4 Podcasts to Binge Over the Holidays

Three podcasts to make your difficult family moments seem not so difficult, and one to make you hungry.

Long drives, cross-country flights with a lap child, letting visiting relatives control the remote: this coming week-plus will afford plenty of opportunities to catch up on podcasts. 

While the four shows named below could easily be included in a more comprehensive best-of-2018 list, here they have been singled out for thematic reasons. Namely, popular holiday topics family — or how, no matter how heated things get around the table or during a spirited apres ski round of charades, it could be worse — and food.

Please enjoy responsibly.

The Habitat

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, is a small white dome — 33 steps in diameter — high on the slope of Mauna Loa where, for the past five years, small groups have volunteered to live for several months to provide NASA with research and insights it will use to plan for an eventual manned mission to Mars.

Host Lynn Levy hooked up with the six impressively credentialed volunteers who signed up for a 12-month stint over 2015-16, collecting audio recordings made in-dome and tracking their thoughts, musings, conflicts and discoveries. 

Of course, in considering the living conditions for our Martian pioneers, NASA is just as interested in the interpersonal as it is in the logistical. "Space madness" is a term of art, after all. And life in the cramped confines of the HI-SEAS sounds challenging enough before you learn that one of the inhabitants brought a ukulele; another brought a didgeridoo. Rational people may disagree as to whether this is more distressing than the fact that, say, you only get 30 seconds of ice-cold water to shower, or when the toilet breaks you have to manually empty a drawer of poo, or any number of other daily indignities — interpersonal and logistical — faced by the crew over their year on the inside. But it makes for an entertaining series, and a balm for those for whom a week of hosting multiple houseguests can seem like a year.  

Happy Face

Melissa Moore was 15 when she got a call from her mother and learned her father had been arrested. "For what?" "Murder." It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that 23 years later she's still working through the repercussions of that phone call.

Moore's father, Keith Hunter Jesperson, is a serial killer. He murdered at least eight women over a six-year span in the early '90s. The series recounts Jesperson's brutal crimes, tries to guess — often with the help of jailhouse interviews he recorded with psychologist Al Carlisle, who has written extensively on serial killers — at his motivations, but mainly it's an examination of the legacy he left his daughter. Once you understand what your parent is capable of, it's natural to wonder whether you might be capable of the same thing: "I'm scared. I look like him. I came from him. My heart is so turned off, I'm afraid I'm built like him," she says at one point. 

Moore recounts her own childhood, looking for clues either way. Her estranged husband is interviewed at length, and the former couple appears to be remarkably in step as to what caused their split. She submits to a PET scan to search for signs of psychopathy. In one episode Moore meets, for the first time, the son of Jesperson's last victim, who has understandably remained fixated on the man who killed his mom. Their messy mutual catharsis makes for one of the most affecting half-hours of the year in any medium.

Certainly puts any issues you may have with your own parents into sharp relief.

The Dream

Thermometer outside your house/grandma's house/ski rental dipping down into long-underwear territory? Good news! Listen to The Dream and I guarantee your blood will flash boil! 

What begins as a deep dive into the business practices of multilevel marketing and direct sales companies — i.e. the "business opportunities" second cousins and former high school mean girls are always insisting "aren't pyramid schemes" on Facebook — becomes something larger, and even more rage-inducing: a story about the enviable perks of being rich and well connected in America.

The podcast proceeds on two tracks: one follows the experiences of people (mostly women) who've been involved with MLMs, including a show producer who signs up as a distributor with cosmetics MLM LimeLife and reports on her "progress" in real-time; the other recounts the history of such companies, namely how the FTC was pretty vigilant in its oversight until a momentous 1979 decision regarding Amway — which just happens to be run by some extremely generous political donors and personal friends of then-President Gerald Ford — that did most of the heavy lifting to legitimize a business model where, it's estimated, upwards of 99 percent of participants lose money!

What does this have to do with family, you might be asking? Well, here's hoping that if, over pie and coffee, a relative tries to rope you into buying $500 worth of supplements to resell to your closest friends, you'll be ready with receipts.

Twain's Feast

This one is a bit of a cheat. It's an Audible exclusive "audiobook" divided into eight distinct chapters, so a podcast in everything but name.

Toward the conclusion of an 1879 trip through Europe, which became the basis for his book A Tramp Abroad, Twain composed an extensive list of (very specific) American foods that he'd developed cravings for while overseas. That list was at the heart of author Andrew Beahrs' 2011 book Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens. Beahrs selected eight of Twain's 80 menu items, using each to explore aspects of America's culinary history.

In this series, along with co-host and fellow Twainiac Nick Offerman, Beahrs expands that conceit, this time tracking down Twain's favorites in service of hosting a dinner for friends at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. The boys fail to track down their first ingredient — the once-abundant-to-the-point-of-nuisance but now-endangered greater prairie chicken — forcing the chef to creatively substitute a dish of corn and tofu (a nod to the fields of corn and soybeans that have replaced the wild grasslands where the prairie chicken once thrived.) They have better luck tracking down item No. 2, however: raccoon. 

Part travelogue, part history pod, part audio version of Dinner for Five, part Nick Offerman reading passages from Twain in his signature "I can hear this guy's mustache" baritone, Twain's Feast is an under-the-radar delight.