Everyone’s comfort food is different, but the feeling of safety and security is the same. For farmer and food activist Sunil Patel, comfort food is a bowl of khichdi—a porridge of rice and mung beans with potatoes and cozy spices. His mother taught him how to make it, and he credits her for his dedication to food justice and his deep understanding of Indian flavors.
[00:00:00] [cooking montage].
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:00:00] This is Skillet, the podcast where we cook together and listen to each other. I’m Jen.
Cass Herrington: [00:00:06] And I’m Cass.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:00:07] There is a word that comes up a lot here on Skillet.
Cass Herrington: [00:00:11] Comfort.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:00:11] The idea of comfort food, something that makes you feel safe and secure whether it’s with yourself, or with your family, or with your friends.
Cass Herrington: [00:00:19] It’s like a hug on a plate.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:00:21] We’ve noticed that everyone’s comfort food is different. For some people it’s a bowl of chicken and dumplings.
Cass Herrington: [00:00:26] For others it’s a blueberry hand pie fresh from the oven.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:00:30] So what’s your comfort food, Cass?
Cass Herrington: [00:00:31] It kind of depends on my mood and how much time I have, but if I’m in a pinch, I like arroz con leche, just a bowl of white rice and warm milk with a little cinnamon.
Cass Herrington: [00:00:42] Oh that sounds good. For me, I love a roast chicken. It reminds me of Shabbat dinner at my grandmother’s house and it’s something I still crave on Friday nights when the sun goes down.
Cass Herrington: [00:00:52] For today’s storyteller, comfort tastes like a bowl of khichdi, a porridge of rice and mung beans with potatoes and super cozy spices.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:01] It’s a common dish in many Indian households.
Cass Herrington: [00:01:04] It’s often a baby’s first meal because it’s soft and easy to make.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:08] For farmer and food activist Sunil Patel, khichdi brings back memories of being in his mother’s kitchen.
Cass Herrington: [00:01:15] She taught him how to cook and she’s still known as one of the best cooks in the Indian American community where he grew up.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:22] Sunil is all about hospitality. When we went over to his house in Asheville, North Carolina.
Cass Herrington: [00:01:28] Just around the corner from where I live.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:31] He made us feel welcome from the moment we walked in his living room.
Cass Herrington: [00:01:34] The windows were open, the fall breeze wafted through the kitchen…
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:37] But it wasn’t a sleek gourmet kitchen.
Cass Herrington: [00:01:41] There was an electric stove, a well-loved round table. It was actually kind of a lot like my kitchen.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:46] So we felt right at home.
Cass Herrington: [00:01:48] We wanted you all to get to know Sunil because he has a heart for justice and a passion for fresh produce.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:01:54] He’s a real vegetable nerd.
Cass Herrington: [00:01:57] He’ll tell you about the origin of each ingredient, down to the very neighborhood where he grew it.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:02:02] He’s grown food in pretty much every part of town where I’ve lived here in Asheville North Carolina.
Cass Herrington: [00:02:06] And Sunil hosts Indian suppers where he shares the dishes he grew up with based on what’s fresh from the farm.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:02:15] He’s also involved in several food justice projects and works to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables in low-income areas of our city.
Cass Herrington: [00:02:23] He’s a really passionate guy, and for someone who invests so much in his community, he’s pretty humble and soft spoken.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:02:30] We enjoyed getting to know him and we think he will too.
Cass Herrington: [00:02:34] We’ll have Sunil take it from here.
Sunil Patel: [00:02:37] My name is Sunil Patel and we’re making khichdi.
Sunil Patel: [00:02:42] Growing up at least once a week in my household, it was a vegetarian household, so beans and rice were part of every meal, but once a week we would do khichdi, which is beans and rice cooked together and spiced up in my specific mother’s way. And my sister and I just loved it. It goes with a kind of savory roasted cumin buttermilk, you kind of just like spoon that on as you’re eating it. And both my sister and I just love yogurt products of all sorts. [laugh] And so being able to just like eat both of those things together just like so good. Super hot. Yeah ,super comforting.
[00:03:23] [peeling garlic].
Sunil Patel: [00:03:23] I’m peeling garlic! This is garlic I grew in West Asheville. This variety is really cool because it’s like so easy to peel. The drier gets like as it stores, the easier and easier it gets. Like sometimes the peels just like sloughed off. My mom usually just cuts them into like little cubes, like really teeny little cubes, but I tend to smash them at first just cause it’s a little faster.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:04:01] What are your parents like?
Sunil Patel: [00:04:03] They’re really sweet. They created a culture of like expressing our love through food. They moved from India in the mid 70s to the states, made careers. My dad was a civil engineer and my mom actually was a housewife for most of our childhood and then she went to school and became a lab technician.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:04:28] Do you know why they wanted to come to the US?
Sunil Patel: [00:04:30] Because it was a lot easier to make a safe secure way to raise kids. Like that’s the main driving reason. So I consider myself and my peers in that generation like so blessed for having that kind of dedication from their parents to such an extreme extent. America was the way to like make the big bucks and you know make the American dream, the immigrant American dream happen kind of thing you know, and so that was probably part of it too. But I think in India like the long term kind of security and the long term kind of potential and all that stuff was less than it could be here if you just got a degree and got educated in a profession.
[00:05:25] [washing rice].
Sunil Patel: [00:05:25] So we’re gonna soak a mix of jasmine and basmati rice with mung beans. I do this also with a number of handfuls.
[00:05:35] [crinkling rice bag].
Sunil Patel: [00:05:36] And so I’m doing two, let’s do three handfuls. It’s a mix of like mostly jasmine rice and some basmati rice. Now I’m washing it. It’s not as important with khichdi to wash because you end up with like a really porridge-y thing. But getting the startch off when I make regular rice so the water runs clear it like a thing that’s normally done, but with khichdi you can keep some of the starches in.
[00:06:15] [water running down drain].
Sunil Patel: [00:06:15] I’m just washing it to kind of get any like dust that might be in there whenever out.
Sunil Patel: [00:06:22] One of the biggest memories is that show Mission Impossible. Every Mission Impossible day of the week, we would have khichdi and Mission Impossible together [laugh] so I think about Mission Impossible, the show, like way back in the 80s maybe quite often when I’m eating this.
Sunil Patel: [00:06:42] So we’re going to chop some green chilies. I wanted to get some Indian varieties of hot peppers because green hot peppers are very integral to Indian cooking because the green chilis, they give off, like, they have the spice but they have this like green flavor to them that like a red chili, you would have more of a sweetness to it. And I got these Indian varieties because they come in like a whole variation of spice levels and you actually don’t really want like a super super spicy pepper for a lot of things because you want that green flavor to be in there and you can’t over spice things. So the hot peppers are grown in Montford and the onions were grown in West Asheville.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:07:33] I like that you can name the provenance of the ingredients on neighborhood here, not just region or state, you know, like literally the neighborhood, this neighborhood, that neighborhood.
Sunil Patel: [00:07:46] Yeah, it’s fun to be able to pinpoint it to such close locations.
[00:07:52] [crinckle of paper bag]
Sunil Patel: [00:07:53] I’ll get some potatoes washed. My mom usually uses russet potatoes but I just kind of use whatever I got. It’s a mix of varieties. Red gold, and mountain rose and red fingerling potatoes.
[00:08:24] [Water running down drain].
Sunil Patel: [00:08:24] These little ones are great for because you don’t have to chop them.
Cass Herrington: [00:08:28] I just want to say that they’re really cute.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:08:31] They are extremely adorable and like little buttons.
Cass Herrington: [00:08:36] They’re tiny tots.
Sunil Patel: [00:08:39] These red ones, I guess some of them are small but they have like a pink inside and that just kinda makes them even cuter.
Sunil Patel: [00:08:49] This is ghee, which is clarified butter.
[00:08:54] [clinking of spoon in ghee jar].
Sunil Patel: [00:08:54] My mom actually uses oil, but having learned about nutrition through the years, I try to use more stable fats for the high heat cooking.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:09:08] So do you make your own ghee or do you buy that someplace in town?
Sunil Patel: [00:09:11] I make it.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:09:14] The inviting smell of hot ghee warmed lots of homes into Sunil’s community.
Cass Herrington: [00:09:18] He grew up in Pittsburgh with his parents and sister and lots of other first generation Indian Americans.
Sunil Patel: [00:09:26] When you’re in like a sizable first generation Indian community, all your peers will like fall on that spectrum of like really kind of Americanized and really still like retaining a lot of Indian-ness and I, like growing up, felt I think more on the Americanized side of the spectrum. But I was also kind of on this hippie spiritual side of the spectrum as well which like overlaps with Indian culture a lot. So like those pieces that that culture like really like grabbed on to like Indian classical music and Hindu philosophy and Buddhist philosophy and all that kind of stuff like I was really holding onto in a deep way. But like the pop like Bollywood Indian culture was stuff that I was actually like shunning in a way and I would shun like any pop culture at that time. Now I’m kind of like more appreciative of pop culture. But back then that’s kind of where I fell on the spectrum. And so I think of myself as like being more Indian because I was into the super traditional Indian things whereas everyone else was into this like new fangled poppy stuff you know. And so internally I’d be like, “Oh I’m like even more appreciative in Indian culture than my parents because like I’m like studying the scriptures more and I’m listening to this like far out like Indian classical music,” and stuff like that.
Cass Herrington: [00:10:44] However the kitchen was a place where Sunil’s mom shared her Indian traditions.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:10:50] And while Sunil feels free to reinterpret her recipes to reflect the ingredients he grows on his farm, when he thinks back to where his love of food came from, he credits his mom.
Sunil Patel: [00:11:00] I attribute all my like, although I do lots of different styles now, I attribute everything to her and also to my family as a whole. For like learning to taste and to discern what’s good and not good in that kind of thing. But she had my sister and I like going down the basement get some potatoes at the start and then chopping them and then it was always like stuff we were watching and seeing Didn’t really care much when we were young. It wasn’t until I went to college that I was like, “Oh man, I’ve got learn some of these things!” [laugh] I learned like super simple like spiced rice dish that she would make for snack times and then super simple potato and onion dish. Those were the two things I went to college with and then every time I go home and learn more and more I would always ask her, “How do you do this or how do you do that?” And she’s probably one of the better cooks amongst her peers in the Indian community in Pittsburgh. It’s kind of publicly known that she’s like one of the good ones kind of you know.
Cass Herrington: [00:12:00] And by recording her recipes to memory, and also you host suppers, do you feel like a preservationist in a way?
Sunil Patel: [00:12:11] Yeah definitely. My sister cooks a lot now too but she hasn’t like embraced the full gamut of it as I have. So like my mom and I have a special bond in that way I feel where she feels like it has been passed.
[00:12:30] [spices popping in pan].
Sunil Patel: [00:12:30] So the mustard seeds are kind of popping like popcorn would in oil, in hot oil. And so it’s actually like, the mustard seeds are popping and breaking open in there and they’re also releasing this amazing aroma that’s really similar to popcorn. And so this sound and this aroma, like when that happens at home, that’s like when like the stomach juices start to flow like a lot, you know, cause the flavors are starting to get developed.
Sunil Patel: [00:13:01] Once the mustard seeds have done their thing for the most part, put in the cumin seed in, whole cumin seeds. I have the ghee off the heat right now so I can keep the cumin seeds from turning black. My mom always says like one of the signs of a good chef is if they’re cumin seeds are still light brown rather than black because because they took the time to not burn them.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:13:24] That’s why you’re kind of moving it on and off the heat a little bit.
Sunil Patel: [00:13:27] Yeah yeah. Now the cumin seeds are nicely toasted and you can smell them. Putting the chopped garlic in.
[00:13:33] [Garlic sizzling].
Sunil Patel: [00:13:33] And potatoes are going in next.
[00:13:46] [potatoes sizzling]
Sunil Patel: [00:13:48] This is a prepackaged garam massala made by Rajah company. And this is what my mom always used for khichdi is to get that homey taste. I’ve got to use this specific garam masala blend.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:14:05] So often about those nostalgic ingredients those nostalgic smells, and you have to really go by like what you remember.
Sunil Patel: [00:14:12] Yeah definitely. Yeah. I like when I’m emotionally eating like this would be something I make you know like if I leave to just zone out and feel totally safe and at home then I make like a big pot of this and eat it like a whole week straight [laugh] that’s all I eat.
[00:14:38] [spoon tap, tap, tap.
Sunil Patel: [00:14:38] Okay. Now that’s coming to a boil. I’m just going to add the rice and mung beans. So we’re boiling now and I’m just going to turn the heat down to get it to come to a simmer and then it’s just waiting which is another awesome thing about this dish is like so like a 20 minute prep time but I’m guessing this will take about 30 45 minutes.
Cass Herrington: [00:15:02] The khichdi is bubbling away on the stovetop. The smell of spices is in the air. So don’t go away. We’ll be back with more comfort food in just a moment.
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[00:16:42] [music fade].
Cass Herrington: [00:16:42] Let’s get back to Sunil’s kitchen where a big pot of khichdi – which is rice and mung beans, kind of like lentils, It’s simmering on the stove.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:16:51] It needs a cook for about 45 minutes, so we sit back at his kitchen table and talk for a while.
Cass Herrington: [00:16:56] You know sometimes the best heart-to-hearts unfold when you’re waiting for dinner to be ready.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:17:01] You’re in kind of a meditative space. You’re hungry and all you have is time.
Cass Herrington: [00:17:06] And sometimes that leads to unexpected conversations like when we got to talking about the person Sunil shares his home with.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:17:14] He lives with his partner, the first man he brought home to his family.
Cass Herrington: [00:17:18] Sunil talked about growing up gay in his Indian American community and what it was like coming out to his immigrant parents.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:17:26] But first we talk about its food justice projects.
Cass Herrington: [00:17:30] Like Patchword Urban Farms.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:17:31] Like the name implies, it’s not one big farm, but a network of gardens on different people’s properties across town.
Cass Herrington: [00:17:39] Property owners lend their land to the farm, Sunil and his team grow the food, and land owners get fresh produce in return. The rest is sold to CSA members who invest in the farm in the beginning of the season and receive a box of vegetables every week.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:17:56] It’s Sunil’s dream. And while he points out that there’s still a lot of work to be done, the farm has grown a lot in the past five years.
Sunil Patel: [00:18:02] The vision just kind of blew up because urban farming is like a really important thing, not only to maximize our agricultural yields as a city, but also as a social effort, or effect, that includes like food access issues, it includes trying to shift notions of private property, creating neighborhood scale micro infrastructure that can function for viable food systems in the city.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:18:29] Sunil is part of the team at Ujamaa Freedom Market – a mobile grocery truck that offers fresh produce on a sliding scale.
Cass Herrington: [00:18:36] The project is still getting off the ground, but the goal is to promote social, economic, and food justice by increasing access to healthy food.
Sunil Patel: [00:18:45] And the kind of root problem of like food maldistribution is what we’re really trying to affect. And I feel like a lot of what we do with like mobile groceries and things like that are ways to create alternate kind of economies in a way. And so we’re hoping not only to bring food out but to also offer food at lower prices to those that need lower prices. But at the same time support farmers livelihoods, which are two kind of opposing goals that work kind of against each other, and so we’re actually hoping to visit not only like neighborhoods in need so to speak, but also neighborhoods that have resources and so we can start to be kind of tools to spread wealth.
Cass Herrington: [00:19:38] Where does this notion of food justice, as you see it, where does it come from? Did someone plant the seed in Sunil, or did you see something that motivated you to start all of these projects? I don’t know how you keep track of all of them.
Sunil Patel: [00:19:55] Like eating food and cooking was like big in my family, but the farming side was not – although it’s like only two generations removed on my dad’s side of the family, like my great-grandfather was a farmer in India. But my grandfather moved to the city from the farm and so my dad was a total city boy and my mom family was a city people for a long time. And so I lived in Japan for a while and I was in a village there and so farming was all around me and that’s when I was like oh my gosh this whole other side of what I love is something I had no idea about. And so I started delving really deep into it, but it is because of my family, I feel like because that whole innitial connection with food was there from the start.
Cass Herrington: [00:20:43] What did they think of your farming now? What do they think of this career that you found for yourself?
Sunil Patel: [00:20:48] Well I broke them in by studying anthropology in college, which is totally unconventional being a first generation Indian. It’s usually like you go towards being getting a medical degree or not so much being an engineer these days but back in the 70s that was the case, and then go towards technology, computer science type stuff or go towards just business. So it was all unconventional starting with the anthropology and then when the farming thing came in they didn’t quite understand, but maybe like uncharacteristically of like their peer group like they were like really trusting in me in in my decisions. So even though there was probably some concern, there was still allowance whereas like some of my peers might not have had some allowances in that way because there was a strict mentality about life choices and that kind of thing. So I feel really blessed in that way where there was an allowance for that. And then in the process of starting all of that, I was like proselytizing, like to drink not organic milk and they totally bought, totally drank the Kool-Aid with that whole like natural food thing. So that was really cool to be able to have them value my inputs in that way. And now like they think they’re still concerned about like, and anyone should be, I’m concerned as well about the viability of having a farm as a business, because it’s incredibly difficult to make work. There’s probably some of that concern but at the same time I’ve been so lucky and drama-free for my entire life that everyone, me included, just feels like everything’s kind of going to work out for Sunil kind of thing. So I think there’s a little bit of that in there too.
Cass Herrington: [00:22:37] Drama-free and yet there have been nights where you needed to make khichdi.
Sunil Patel: [00:22:43] Oh yeah, I mean yeah running a business. Having a farm where crop failures happen and farm are really stressful. Really stressful. I’ve kind of gained control over the emotional stress with farming that’s there since I’ve been doing it for 15 plus years now. Like if I have a crop failure it doesn’t affect me as much as it used to, but any business is just like you can never finish, like nothing’s ever finished, which can be pretty physically and emotionally stressful.
Cass Herrington: [00:23:18] You were describing, you know, moments in your life where you would cook because, just out of emotion, out of you know having a craving for that comfort. Can you kind of paint a picture for us of a moment where where you were just like, I have to make this?
Sunil Patel: [00:23:35] Yeah, it’s kind of hard to define like what my emotional state is because usually I have to like meditate in order to define my emotional state at all. I don’t do that enough that it’s like a combination of like hunger like deep hunger. Physical tiredness and kind of like a melancholy or depression, depressed state in some way and that melancholy depression comes from many sources. It could be like relational things or pure like confusion about next steps or like recreating that kind of total safe feeling of home where there is no question of security and safety.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:24:32] One of those times Sunil was seeking that feeling of acceptance was when he came out to his parents.
Cass Herrington: [00:24:37] For a long time he wasn’t comfortable telling them he’s gay.
Sunil Patel: [00:24:42] That was a big worry growing up because conservative Hindu Indian family tends to not think of that as a reality growing up in India. And so I kept it from them for a long time. But I told them on one of my 20s birthdays, I forget which one, because I was like, “This is my day. I’m going to tell them.” So I did and it went, I was never fearful of being thrown out of the house because of like what I was talking about, hey’re like dedication to their children. So that wasn’t a fear but the fear was that everything would be so weird all the time, and so tense, and not acceptable and that kind of thing. And so there was like a time after I came out that we all swept it under the rug. There was nothing relevant. I had a boyfriend before I told them but we broke up soon after I told them. So there was no material to work with. So we all swept under the rug and I’m naturally like really bad at keeping phone connection going and that kind of thing and that kind of just got worse because I couldn’t share that piece and so I just couldn’t share anything in a way. And so I had to write this long letter explaining that and that just flipped everything like almost immediately. The letter read like an ultimatum to them. I didn’t really mean that but it kind of was is like if I can’t share everything then how can I share some, or anything.
Cass Herrington: [00:26:26] You live here with your partner Charlie. Have your parents met him?
Sunil Patel: [00:26:33] Yes. I introduced them pretty quickly after we met because it felt serious pretty soon after we met. It was like, “Ok, hey Charlie!” And then Charlie is like the prototypical Indian son in law. Because of that hospitable skill that he has. Like he’s constantly thinking of everyone’s needs and a good son in law is thinking of his parents in laws needs at all times and like putting them first you know. So he does that just naturally for everyone and so just like worked out where like he just became like such a good character in always except for his gender identity for a suitable partner you know. And also he’s like supported me being able to devote so much into this farm that’s gonna take a while to actually allow me to make an income from. So he’s supporting me in so many super significant ways as well. And I think they see that.
[00:27:47] [spoon tap tap tap].
Sunil Patel: [00:27:47] It’s probably done.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:27:49] Should we eat?
Sunil Patel: [00:27:49] Yeah. It’s pretty spicy. I hope you like spicy.
Sunil Patel: [00:27:58] Thanks, I do like spicy.
Sunil Patel: [00:27:59] And there’s plenty if you want seconds.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:28:07] So much flavor. That’s fantastic.
Sunil Patel: [00:28:13] [laugh].
Cass Herrington: [00:28:13] Sunil thanks so much for talking with us. It’s been a pleasure.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:28:16] Thanks, Sunil.
Sunil Patel: [00:28:16] Likewise. Thank you.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:28:24] That khichdi was so delicious. I’m glad we got seconds.
Cass Herrington: [00:28:29] Sunil is such an awesome host. He even sent us home with leftovers.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:28:33] It was just as good the second day.
Cass Herrington: [00:28:35] I can see why it’s a comfort food. The warm spices, soft rice, hearty mung beans, and that dollop of yogurt mellowed it out so nicely.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:28:45] A big thank you to Sunil for the meal and for opening up with us so deeply.
Cass Herrington: [00:28:50] We want to tell you where to find more information about all of Sunil’s projects.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:28:54] Links to Patchwork Rrban Farms, Ujamaa Freedom Market, and Sunil’s Indian suppers are in our show notes.
Cass Herrington: [00:29:00] And check out the behind the scenes photos and transcript on our website – www.skilletpodcast.com.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:29:07] While you’re there consider making a donation.
Cass Herrington: [00:29:09] We’d love your help making Season 2.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:29:13] Special thanks to our digital producer Rich Orris for our logo and website and the delicious homemade pizza he made while we were editing this episode.
Cass Herrington: [00:29:21] If you liked this story, share it on social media. We’re on Facebook and Instagram @skilletpodcast
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:29:28] Coming up next time on Skillet.
Cass Herrington: [00:29:30] Santiago Vargas left Lima, Peru – a culinary capital of South America – to find love in Asheville, North Carolina.
Santiago Vargas: [00:29:38] The energy of Asheville is magical. A lot of people come here from different countries, my country too, like wow, there’s something magical here.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:29:48] Now Santiago shares some of his country’s most popular dishes with his adopted hometown through his Peruvian food truck.
Cass Herrington: [00:29:55] We climb on board to make Seco a stew that’s full of tender beef and zesty cilantro.
Jen Nathan Orris: [00:30:00] Come back in two weeks for another serving of Skillet.