The Podcast Exploring Southern Food Through Immigrant Stories

Earbuds sitting on a table

When tuning into the Gravy podcast, hosted by the Southern Foodways Alliance, one might expect to hear stories about fried chicken and KFC, collard greens and hoppin’ john, Cheerwine and shrimp gumbo. And sure, plenty of typical southern foods are a focus of the podcast. But many of the stories told in Gravy are the stories you don’t expect to hear out of a show focused on southern foodways: immigrant stories, and the food that they’ve brought to the South.

Episodes like Kimchi and Cornbread, Bluegrass Tacos, and Halal Memphis stand out. They highlight how Korean and Mexican and Syrian communities came to grow and thrive in their respective cities, the struggles they have faced and continue to face, and how food has served as a form of comfort for the people within those communities, and a bridge to the culture of the cities they live in.

Kimchi and Cornbread focuses on the Korean community in Montgomery, Alabama. After Hyundai moved to town, a number of Koreans moved to Montgomery and brought with them their food and traditions. Chef Edward Lee, whose Louisville, Kentucky, restaurant 610 Magnolia blends Southern and Korean cuisines, and reporter Sarah Reynolds offer insight into the similarities between Korean and Southern food, and the work that has been done to help Koreans adjust to Alabama while still maintaining ties to their Korean heritage. The reporting is not passive, either, as Chef Lee actively encourages Alabamans to try Korean food such as bulgogi, to positive results.

Bluegrass Tacos ventures north to Lexington, Kentucky, the taco shop Tortillería and Taquería Ramírez, and a Taco Literacy course at the University of Kentucky. Alberto and Laura Ramírez opened their restaurant in 2000 to sell authentic Mexican tortillas. They first moved to Lexington in the 1980s, and have since seen the Mexican population in the city grow considerably. They discuss how times have changed in Lexington since they first moved to the region: how initially no one wanted to lease space to Mexicans, but that now many refer to Lexington as “Mexington” because of how many Hispanics have moved to the city. The Ramírez couple sells bags of 28 tortillas for $1.90, as well as tacos and other dishes, in what many consider the best taco restaurant in town.

Halal Memphis takes listeners to the Ali Baba Mediterranean Grill, opened by a Syrian refugee in 2016. The shawarma restaurant, owned by Mahmoud al-Hazaz, was opened with the help of his surrounding Syrian friends and colleagues. The episode’s producer, Rose Reid, dives into the Middle Eastern community in Memphis, and how food helped them to cope with both leaving their home and creating a new one in Tennessee.

Gravy is a unique podcast, one that does not separate southern food from ethnic food, but shows how foods from countries like Mexico and Korea have an important, and even natural, place in southern foodways. The American South has a rich food tradition, and many of the immigrants’ home countries do as well. Food keeps immigrants and their families connected to their culture and traditions, and also allows them and their new communities to connect to each other.

To listen to the episodes discussed here, and find more, visit the Southern Foodways Alliance website.