If you're reading this, you're probably a lot like me. You love to eat, love the latest kitchen gadgets and perusing farmer's markets and the like for the freshest ingredients possible. You love the sheer erotic qualities of consuming and preparing and being served food. You love to talk food, and, much as you hate to admit it, you like watching the occasional television show about food. Which, pretty much, means you've probably tuned in the Food Network from time to time. (It's OK, we all do. We need some to carry us through to the next airing of Hell's Kitchen and Top Chef and whatever wacky new project Anthony Bourdain's got himself into.)
If you've gotten this far, and are still somewhat like me (poor bastard), you've probably noticed a common denominator that characterizes these programs. No, I don't mean the shameless product placement -- this article brought to you by the 2003 Apple iBook 12-inch G4! -- or the slew of catchphrases that get more ridiculous by the damn (bam?) year.
No, to paraphrase the late, great, Tony Award-winning Cleavon Little's character "Bart" in Blazing Saddles, mine is a more obvious -- if no less ignored -- query: "Where the black folk at?"
Just take a look. You've got the downhome, "hey y'all" Southern grandmother archetype in Paula Deen. You've got the sexpot Italian in Giada De Laurentiis, the Justin Wilson-cribbing Emeril Lagasse (yes, I know he's Portuguese or something, but I never let facts get in the way of an angle) and the cocksure, surefire NuhYawker Bobby Flay. And then you have the soccer-mom-friendly Rachael Ray, the late-period Ricki Lake of TV foodies, and her older counterpart Sandra Lee. But a real, in-the-flesh black person? Not on this color television.
All of which is noteworthy, considering how much of the food we eat here in the United States is prepared by African-Americans, and, indeed, was more or less introduced and perfected by African-Americans. Sure, we get a few glimpses of some old-timers manning a barbecue pit from time to time, and the odd New Orleans gumbo god. But in front of the camera, hosting the show? The best we can do is a slimmed-down Al Roker? Really?
Mind you, there is Washington, D.C. pastry chef Warren Brown, who hosts Sugar Rush at, like, 10 a.m. on the Food Network, and ATL native G. Garvin, who hosts a show on the TV One network (a network nudged into being by former Food Network producers Rochelle Brown and Sonia Armstead), which, far as I can tell, doesn't exist, and I get, like, 600 channels. There's also Marcus Samuelsson's impressive Inner Chef, which airs intermittently on the Discovery Home Channel.
My personal favorite (i.e., the only one I was able to watch regularly) used to be Marvin Woods, who hosted a cool little low-fi show called Home Plate -- and as the Commodores sang, "Marvin/ he was a friend of miiiiine," My man Marvin had an impressive knowledge of food and cooking, made traditional dishes with a healthy (albeit spicy) touch, and dropped a little science as he drizzled on the extra-virgin olive oil.
Of course, Home Plate is no more, as the network that broadcast the show, the old Turner South Network, is also M.I.A. Word has it that Woods is in talks with Turner to bring the show back in some capacity, perhaps as a podcast (which is cool, and which I'd watch, but doesn't necessarily reach a mass audience) or some other digital format.
This is normally the point in the column where I try to tie things up, or announce the arrival of some boat of hope on the horizon, but frankly, having scanned the sea of TV foodiedom, I don't see any. Which is a damn shame.
Food, as I and about a million other people have said ad nauseam, is a universal thing -- unless it's the small screen you're talking about. Which leads you to believe TV producers subscribe to this simple dictum: Black folk can cook us food (long as it ain't too fancy), and they can serve us food (long as the restaurant ain't too fancy), but they can't teach us about food, even as they have so much to enlighten us about.
There's an old Buddhist proverb that states "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Let's hope those undergraduates running things in TV land decide to enroll sooner rather than later, for all our sakes.
Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor with Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.