This project, “Dinner at the Patel Motel,” represents The Post and Courier's first foray into podcasting, or stories told through audio rather than print. Users of our mobile app can access the podcast, video and gallery by clicking here.
This story begins and ends in Oxford, Miss.
About a decade ago, I attended the Southern Foodways Alliance's annual symposium, and shared a room at the Ole Miss Motel. Nobody involved with the conference really stayed there then, because the roadside motel looked a shade seedier than the lodging closer to campus. And attendees don't stay there now, because local artists take over the venue during the symposium, turning the rooms into temporary galleries. It's a neat event.
But in the mid-2000s, rooms were available and within my budget, so that's where I ended up. As I recall, I had to return to the motel in the middle of an afternoon, maybe to get a sweater or drop off a stack of books I'd impulsively purchased.
The Ole Miss is a true motel, laid out so guests can pull their cars right up to their rooms' front doors. Even though our room was clear across the parking lot from the motel office, the distinctive aroma of Indian cooking that day wafted over from where we'd checked in. While I don't remember what caused me to go back to the room, I clearly remember that smell: It was so complex and enticing that I wondered if the owners were preparing for a dinner party.
Many travelers have had similar experiences. Like me, they may have wished they could sample what they smelled. And like me, they may not have immediately realized that those fugitive whiffs of curry were the front edge of a story about immigration, culinary traditions and the way we all negotiate the dividing line between public and private spaces. It's not too much of a stretch to say that had I inhaled even deeper, I might have been able to detect where Southern politics was heading. But we'll get to that in the podcast.
Of all the tools available to explore the phenomenon I first confronted at the Old Miss, audio journalism struck me as one of the most promising. That's largely because sound, like smell, is wholly absorbing. But I'm not a trained producer. Fortunately, the Oxford, Miss.-based Gravy — Southern Foodways Alliance's quarterly magazine and biweekly podcast, which last year won the James Beard Foundation award for the nation's best food publication — offered to partner with The Post and Courier on the project.
After an immersive weekend workshop with Feet in Two Worlds, a network of radio journalists sharing stories by and about immigrants, I set out with my headphones and microphone, and recorded dozens of hours of tape. Once I reported and scripted the piece, the Southern Foodways Alliance's crack team stepped in: Gravy podcast host Tina Antolini ably handled every technical detail on “Dinner at the Patel Motel,” which we're jointly premiering this week.
Other people helped, too. I quickly learned that many Indian immigrant motel owners go to great lengths to hide their cooking. When an operator has reconfigured his hotel and invested in a costly filtration system to disguise the aroma of Indian spices, he's typically not eager to share recipes with a reporter who comes waltzing through the door. So I'm deeply indebted to Deepak Rathore of the Taste of India restaurant on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard for introducing me to hotel owners, including many wonderfully generous Charlestonians whose voices aren't heard in the podcast.
Rathore also helped us create an online video delineating the difference between Gujarati and Punjabi cooking, which is critical to understanding what's happening on the opposite side of the check-in desk. But we'll get around to that on the podcast, too.
This project represents The Post and Courier's first foray into podcasting, or stories told through audio rather than print. Users of our mobile app can access the podcast, video and gallery by clicking here.