Radiolab's Jad Abumrad on Lebanese Cooking, Foodies, and Why He Wishes He Could Eat Like the Jetsons

Radiolab's Jad Abumrad and his parabolic lens.
Radiolab's Jad Abumrad and his parabolic lens.

WNYC's Radiolab has developed a serious following -- it currently ranks third in iTunes podcast downloads behind This American Life and Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!. Its success is thanks to its mesmerizing sound design, and storytelling that teases the human element out of subjects otherwise relegated to the dry pages of science journals. With a new season kicking off this Friday, we thought it would be a good time to talk to co-host Jad Abumrad. The reporter/composer was gracious enough to discuss everything from his favorite neighborhood eats to his addiction to Sour Patch Kids.

So you're living in Fort Greene. What do you like to eat around there?

There's been kind of a restaurant renaissance in my neighborhood recently. There's this kind of fast-food Mediterranean place I [order from] twice a week ... Black Iris. They're great, cheap, and the food is there before you even hang up the phone somehow. I always imagine these guys just circling the block with the food ready to go.

I'm so pedestrian when it comes to food. Ici is pretty good -- I eat there every so often. Smoke Joint, I eat there when I'm working really late. There's just something about a pulled pork sandwich at midnight that somehow works for me. We go to No. 7 a lot. I really like their fried broccoli and their steak.

Any other favorites outside of your neighborhood?

There's this tiny stand on Houston between First Avenue and Avenue A called Punjabi Grocery, where all of the cabbies go. That place is amazing, and so cheap. There's something about the experience of it -- you can't sit down and it's so cramped and sweaty, and you get channa or saag for like a buck. It's this weird anomaly in modern life, where you can get really good food for a dollar and just stand and watch people.

As a child of two Lebanese parents, what did you eat growing up?

The basics: hummus, tabbouleh, baba ganoush, all that kind of stuff. Mujaddara, which is this kind of lentil soup but without the water, so it's very thick, which I know doesn't sound appetizing, but it's the most delicious thing ever. Mulukhiyah -- it's like a 14-layer thing with rice, chicken, almonds, spinach, chopped-up red onions, and this vinegary sauce poured on top. It's something that almost no Middle Eastern restaurant serves because it's so labor-intensive. It takes like four hours to prepare. There's this one Palestinian joint in Bay Ridge, it's called Tanoreen, they make it and it's amazing. I don't really have that thing where people eat something and they're taken back to their childhood, but with that dish I'm like ... Wow, I'm with grandma and she's making it all day.

Any plans for a food-related episode of Radiolab in the future?

We've talked about it. The problem is that it's radio and it's one thing not to have pictures, but to not have pictures and smell ... so what are you left with at that point? You end up with a lot of chewing sounds and people going "Mmm mmm." A long time ago I actually produced this short-lived pilot about eating -- it was called Dish. It was with this brilliant guy, Ed Levine (of Serious Eats), and he would sit down with a bunch of chefs and interesting people and they would eat. All you heard was them chewing and it just wasn't great radio. We've looked at those people who do molecular gastronomy, but it just doesn't strike me as interesting. It strikes me as a magic show.

I was listening to the "Choice" episode, more specifically the Berkeley Bowl incident where you and your co-host Robert Krulwich have to choose one apple from many and you suffer from brain fatigue and make a bad choice. Does that experiment haunt your grocery store visits to this day?

I wouldn't say it haunts me, but I definitely embody that experiment every time I go to the supermarket. We have a giant Pathmark right near our house, which I tend to avoid, but when I do go the produce is just so daunting. It's like, OK, what kind of mushroom do I want? The recipe calls for mushrooms, but it doesn't say what kind and there are 14 kinds of mushrooms. And it's literally me standing in front of these 14 mushrooms for like 20 minutes. I do feel burdened by choice when it comes to food. I like it when I go to a place and there are four things on the menu. Even if you don't like those four things, it's better somehow. I can deal with that.

On your show, you also talk about the infamous marshmallow test, in which children's willpower is challenged in a test that has been shown to be predictive of future success. Do you think you would pass the test?

I think I would pass. I don't really like marshmallows. Maybe if you put out an iPad I would fail ... What food is your equivalent to the marshmallow?

Sour Patch Kids. I can't even go to the movies because they have them there and I just end up eating so many. In college I bought a three-pound box of them and I ate them all in one day. My mouth literally bled. I have very strong willpower, but there are certain things that are like kryptonite, and that's one of them. Luckily, I found a deli that sells them individually wrapped so I can get just two for like 10 cents. It's really like a throwback to the old candy store days.

 

Why do you think that some people become so obsessed with food while others just consider it fuel?

I do think that's one of those things that divides people. I sort of bounce between those categories, but mostly I'm in the fuel camp. Our kid wakes up at 4 a.m. everyday. I take these cubes of frozen vegetables that we puree and put them in the ice tray and freeze them, then I take the cubes and heat them up for the baby. And I always think, god, I wish I could feed myself this way. You don't have to go out, don't have to deal with it, you just eat your lunch and don't have to worry about the experience.

Ha, like The Jetsons?

Yeah, like if The Jetsons was workable I'd do it. But then it switches at a certain point, and it's Friday and you want to hang out with somebody. So I think it's the experience of eating, of being with people. It's one of those rare moments where you stop and try to connect with somebody. I think that people who are foodies aren't just foodies because of the actual food, although it's certainly a large part of it -- it's also the experience of being able to enjoy a moment and live in the present. And those of us who just see it as fuel are probably too insane to see it like that.

Is there anything you won't eat?

I always toy with the idea of being a vegetarian, but I'm one of those fuel guys, so it's hard to be a vegetarian and care as little about food as I do. But with fish ... I eat fish, but somewhere along the way I began having problems with it. Ellen [Horne, Radiolab's executive producer], who used to work in marine conservation, every time she orders fish she has a whole litany of questions, like what's sustainable, what's wild-caught, what's farm-raised and what's not. It somehow poisoned my appreciation for fish, I think in a good way. It's really hard for me to eat fish right now, knowing how few of them are left and how in our lifetime most of them will be gone. Sea bass was a really big thing for a while, and then we did a show about how old a sea bass is -- they can be like 100 years old. It's hard to eat a creature that has more of a history than you do. Fish are definitely hard for me. But otherwise, I eat meat. I'm a fan of the pig myself.

Why do you think it is okay to eat some animals and not others? Why do we get enraged when we see dolphins getting slaughtered in The Cove but don't care when a pig is killed?

We just did a few shows on animals. The lines are ultimately arbitrary, there's no way around that. The reason I think it creeps us out to eat dolphins or horses is that we separate them from the animal kingdom on some level. People have relationships that feel very human, in some way. You look into a horse's eyes and you feel, maybe falsely, but you feel like the horse is experiencing something like what you are experiencing. I think people have that same experience with dolphins. There's a lot of mystique around dolphins, they have this intuition that's very much like human intuition. I think it's about proximity and the sense that you aren't as far away from those animals as you are from, say, a cow. Maybe if you go and hang out with a cow, you would see they're beautiful creatures. But we just don't hang out with cows, so it's easy to put them in that other category. Chickens I think are genuinely stupid. Pigs are smart. There is a guy who has a pig for a pet in Park Slope. I see him walking his pig around. And if there were more guys like that, maybe we would think twice about eating them.

Ha, maybe that's what PETA should start promoting.

Totally.


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