The period of disbelief is behind us and it is officially Inauguration Day. Last night, after watching a few painful minutes of Donald J. Trump speak about his “huge” wins this past November, I gave up and tuned the television to a local music video channel. “Chip Chop” by Sanjay and Shelly Belly was the perfect distraction. But now it is today. I seek to distract myself some more and I click on the cable box and tune in to the Food Network. Surely there will be nothing there to bring me back to this political reality. Wrong. “The Pioneer Woman” is on.
Self-taught home cook and food blogger Ree Drummond is the star of Food Network’s “The Pioneer Woman.” According to the channel guide, today she is preparing “apple fritters with bacon and sausage for breakfast” and for lunch “pulled pork, classic coleslaw, and quick-and-easy baked beans.” Ree is an American “country girl,” a “ranch-wife,” and mother of four. Her show is filmed at her home in Oklahoma, which she affectionately calls “the middle of nowhere.” (Click here for images of the open fields that are her back and front yard.) And if you go to her personal website she features recipes, food photography tips, and bible verses. Ree’s home is referred to as her frontier and, while I know nothing of Ree’s political affiliations, her show seems to tap into a certain Trump-like American “greatness.”
Unlike the Food Network’s other very popular shows – like Giada de Laurentiis’ Italian dishes, “The Kitchen’s” diverse American and global dishes (importantly, I’ll note that this is a panel show that features both a black woman and a Chicana), Ina Garten’s European and American meals, or Bobby Flay’s Tex-Mex and Latin flavors – Ree Drummond’s show always leaves me feeling a bit … alienated. When Ree invites friends over for scripted meals, there is no racial diversity present. When her children have scripted celebrations or when Ree attends a scripted church function, there is no racial diversity. When Ree heads to the supermarket to shop or to a sporting event to cheer, I search the passers-by and see no diversity. Whose America is that? Certainly it was not my Bronx, USA. Certainly that was not my Philadelphia, USA, or my suburban Washington, D.C., USA.
Admittedly, as a champion baker and home chef myself, I watch a lot of food shows and I have seen more of “The Pioneer Woman” than anyone should. I suppose it might seem that I am belaboring a critique of a thirty minute program, but as the clock winds down to the start of Donald Trump’s America, I am reminded that the America that some of us fear will begin at noon, has actually been here all along, dormant at times and violently raucous at others. American pioneers have been pushing west since 1492. American pioneers have been trampling, pillaging, and taking sacred and hallowed grounds for centuries. American pioneers have been making America great, “huge” even, since its inception.
In these misogynistic Trump times I do not want us to forget that the American west was first to offer women the right to vote. In 1869 the Wyoming Territory granted (white) women suffrage as a way of luring more (white) women to the male-dominated frontier. And in these racist socio-political times we should not forget that it was not until 1917 that (white) women of New York had the right to vote. No, we will not forget that black women did not gain voting rights until 1920 and as late as the 1960s in parts of the American south.
Thinking a bit more about this, the Food Network perhaps thought that it had solved its “race problem” when it cancelled Paula Deen’s shows following her use of the N-word in 2013 and her posting social media pictures of her son in brown-face in 2011. But people have long been critical of the Food Network’s lack of diversity and the whiteness of its hosts as compared to the black and brown, ethnic, and globally diverse culture that is presented on Food Network’s (half?) sister network, the Cooking Channel with chef-hosts like Roger Mooking, Ali Khan, Judy Joo, and our favorite Sister Sister twin, Tia Mowry.
So what does America’s dinner table tell us about America? And what do America’s cooking shows tell us? What does it mean that Ree Drummond has a show and blog called “Pioneer Woman” and her show and blog are popular? It means that Ree is capturing an important segment of the nation. It means that Ree Drummond is making more people feel included than excluded. It means that Americans feel at home in her kitchen. It means that Americans identify with and aspire to live the life that Ree projects. After all, she is just a “country girl,” a “rancher’s wife,” and a mom. She lives in the middle of nowhere and has everything she needs: family, nation, house, land. Her America seems quite great while my America, the America that I have known remains wrapped in uncertainty.
Though I write this from my home in Jamaica, I feel a deep and troubled concern. Tuning into the Food Network did not alleviate my stress. There are, at least, four arduous years ahead. As Donald Trump is sworn-in some of us will will be making our own quiet pledges to ourselves, our families, and to our communities. As the Trump train drives on to make America great again, we will swear on our faiths to make America better. We will be ambassadors of openness and emblems of understanding. We will be pledging to honor the America that represents hope and change.
In the time spent writing this post I have changed the channel. In just under ten minutes a new head of state will emerge to rule the tenuously united states that are America. In just under ten minutes a new leader of the free world will be in command. As I look to the clock and try to make sense of this pinching sadness, I know that trouble has been in the water for centuries. Today I recognize that the trouble was also in the food. Let us not choke on it.