A podcast adapted for public radio explores Midwestern food and cultural traditions

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Capri Cafaro, host of "Eat Your Heartland Out."

Eat Your Heartland Out, a podcast exploring the food and culture of the Midwest, aims to bring people together around a topic that everyone cares about — food.

Host and producer Capri Cafaro launched the show in summer 2020 on the Heritage Radio Network, which specializes in food-related programs. A former Ohio state Senator who left office in 2016, Cafaro created the show as she made a mid-career move to channel her media skills and love of cooking into a project that aims to bridge political and cultural divides. Her 2020 cookbook, United We Eat, compiles recipes representing all 50 states and includes contributions from Democratic and Republican political leaders.

Food “is a unifier because it’s something we all have in common,” Cafaro said. “When you think about breaking bread, that concept, you bring people around a table and food usually gets them there. So it provides, I think, an opportunity to have a meaningful dialogue.”

Eat Your Heartland Out, which is also distributed for radio broadcasts through PRX Exchange, focuses on the Midwest, a region that’s underrepresented in media coverage, Cafaro said. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, she knows the region well. Cafaro represented the district that includes her hometown in the Ohio state Senate for three terms, including a stint as Democratic minority leader, before leaving office due to term limits.

Cafaro did a lot of driving during her time in public office, she said, and fell in love with audio storytelling while on the road. “Public radio has always been a place to learn by offering content that makes the listener pause and reflect,” she said. “It is the gold standard in cultural storytelling.”

Cafaro has produced 29 episodes of Eat Your Heartland Out. The radio series on PRX Exchange includes 21 episodes that have been formatted into one-hour broadcasts. Each includes three segments and a one-minute introductory billboard.

Eat Your Heartland Out is not a traditional cooking show; it’s a talk show about food and crafts. Instead of teaching cooking techniques or sharing new recipes, Cafaro interviews guests who fit within the culinary or cultural theme of the episode, such as Amish and Mennonite cooking traditions, the indigenous food sovereignty movement and Midwestern-brewed hard cider. The Nov. 25 episode featured interviews with craft spirit makers from Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan.

The diverse range of topics appealed to Bill Thomas, director of radio at Fargo, N.D.–based Prairie Public. His state network is the only public radio outlet to date that broadcasts Eat Your Heartland Out. Thomas picked up the series for a trial run.

“She’ll talk with refugees who’ve started restaurants,” Thomas said. “She’ll talk with two people with farms who are producing unusual products. She will talk to food historians. So it’s a really wide-ranging conversation about food, and it does have this advantage for us of focusing on the Midwest.”

Thomas hasn’t heard much feedback from listeners about Eat Your Heartland Out but thinks Cafaro’s focus on the Midwest resonates with listeners in North Dakota.

Thomas will decide whether to keep airing Eat Your Heartland Out or “go in a different direction” this month, he said.

Fred Fletcher-Fierro, Morning Edition host and producer at KRPS, said it is “very likely” his station in Pittsburg, Kan., will give Eat Your Heartland Out “a test run to gauge listener feedback” next year.

“I think if KRPS picked up the show it would be popular due to the very local, Midwest nature of the program,” he said. He is eyeing a weekend slot for the show.

Having produced all episodes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cafaro hopes to take the production on the road next year, as Heritage Radio Network has done with other podcasts. She’d like to record in-person interviews that can incorporate natural sound and open opportunities to interview people in a variety of settings. She’s also considering hosting panels, tastings or other events in partnership with local organizations, she said.

“It is my aim to eventually get EYHO into more of a storytelling format where the interview subject tells the story in their own words and I just provide context almost as a narrator,” Cafaro said.

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