What is it about Slate's weekly Culture Gabfest podcast that makes it so entertaining, sometimes exasperating and yet always compulsively listenable? Maybe it's that the hosts -- Slate's critic-at-large Stephen Metcalf, movie critic Dana Stevens and deputy editor Julia Turner -- are your know-it-all friends who will take on any topic, both highbrow and sort of low, in a way that can make you think, "I didn't know that!" and "You're kidding, right?" They are the bookish, debate-team whiz-kids who will stubbornly dig in their heels -- until it's time to move on to the next segment. They are the people you know who can bolster their opinions (even the crackpot ones) with a dizzying mixture of confidence, witty asides, straight-up nerd passion as well as a lot of words and references -- and we actually like this part -- that require some Googling.
In the last several weeks they have dissected Kim Kardashian's vocal fry, Beyonce's penchant for swiping dance moves, Super Bowl ads and the "s**t people say" meme. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that when Metcalf recently waxed rhapsodic over a particularly delicious bowl of cereal he'd eaten, it somehow blossomed into a duel. The competition -- now called The Granola Off -- will be a segment in this Wednesday's podcast.
To get a Granola Off preview from Culture Gabfest creator and executive producer Andy Bowers, turn the page.
Squid Ink: First some background: How did Culture Gabfest end up having a contest to determine who is in possession of the best granola recipe?
Andy Bowers: A few weeks ago, at the end of the show, Steve Metcalf, one of the hosts, endorsed a granola provided by a friend of his that he thought was heavenly. He also said he'd give out the recipe to anyone who wrote in and asked. Unfortunately, after the podcast went out, he found out from his friend that she had gotten the recipe from another friend who had sworn her to secrecy about this granola, and she couldn't give him the recipe.
SI: Did listeners write in for the recipe?
AB: Hundreds of people wrote in to get this recipe. [Stephen] had to write back a lot of apologetic emails saying, "I'm sorry. I can't give it out."
SI: What did this tell you?
AB: That we had a granola-friendly audience. Once we established how popular granola was amongst our listeners, we'd decided, "Hey, we can't give out the recipe, but we can try it here in the studio." During the same show, our producer, Jesse Baker, said, "No, wait. I have the world's best granola recipe." There was one other granola recipe they heard was really good. So they decided to put together a Granola Off with the mystical one we can't get the recipe for, Jesse's and one other one.
SI: Who is going to judge the Granola Off?
AB: It will be adjudicated and run by Dan Pashman and Mark Garrison, the guys who do The Sporkful podcast.
SI: Do you believe that Pashman and Garrison will be able to reverse-engineer the ingredients of the secret granola? Would they be like Jonathan Gold, who can take a tiny bite of something, make a few delicate smacking sounds and then tell you exactly what is in a dish?
AB: I don't know whether Dan or Mark are quite that sophisticated in their palate. They are enthusiastic eaters. Their tagline for The Sporkful is something like, "It's not for foodies, it's for eaters." They love to do grilled cheese sandwiches. They've made some videos for us where they've tried to put as many things into a waffle as you can put in -- including whole strips of bacon. They're very funny. It's mostly for humor and just because they love to eat. I don't think they're gourmands.
SI: How will the contest be structured?
AB: They're doing this in New York and I'm here in L.A. I'm just overseeing it from afar. I don't know the specific rules. I don't think it will be quite an American Idol-like contest.
SI: Do you mean there will be no early rounds involving substandard granola prepared by easily mockable contestants?
AB: I don't think that's part of the plan.
SI: Are you a betting man?
AB: Not really.
SI: Let's say you were, though. Who would you bet on?
AB: Jesse. She has really good taste. She's a public radio producer. She kind of keeps that whole show on track. She's the den mother of the show. They can get a little wild in the studio and go off on tangents, and she always brings them back to Earth.
SI: Ah, yes, those bring-them-down-to-Earth moments. When Stephen Metcalf invoked early-20th-century physicists, mapping the quantum interior and "almost Blake-ian leaps of imagination" to make the "only appropriate analogy" to his friend Naomi's granola recipe, we had to hit the pause button and wonder, "What does that even mean?"
AB: That's Steve! I love being challenged by Steve every week. I often run to my dictionary as well. He has a listener who has a whole blog devoted to obscure terms he has used on the show.
SI: Culture Gabfest was your brainchild. How did you come up with the idea?
AB: We started podcasting at Slate in 2005. I just started reading articles -- that was the first way we did it. The first panel show was a political one. I was doing regular political interviews with the writers from Slate. Our editorial meetings are done at Slate by conference call because we're spread all over the place. They are so much fun. I just love these meetings. They're hilarious. Everyone debates what's going on in the news -- especially politics -- in a really funny, smart way. I thought, "If I could just capture one of these editorial meetings, it would be a hilarious podcast." It's the way people talk at the bar after going on Washington Week or Diane Rehm. I thought, "Let's do that. We're an opinion magazine. People are allowed to give their opinions." So I got some microphones, set up a little makeshift studio in our Washington headquarters, tried different combinations of people and, finally, we got this one that really worked -- John Dickerson, David Plotz and Emily Bazelon. They really clicked. They enjoyed talking with each other. They had good repartee. So I suggested a structure for them -- three main topics and a shorter, lightning round at the end -- and then I just let them go at it.
SI: We're never sure about this part: Do the participants discuss the topics before the podcast? Or not? Or are there no rules at all?
AB: Each show has its own dynamics. They all send emails back and forth madly all week long trying to come up with topics. The culture one does the most preparation, in part because their topics aren't as dictated by the news. They really try to come up with a good mixture of topics, so they often have to do a lot of preparation -- go see movies, watch TV shows, things like that. They have a strict rule: They are not allowed to discuss -- especially a movie or TV show -- ahead of time.
SI: How strict is strict?
AB: I was with them at South by Southwest last year and we went and saw a screening of the Mel Gibson movie The Beaver. We came out and I was just dying to talk to them about it and I said, "Boy, I really thought that..." and Steve whirled around and said [in a loud, admonishing tone], "NOT A WORD. NOT ONE WORD." So I had to wait until they recorded the show to find out what they thought.
SI: Do you think that this cone-of-silence policy extends to the granola recipes?
SI: So at this very moment the contestants are at home, busily trying to perfect their batch of granola?
AB: I believe they are.
SI: During the Granola Off, will there be discussions about viscosity?
AB: Yes. In fact, they will try eating them in different ways: With just milk, with just yogurt, with a mixture of milk and yogurt.
SI: Will terms like "finish" and "mouthfeel" be bandied about as if they are speaking about fine wine?
AB: I believe they are going to focus on what is the proper clump size.
SI: Will the tackiness of the granola be assessed?
AB: That, I can't tell you.
SI: Should we expect an impassioned rant from co-host Julia Turner not unlike the one she recently directed at Martin Scorsese's Hugo?
AB: [laughs] I kind of agreed with her.
SI: Even the part where she describes Ben Kingsley's George Méliès character as an "asshole/jerk/grump" who was "more of a drama queen than all of the people in Smash combined"?
AB: I wanted to like that movie but it didn't do it for me. I thought it was so slowly paced.
SI: Do you have any thoughts about granola?
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AB: I'm not much of a granola head, I'm afraid.
SI: A health writer, and we are quoting a story that ran in the Los Angeles Times, once said that granola is a way of eating cookies in a crumbled form.
AB: That's kind of how I feel about it. I'm much more of a müesli person.
On March 20th, Slate teams up with Zócalo Public Square for a live Gabfest featuring the Slate critics as well as special guest Elizabeth Banks at the Peterson Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles. For more information go to http://zocalopublicsquare.org/upcoming.php?event_id=518