communities and especially on a farm like this is, there’s a lot of life and death involved.
Jan, came out when we’ve killed chickens, when we’ve slaughtered rabbits, when we went hunting, and I killed and butchered deer. And it’s been a very consistent sort of part of just life here, is that knowing that cycle. The people in particular, Seth, who was the farmer and John, they really embody all of those.
The value of an animal’s life, but also the value of the kind of community interaction that occurs when people in rural communities helping each other survive like that, and are doing things in this context that is very community oriented, which is like every step of the way with sausage making. It is very much a community process. It always takes multiple people to help do every step, including the slaughter.
I have knots in my stomach every single episode we put out, but that one in particular, because I wasn’t sure how it would be perceived. And I wasn’t sure what kind of hate mail we were going to get with that, but it actually was fine. Yeah. I think sometimes there’s media that they put out, scenes like that with the intent to really sensationalize the killing part or something, but we tried to be cautious about what was the real story that we were trying to tell in that scene, I guess.
Jan: Yeah. I also think the more you dig into like what Mike said about knowing how food is made and where it comes from, and you realize when you’re working with folks like Seth who was the farmer and the owner of the cow. Before we even went out and got close to the animals, he was very specific telling us how it’s going to go down, that our first priority is not to stress the animal or any other animal that’s around it. He explained very clearly what’s the method and how to do it in the most humane way. You learn and you see how those folks respect the animal.
It was the same case when we went hunting with Mike. When he butchers his animals, if you’re not of that world, if it’s not your everyday experience, like it was in my case, you really quickly learn to appreciate it much more if you take part in it. And it may be a cliche at this point, because there are so many cooking shows that sort of talk about it, but it’s true. It’s true. If you are aware of how food is mass produced, of industrial farming and all those things, and then you have a chance to partake in a slaughter like that, and then prepare and eat the food, it can be transformative for how you approach eating meat. And in this case, or at least it was for me, to a large degree. It’s both a factor in how it came out on tape because of that attitude that Seth represents and how it feels for the audience, I would hope.
DY: So another thing that I noticed about the podcast is that the storytelling isn’t linear, right? There’s a lot of bouncing around. You start with the meal and then we go to the shopping, the preparation, all of the context, all of that. And so I’m wondering how that strategy helps you build the narrative that you want and kind of how you decide in what order the story is going to be told and the process is behind that.
Jan: I don’t think it helps in the moment. I think it’s much more difficult that way.
Mike: This is actually why we didn’t get to publish the podcast last week.
Jan: I think it makes for a much more compelling story I think just purely from a storytelling perspective. Whether you’re talking about “documentary show” or a show that’s about real life or fiction, non-linear narrative sort of helps you hook the listener. There’s an element of suspense. But I also think it fundamentally helps put stress or accent on specific elements or issues that could otherwise be lost if it was just kind of going from, we arrive at the scene, and we end with dinner kind of thing. It’s probably the most challenging task outside of like the technical parts of editing the show, the scripting, and making sure that it makes sense, that it’s good in that way. I think I would say for me, it’s conceptually the most difficult part.
Mike: Right? For the episode that we’re working on right now, we had 24 hours of tape, and we had to go through it and we had to make a one hour episode. So we’re doing I think six stories in this episode, and we sort of told ourselves that this is like a good one to do, because of Covid, we haven’t really been able to get out and record with that many people. But we have been able to record stories of the last three years or so of people that we collected seeds from. So it would be easier because the stories have to be short.
We’re going to make shorter stories, and that way we’ll get through this a little bit quicker. But you have to think about how all those six stories fit together, and it sucks. I’m going to be so happy to push that publishing button, hopefully this evening. It’s hard, but I think it is what you have to do. I think in radio or audio in particular, you have this challenge where you have to keep people engaged all the time, because unlike a written piece you can’t hop back to the paragraph that you just missed and read it and get yourself caught up. So you always have to create this sense of flow and movement, otherwise it’s hard to keep people engaged. I mean, there are a lot of radio stories I love. But I think I love them because I’m interested in a certain theme or something. It’s just this sort of model that we’ve tried to keep sticking with us for the whole time.
But also, like one thing that is happening right now, I think this sort of podcasting market is so saturated with these kind of podcasts that are sort of for a niche audience of some sort. Like in the world of small farming, for example, there’s a million podcasts where it’s like somebody interviewing a guy for like an hour, a farmer for like an hour. And it’s just not that compelling. So people in the small farm world sort of love these kind of things, but it’s sort of boring stories, right? So we just wanted to put out a model of storytelling that people could feel like they’re participating in whether or not they’re that familiar with food or farming or whatever.
Jan: Mike is throwing shade on small farming podcasting.
DY: You’re going to get the angry mail for that, not for the blood sausage.
Mike: I mean, I was just interviewed on two of these podcasts in the last two weeks. So I have no qualms about saying that only certain people want to listen to me talk about how I do business at Lost Creek Farm.
Jan: That’s why you give your answers in non-linear order to just keep it interesting.
DY: So yeah, I guess another question on the production side, too, is how did you decide on the topics for each episode and for future episodes that are coming up? Because, I get that there’s a theme behind them, but how did decide on those?
Mike: Well, like part of it was when we first originally decided to do the podcast, when we were working for 100 Days in Appalachia, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We just would take a microphone with us whenever something was happening. So it’d be like, “Well, my neighbor invited me to make sausage in two weeks, do you want to drive out from DC?” Or there’d be a seed swap in Morgantown or something was happening and we didn’t really … At that point we’d never had the time to sit down and actually do any kind of storyboarding or production.
So we would just show up, not knowing what the story was going to be. And we just kind of put a lot of material in the bank so we could come back to [it]. Good lesson for subsequent seasons, I think, now that we have a little bit of an idea of what the podcast is actually going to be. But yeah, that’s what a lot of it was, it was just going out and seeing what we could participate in. I think that’s key, is that participation piece of it, because it is a reflection of how we interact with our community. And when Jan comes out to visit, we do a lot of these things with him. I think that’s the difference.
Another sort of thing that sets this podcast apart a bit is that we’re not going out and doing any kind of cold reporting on stories where we don’t really know the people. These are all stories that I think are as intimate as they are and kind of full of nuance as they are because these people have been part of our lives and part of our communities for so long. Whether that’s people here, in Appalachia, or people that Jan has interviewed for certain pieces of the stories back in Poland. We have a wealth of people like that that will continue to talk to you for future episodes.
But yeah, I mean, I think that is something that we’re struggling with right now is thinking about what potential season two looks like, knowing that we might be in the age of Covid for another year at least. And we might not be able to travel and experience things together. So what does that look like? I think we’re going to have to build out something where we use the supporting content we’re able to do through the Daily Yonder to build out a fuller experience that just sort of is something that allows both of us to contribute and do stuff until we get back to the point where we can hang out together again and record stories.
DY: What do listeners have to look forward to and from future episodes? Do you have any ideas of that?
Mike: Yeah, so the next one is going to be very seed focused, so it’s harvest season right now. It’s time to be harvesting vegetables and saving seeds. So we have a lot of stories about seed saving. The last episode of the season is going to be about wild harvesting and hunting. So Jan and I have already recorded a bunch of material around that, because that’s another place where there is this overlap between Appalachia and Poland, is this kind of foraging culture that is very strong. We talk to some people in that episode that have used the outdoors to establish these points of connection to place and identity that they’re sort of surprised by themselves, and I’ll just kind of leave it at that.
DY: Okay. And then, my last big question was what are you hoping that your listeners will learn about Appalachia, or anything else? What are the major takeaways that you hope that people leave with?
Mike: I don’t know. I think maybe for me it’s just that there’s a story in everything if you dig for it and I’m hoping that people realize that. But also realize that they are storytellers themselves. I think that is one of the most interesting things about this, is some of the people that we talk to or when we show up to record them, they’re sort of like, “Oh, well this either,”I’m not a very good storyteller, I’m not a very good talker, or I don’t really have anything interesting to share.” I hope that by sort of realizing that just people who say those kinds of things to us actually have very compelling stories that it encourages some of our listeners to go and to think about stories behind food, to try new things, and to connect with people on different levels.
Maybe that’s sort of something that’s the most rewarding about this because… Sometimes with every episode we’ll get some messages from people on Instagram or email or whatever that people have listened to part of the episode and have gone out and it’s driven them to try a new kind of pickles or a new kind of sausage or discover a new sort of thing in their neighborhood. That’s … you sort of feel like you’re accomplishing something.
Jan: Yeah, and I think for me, if anything were to be accomplished, I just would generally hope that people realize how much nuance there is … Not in any kind of lofty way, but just to kind of know that those things are the way they are for a reason. There’s always kind of a cool history… Or most of the time there’s a really cool history behind it. It’s a waste of everybody’s time to just go along with the sort of trite, established and old stereotypes. There’s a whole… Another universe that’s really kind of quite close to the surface. You just have to have the good will to sort of peek behind the curtain, I guess. Because it’s not like we did… It wasn’t some sort of crazy investigation.
We just had a bunch of really cool conversations… It wasn’t like we set out to do God knows what, obviously there’s more research later on. Initially if you’re curious, it can sort of show up. In my case, I was curious and in case of Mike, he’s eager to tell those stories. It was a good combination because I would ask questions and he has the answers. For me, that was pretty nice … A set up in that sense. If that kind of makes someone curious about completely unrelated thing in his or her region or whatever … That’s great too.
Mike: Another example along those lines of the curiosity, and also tying back to what I was saying earlier about people being their own storytellers. After we did the last episode, we had a lot of recording of like Jan recording his mom in the kitchen for instance. There were a couple of people that talked to us after the episode.
Just sort of saying that that had inspired them to do things like that, with their parents or grandparents. To just sort of record some of these stories. Just to know that when you’re making whatever with your mom, maybe every now and then, it makes sense to like turn your phone on because it’s this thing for me, like as a producer where I’m able to produce all these other stories about other people, but at the same time, it makes me wish that I could jump back to the point in my life when I was 16 years old and was having those experiences before my grandparents passed away or something. Because we can encourage people to do that kind of thing in the future.
That’s pretty rewarding when people tell us that they’re getting that kind of inspiration from it.
All four episodes of the Pickle Shelf Radio Hour podcast are now available on the Daily Yonder. Catch up on the episodes, and check out other bonus stories from the podcast, on our Pickle Shelf show page. You can also find it on your favorite podcasting services, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts.