The Native Fruit Worth Remembering

Episode 2 January 18, 2022 00:33:04
The Native Fruit Worth Remembering
Fruit Love Letters
The Native Fruit Worth Remembering

Show Notes

“A perfume so intense it confuses the senses.”

One of North America’s least-known native fruits, the pawpaw deserves a stage of its own. Jessamine chats with historian, writer and citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Devon Mihesuah. Having grown up eating pawpaws, Devon wants pawpaw fruits to be available to Indigenous communities for years to come. To explore a pathway to pawpaw preservation through cultivation, Jessamine speaks with Neal Peterson, a plant geneticist who has spent the last 45 years creating pawpaws for the future.

Topics covered in this episode:

Learn more about this episode of Fruit Love Letters at, on IG and Twitter at @whetstoneradio, and YouTube at /WhetstoneRadio.

Guests: Devon Mihesuah, Neal Peterson

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 0 00:00:00 Hey everyone. I'm Jesse Sparks host of the new podcast. The one recipe from the team behind the splinted table. This pod is all about that one recipe that you lean on. The one you share with friends, the one you make, when you need a little love. And the one, you know, will work every single time. Every week. I talk with chefs and gifted cooks from all over the world about their one and the story behind it. We're here to help you build your kitchen library. One dish at a time, follow the one recipe, wherever you get your podcast. Speaker 1 00:00:29 Have you ever wondered why rotisserie chicken is so cheap or whether eating a plant based burger can really help fight climate change? Or how about what labels to look for? To know which food is the healthiest or the best for the environment. If those questions intrigue, you try the new podcast. What you're eating from food They connect the story behind your food, to what you eat every day. What you're eating helps you understand how food gets to your plate to see the full impact of the food system on animals, planet, and people from conversations with farmers and chefs, to discussions with policy experts on the barriers to sustainability food prints, new podcast covers everything from the why to the how join host Jerusha clipper director of food, every other week for new episodes and more answers to the question you have about what you're eating, listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcast or at food you're eating. Speaker 2 00:01:38 I just spent an hour drive home in the car with a bucket of you. Your scent of Becking rightness. So overwhelming. I didn't know if I should roll down the windows or pull you closer a perfume. So intense. It confuses the senses. My ears flooded with your deeply ripe mango bananas. It's all I can see when taking on the laborious task of deceiving a bunch, you seem to seep into my skin inches deep. I need to take fresh air breaks just to remember this me and you is not forever, which is kind of funny that that would ever even be a thought of mine. Considering the years I spent just tracking down a mere sighting of the elusive Papa natives are often the hardest to find habitat is camouflaged. And as interlopers, we are often lured by bold invasives, yet as a fruit that is eaten by raccoons and posums animals that will literally eat anything. No megaphones sent call needed. I'm drawn to conclude that assertive nose bouquet is meant for us half blind, wandering through life, looking for hidden treasure. That is the land we already inhabit. I'm Jess star. You're listening to fruit. Love letters. Speaker 2 00:03:27 Food for me is a way to express love. I'm a chef in Atlanta and I fold my feelings into the meals I cook for my family, my friends, even strangers. It can be hard for me to say, I love you, but you will know it when I serve you a collared green quesadilla with tamarin Cheney. But if I peel you an apple slice you a perim, pick you a Mulberry with my stained fingers. Then we'll both know it's really serious fruit of course have long been considered symbols of love, even aphrodisiacs on this show, I'm exploring our love of fruit and what it says about us people on this episode, the elusive Papa, Have you ever eaten a Papa? It's a surprise, a tropical tasting fruit that thrives in ifferent climates. It's pollinated by flies and native to Eastern United States. Nothing else like it comes from these parts. It's long been a sweet treat for people living in its range, but it's also, unless you're an avid forager, pretty hard to find these days. I spoke to a breeder who spent decades trying to change that and a historian who still hunts them down the old fashioned way, one tree at a time, Speaker 2 00:04:59 Okay. To start, I'm going to assume that you've never had one relatively few people have. It took me years of looking to finally get my hands on one. And the flavor blew me away. Speaker 5 00:05:14 They're a very distinctive flavor and they're, they have a very distinctive odor as well. And it's a hint of mango and banana and it's creamy. Now, if you get them too soon, they're very much like a perim where they're very, as stringent and very unpleasant and you would definitely spit it out. And then the longer that they ripen the softer, they get like a banana and has kind of a alcoholic. <laugh> kind of flavor to it because it's starting to ferment, but when you get it, when it's ready, it's nice and creamy. And it really is just a lovely, wonderful taste. Speaker 2 00:05:54 This is Devin mahi. Speaker 5 00:05:56 I'm the beers price professor in the humanities program at the university of Kansas. And I'm an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma. And I run the American Indian health and diet project. Speaker 2 00:06:10 Devin grew up eating paws. Speaker 5 00:06:13 My grandparents in Muskogee, Oklahoma had them. They had a huge back garden. That was a replica of my grandmother's ancestors, going back to Mississippi prior to removal in the 1830s. And it was bordered by black and raspberries and peach, apple and pair trees and a couple of Popeye trees. But my grandmother also knew where there were some other ones as well. And she also knew exactly when they were ripe and when those things were ready out, we went and we just cut them open and ate the flesh, sucked on the seeds and spit them out because you can't eat the seeds. Speaker 2 00:06:49 What do you think about when you eat a Papa? Speaker 5 00:06:52 Well, it's always the first one of the year because I watch the blossoms when the blossoms pop out in the spring and they're a very distinctive little blossom. They look kinda like an upside down little cowbell and they're maroonish in color. And I keep my eye on those same trees, because I know that that's where the fruit may form or I hope it does. And I watch it throughout the summer and it's like, okay, here they come. And when they're finally ready and I go into the woods and I shake the tree and I take that first bite, I mean, it's just, it's immediately familiar, but it's also a feeling of just real joy, I guess, because it only comes once a year, this feeling of, oh, I've only got a few days. And then I start getting a little sad because I know that like today I was looking around, it's like, oh, there aren't many more now, what am I gonna do? So it's just a real connection for me. And just that taste because it's so fresh and so wonderful and so good. I'm very careful and sure not to take too many of them because I know that animals need them as well. And in fact, all along my running route, there's piles of coyote and raccoon poop. And in these piles are the big Ole seeds, Papa seeds. So I know that the fruits are around there someplace. Speaker 2 00:08:10 So it sounds like you mostly eat them raw off the tree. Do you have other favorite ways to eat Papas? Speaker 5 00:08:17 Well, my favorite way is when I find them on the tree and they're ready and if I shake the tree and one falls off, that means they're perfect. <laugh> and that's what I live for. <laugh> every fall, when those things are ready, I'm just out hunting for them and I'm usually out running. And so I'll stop and find some paw paws and I will just break 'em open and eat them right there on the spot. But I also do is to take the flesh out of the paw pause, which is kind of challenging because it, they have huge seeds and it's kind of difficult to get the flesh off of them, but I mix it with blueberries or strawberries, persimmons, and maybe even cranberries that I've boiled and cooked down kind of like wojak. And I mix all of that together and then I freeze it and then I'll have some in the wintertime. So it's kind of like a, so bay ice cream, I guess Speaker 2 00:09:12 You're telling me a little bit about the role of Papa's in your diet and your families, but you're also interested in the role of Papa more broadly for your tribe. What was the role of, and the Chota diet historically Speaker 5 00:09:25 Chatta APA as Chota language Papa's are called Umbi. And those people who spoke English in 1834 might also have called it a custard apple. So that's another term for Papa, but you'd have to know hundreds of tribal languages to know <laugh> what it was that they called. This fruit provided that they actually used it. And traditionally they would just know when to pick it because it's very hard to save these fruits. They don't have a very long shelf life at all. It's just a matter of days, kind of like a banana, but I guess it depends on how you feel about black bananas. Some people don't mind eating those, but some tribes, they might get the flesh and pound it and then dry it like the AOI. For example, they reportedly mashed it and made it into cakes and dried it in the sun and used it as a travel food. Or they mixed it with water or mixed it into corn, mush my tribe just primarily, they knew when these things were gonna be ready and they just ate them when they had it. And that's the beauty of it. And that goes along with what's called traditional indigenous knowledge that, you know, and understand the environment where you live. You understand the weather, you understand animal behavior, you know what parts of the plant to eat, what parts not to eat. So they knew when Pop's were ready and they knew where they were. Speaker 2 00:10:51 Devin says, it's kind of hard to know how else Pop's may have featured in various tribes diets in the past. Speaker 5 00:10:58 You really don't read a lot about Pop's. When you look at tribes, traditional food ways, this does not show up a lot. And I think it's because a lot of the information that we have about early tribal food ways comes from the non-native explorers. They came through the land and they would document what they saw. They didn't know what a Papa was and they didn't know what to call it. They might just call it, oh, this fruit <laugh> provided that they even saw it to begin with. Because like I said, the window of time for these fruits to be available is very short. So if they showed up, say in November, they're not gonna see 'em or in the heat of the summer, they're not gonna see them. So this is probably one reason why we don't read a whole lot about them is because they didn't know what to call them. Oftentimes, when we read these accounts of explorers, they're just very general. They might just say fruit. So this is why it's important to really talk with tribal people and the elders who are the keepers of that knowledge, because that knowledge would be passed down through them. And of course the hope is that the younger generation is going to learn that so that they can pass it on Speaker 2 00:12:15 The passing of this knowledge about the Papa. It's more than just being able to find a good treat. Speaker 5 00:12:21 It's a way to stay culturally connected. It's something that's identifiable. And it's a, it's a source of comfort. Papas are, they're a nourishing delicious fruit. And they were part of some tribes. Pre-contact traditional diets. So by protecting Papas and knowing about them, that means you are reconnecting with your culture. You're starting to understand your traditional ways of eating. And I think a lot of people today, that's what they're really hungry for. So to speak is their cultural knowledge, many tribes were removed from their homelands. So they're not even in the same place where their ancestors live. So by having access to some of the things that their ancestors ate is just a tremendous feeling of home, of culture, of belonging and of community as well. Speaker 2 00:13:16 But Devon says foraging for Popeye's has its own challenges, too. Environmental challenges, as well as issues of access and ownership. Speaker 5 00:13:25 We don't have as many resources as we did historically. And weather of course contributes to these problems. You know, if a spring freeze will ruin the blossoms and then you don't get many fruit nowadays, a lot of the Popeyes are on private property. So you can't very well just hop the fence and run over and grab them because they don't really belong to you. The other issue is the environmental concerns with farming and cattle and pig ranching that runoff gets into the waterways and paws are an under story tree that is, they like it kind of dark. They like it shady. They like it moist. And they depend on water, which is why we find paw trees along Creek beds, maybe along rivers, as long as there's other trees growing on top of them. But boy, they pick up that polluted water and it just does not go well. Speaker 5 00:14:20 And the other issue with Popeye's is that once a food is made a commodity, that is once it's viewed as a moneymaker, then everybody wants it. And it's very similar to Morel mushroom pickers. I don't know how many of your listeners are mushroom pickers, but people guard their sites. They don't tell people where they are, because if you do tell people where they are, then there's a mad rush for it and everything disappears. So it's kind of the same way with paws because everything is diminishing. So people are rather vague about where they find these things. Now, when it comes to tribal land, what some tribes are attempting to do is to revitalize their resources on their tribal property so that they will always have those plants and animals available to them. The challenge of course, is trying to protect it from outsiders coming in and taking it Speaker 2 00:15:17 Because Devon says, at least in part, it's a matter of food sovereignty, Speaker 5 00:15:22 Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems. So indigenous food sovereignty, it means the same thing, but it also means that tribes have their right to control every aspect of its politics, economics and land base. And that includes all of their food issues. I wish that tribes who live in the environment where Papa's thrive would find ways to grow them, to bring in plants, plant them on the tribal property, learn how to cultivate them. And it's my understanding that more and more people are doing this, but there has to be consistency with this. There have to be people who are willing to accept this challenge <laugh> of cultivating these plants and this way, the next generation coming up gets to taste them and then they can pass it on and they can figure out how it is that they can pass. The seeds on. Speaker 2 00:16:31 Devin has planted her own little trees. Speaker 5 00:16:34 About four years ago, I took some seeds from some fruits and I put them in the refrigerator, put them in with some dirt and kept them in the refrigerator. So it emulates wintertime. And then I planted them in the spring and the little sprouts finally came up in August. It was like five months later. I thought, are these things ever gonna sprout? And they finally did. So I have some in pots and I bring them into the garage every year. And they grow very slowly. And from seed to sprout to fruit is seven or eight years. So it's not like you're planting tomato seeds. It takes a very long time for them to actually produce something. This is the fourth year and the plants. They're not very tall. They're still, they're still maybe two feet high to have a ways to go. Speaker 2 00:17:28 Where did you get the seeds you planted? Speaker 5 00:17:30 Well, I think the ones that I got a few years ago, I got some fruit from a friend's backyard and she has these wonderful, big, healthy trees. And then some of the seeds I got from an area close to my house where I live in Baldwin, city, Kansas. So it's a mixture. Speaker 2 00:17:50 She planted them in containers. So she ever moved away. She could bring them with her. She didn't want to risk having to abandon her Papas. Speaker 5 00:17:59 I'm gonna take them with me. Yeah. Speaker 2 00:18:06 Devin wants to see tribes, cultivate Papa to maintain links to traditional food ways, but she hasn't actually had a cultivated Papa before. The one she's familiar with grow wild, but there's someone else who's been kind of obsessed with the idea of making wild, Papas, more accessible by cultivating them. Neil Peterson learned about paws in West Virginia. Speaker 6 00:18:32 My experience with paws goes back to my teenage years because I grew up in Southern West Virginia in the canal valley. Although it's the capital of the state. We're a small state population wise, but we've got lots of Hills and lots of woods. And I loved being a teenager. My refuge was hiking around in the woods and learning the flowers and the ferns and the birds. So I learned the PFA tree right along with other things though, I eventually learned that fruit was edible. It seldom fruited in the woods. I never tasted a paw pop until I was in graduate school at West Virginia university. And the year I think was 19 74 0 75. And I was in the flood plain of the Monga healer river. It was September, which is paw season. So I saw the Grove of paw trees there. I think I could even smell the fruit from a distance. Speaker 6 00:19:30 So by this time I knew having read jewel Gibbons, that paws were supposed to be delicious fruit. And boy was I old over by them when I picked up a paw paw from the ground, it was, you know, nestled into the fallen leaves, but quite good. It didn't look spoiled or anything. So I broke it open. That's easy to do because it's a soft fruit. And I had my first taste and right away I was a convert. What is this thing doing back here in the woods? Why don't people know about it? It's not in the city grocery stores Speaker 2 00:20:01 At the time, Neil was a graduate student studying plant genetics. Speaker 6 00:20:08 So immediately my imagination just left at what are the possibilities of this claw fruit, which I'm just tasting now, what are the possibilities? I was convinced that it would become a popular fruit and have a place in the supermarket and just our diet, the way other fruits do. I was eating it and thinking it's a soft fruit. It has a custardy sort of texture. So as I was eating it and already thinking, it's like, boy, there are a lot of seeds in this. And if it's gonna be acceptable to the average UN knowledgeable consumer, you know, if you put it up in the store next to apples and peaches and other fruits, the it is right now. It's not gonna work too well cuz of all the seeds. But if you have Alpo fruit with many fewer seeds and topnotch flavor, it would have a lot going for it. Speaker 2 00:20:57 So Neil decided to look into what had already been done in the realm of pop hop breeding. Like if someone had already tried to breed a superior Papa. Speaker 6 00:21:08 When I went to the library, I discovered that there had been two articles in 1916 and 1917 devoted to the paw. They were by the journal edity and the first one was a contest. They sponsoring a contest for the best P pause in the us. And then the following year was their report on what they had found. So they were appealing to people in the native range, from Kansas to Delaware, from Michigan to Mississippi, they were appealing for people to send in samples of the best that they knew. And they got over 70 submissions. And of course many were not probably all that good, but somewhere outstanding. Those became the prize winners. And so I think there were high prize winners and the number one winner was a Mrs. Keter who lived in Ironton, Ohio, which is along the Ohio river. And they were really impressed in particular with Thru the size of it. It had a thicker skin, which meant it would be better for transport if it had a thicker skin. And they said, wow, you know what has happened? Subsequently what has happened to the findings of the contest? Are those trees still being offered in maybe specialty nurseries? I had to try to track him down because I already conceived of myself being about 28 years old, that I would have a chance to accomplish something with paws. Speaker 2 00:22:34 What he means is plant breeding takes a long time. Each new cross or variety requires years to grow before. You know, if it's any good previous pop hop breeders he learned had started late in life or died early. They ran out of time, but he was young still. He didn't wanna waste time by starting from scratch. He began to look for the trees previous breeders like George Zimerman and Benjamin Buckman had grown. Speaker 6 00:23:05 So it was first order of business. What has happened to those prize winners and like Dr. Zimerman, he had a collection. What had happened to his collection, Benjamin Buckman in Illinois from 1905, he had a collection and I spent, it was about two and a half years of traveling. Not that it spent a whole lot of days, but I did travel to county courthouse to look up THS and records. And then, you know, introduce myself to strangers while I was looking interested in their property. What had survived. There wasn't much that survived on either Buckman or Zimmerman's property. However, the experimental farm is near Winchester, Virginia, Northern Virginia. And it was a farm that was set up in 1926, as I recall with an endowment for agricultural research and they had a collection and that was surviving and that is where my best material came from. Speaker 6 00:24:09 So, I mean, it's really good that I found that particular collection, the director of the experimental farm didn't know much about it. I'm laughing because he told me to look at the five trees of the south of the main building and I did, but their fruit wasn't exceptional. And I asked him, said, well, my impression was there was more trees here and he kind of pauses and then says in a kind of disinterested way, he says, well, I think there might be some Paul pop trees in the back woods. And that's where they were. He didn't really know much about 'em, but there were two rows of Paul old trees looked like they were already probably 30 years old. This would've been 1980, would've been 30 or 40 years old. Although lots of little ones growing. I was interested in the planting that had been done deliberately. And that's where I found my best material, which we refer to as germplasm as what I did is I didn't try to graft the propagate directly from the trees I collected fruit. And then I sewed the seeds and germinated the seeds and they became my collection. Speaker 2 00:25:26 Neil planted 1500 seedlings in two experimental orchards. And he tended to them on weekends when he wasn't doing his actual job. And he waited, the trees took about seven years to bear fruit. Once that happened, it was time to evaluate his cultivars. Speaker 6 00:25:44 We were collecting data on yields and fruit set, which is the percentage of flowers that actually set fruit, the fruit size, how it tastes. And there's quite a few parameters for how it tastes and the fleshiness, which we took quantitatively. We'd weigh the fruit and we'd have to weigh more than one because it comes in different sizes off the same tree. So we'd weigh several fruit after we were done tasting we'd clean the seeds and weigh them. And now we could do a quantitative measure. We could take the ratio of the seeds to the fruit weight. And of course the smaller that ratio, the more flesh there was that's one of the things I definitely wanted to select on was fleshy fruit. Speaker 2 00:26:29 What were the flavor profiles that you were most interested in? Speaker 6 00:26:33 What we were taking note of was fragrance or called it aroma. So Roma, we would take note of sweetness and we used a scale from one to five for sweetness. We also made notes on bitterness, whether there were terpene flavors, terpenes are like the trippen time flavor. Sulfur. Some fruits had a sulfur component, which is objectionable, but we record that. We record an aspect of the eating experiences is the texture of course, texture. We don't think of as flavor, but it's definitely important as you eat the fruit. So we would record texture Speaker 2 00:27:16 Little by little. He winnowed all his crosses to a small selection of superior fruit. Will you tell me the names of your cultivars and how you named them? Speaker 6 00:27:28 Well, I chose to name them after American rivers, that their Indian names, I wanted to highlight the connection of the PPO to its ancient lineage here in north America. And it was a seasonal food item for Indians where it grew natively. And we know too that PPOs love to grow near rivers and creeks. So I chose names like Shannon Doah and Susquehanna Allegheny river. There's the Wabash that's famous in Indiana. And it's also an area where Paul paws were very popular. So I've named all of them for rivers. The other river names are Rappahannock and Tallahassee and Potomac Speaker 2 00:28:14 Neil started taking his Papas to a farmer's market in Washington, DC. I would assume that most people did not know what a Papa was. Is that right? Speaker 6 00:28:25 Oh yeah, absolutely. They did. And everyone wanted to ask me all about them and wanted to talk for five minutes before they bought in. Speaker 2 00:28:35 Yeah. Yeah. And what was the reaction? How did it go? Speaker 6 00:28:41 It was really good response. Many customers were repeat customers. One lady in particular made a big impression on me. She was this little short, probably central American lady. And she saw my booth from like 50 feet away. She started running towards the booth, waving her arms and hands in the air, shouting char Moya, cheer, Moya. Maybe it was the smell. Maybe she could smell them from that far away because they are a close cousin to the char Moya, which is a fabulous subtropical fruit, but it won't grow up here being subtropical. And she was definitely, you know, missing Cher Moya. And she saw our paws. Of course she loved them because there's so much like the Cher Moya Speaker 2 00:29:25 I've actually had one of Neil's varieties at a talk. I tended about Popeyes. I've had quite a few Popeyes in the past, mostly just from my region in Georgia, all wild. And this one was so different and delightful. It was white flushed or almost white flushed, a very light creaminess to it. As you're saying it had a lot less seeds and was very pudding. Like it wasn't grainy at all. And it just had a much lighter flavor than the Papas I have had. Like it wasn't as musky. It was really wonderful. And I like the wild pops as well, but it was such a delight to see what could be done. And it was so different than what I was expecting. I've eaten so many pops that honestly, with the wild Papas, I love them, but I really only wanna eat one because at least the ones I've had can be so overwhelming. They're so strong. Speaker 6 00:30:28 They can be very rich. They can Belo. Yeah. Mm-hmm <affirmative> I hear you, Speaker 2 00:30:34 Neil no longer takes his fruit to market. These days. He focuses on getting his cultivars to the growers who want them and supporting them. What do you see as the PA's future? Speaker 6 00:30:47 I don't think it's going away in getting forgotten. Now. There are people putting in orchards in this country and some in Europe, the interest keeps growing yearly. It's being sold by nurseries. My seven cultivars are being sold by a dozen nurseries and there are other code ours out there besides my own. I think we're really just at the beginning of a success, similar to what Elizabeth White and Dr. Covo had probably in the 1920s getting blueberries established. Speaker 2 00:31:21 You can hear more about the blueberry story on our blueberry episode. Speaker 2 00:31:30 Hi, amazing listeners. I'd like to tell you about another great Westone radio collective show. You don't wanna miss bad table manners. This series, which seeks to push the boundaries of food reporting and narrative in south Asia is hosted by deli based cultural anthropologist Muha Vama season one, which is currently underway, starts in India and explores topics such as a program that feeds millions of children who might not otherwise have access to a daily meal at school, as well as how India's food culture changed. After the traumatic event of 1947, known as partition lighter affair will also be served, including an exploration of how foods like Ric have become frustratingly hip to Indian kitchen design. You can listen to bad table manners now, streaming wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you to our guests, Neil Peterson and Devin mahi. You can subscribe to fruit love letters anywhere you get your podcasts, and we'll be back next week. With more love letters to fruit, Fruit love letters is part of what stone radio collective. Thank you to the fruit love letters, team producer, Joof audio editor, Bethany sands researcher, Carolyn Crosby and intern indigo Clarkson. I'd also like to thank Wetstone founder, Steven Satterfield, Wetstone radio collective executive producer, Celine Glaser sound engineer, max cold associate producer, Quintin, Lebo, and sound intern, Simon lavender Speaker 2 00:33:33 I'm Justin star. Thanks for listening to fruit love letters. You can learn more about this [email protected] at Instagram and Twitter at Wetstone radio And subscribe to our YouTube channel Westone radio collective for more podcast, video content, You can learn more about all things happening at.

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