Whatever Rachel Ray: “Aunt Fee” is Cooking up Something Important

I had the incredibly good fortune to find the Youtube channel of Felicia O’Dell (aka “Aunt Fee”) this morning.  Her short cooking videos are quickly going viral…most certainly because they are part of our hallowed media tradition of laughing at raced and classed others (see Sweet Brown, Charles Ramsey, and even Duck Dynasty).  The comment sections for her videos–“How to Feed Seven People With Just $3.35” and “Sweet Treats for the Kids”–reveal a mix of paternalistic disdain of her nutrition choices, irony-driven enthusiasm, flat out racist harassment, and genuine support from those who seem to “get” where she is coming from.

But (predictably enough if you know me) I think there is a lot more to this (admittedly hysterical) profanity-laced series of youtube cooking videos, than a “ghetto” lady making “ghetto” food on youtube.

I consider myself to be an advocate of what might be broadly thought of as good food movements.  I go out of my way to buy local and sustainably produced products (though I am rather ambivalent about organics).  I try to avoid processed foods whenever possible (but find the Crossfit-fueled paleo diet craze to be incredibly problematic).  I value culinary innovations and traditions and believe them to be cultural practices that are as significant as fine arts, architecture, communication, or religious rituals.  I believe in the rightness of food sovereignty and I am convinced that food justice has to be a critical component of any effort to alleviate poverty, racism, classism, and more.

Good food movements also happen to be the subject of my current research.  Specifically, I am interested how to make them work for the populations who are in the greatest need.  This interest is based, then, on the premise that good food movements are failing some people for any number of reasons–lack of exposure, exclusiveness, a misalignment of values, the rural/urban divide, and racial and socioeconomic barriers.  I happen to think this last factor is particularly important and the one we have been least successful in devising solutions to address.

Anyone who has ever stepped foot in a Whole Foods or who patronizes most farmers’ markets recognizes that contemporary good food movements are largely white, liberal, upper-middle class phenomena (much has been written on the topic and if you are interested in reading something, I highly recommend Alison Hope Alkon’s, Black, White, and Green: Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green Economy).  Though I know it is clearly not the only reason, I believe the inability of good food movements to hurdle racial and socioeconomic barriers is, at least in part, due to a rhetorical alignment of a particular brand of foodie culture and good food movements in popular media (see Jamie Oliver or Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten for example).

The celebrity chef, whether s/he is overtly claiming healthful or sustainable eating or not, has come to represent a repository of valued cultural knowledge and a gateway to specific food cultures through the transference of unique expertise.  We watch food network and we become the kind of people who know the names of James Beard award winners, the kind of people for whom Extra Virgin Olive Oil is so ubiquitous that we must abbreviate it (E.V.O.O.), the kind of people who poach and sous-vide, who believe truffles are special, who refer to our meats as “proteins,” we are becoming the kind of people who own a mandoline.  None of these things are bad…I happen to find mandolines to be amazing, but as long as there is an unconscious conflation of good food movements with high-dollar foodieism in European culinary traditions, these movements will continue to be as culturally homogeneous–and ineffective–as they are now.  And for the record, I think it is telling to observe which Food Network personalities’ expertise we have accepted and whose we have not–Big Daddy’s House and Down Home With the Neelys have never been breakthrough series, rather they are relegated to the airtime doldrums of Friday at 9:00am and Tuesday at 10:00am respectively (perhaps saving Food Network from the accusation that they don’t feature cooks of color).

This is why I find Felicia O’Dell’s Youtube cooking channel to be so compelling.  While “Aunt Fee” is certainly not steering anyone toward nutrient-dense, sustainably raised, or locally produced foods–I have yet to see a vegetable in one of her videos–she is gloriously disrupting the rhetorical convention of the celebrity chef, revealing as she does so, the kinds of raced and classed assumptions embedded in the performances of cooking that we find laudable enough to watch on television.  Moreover, in the often amusing and incredibly charming banter between Aunt Fee and her cameraman, she reveals the kind of frank, day-to-day understanding that cooking for some isn’t about gadgets, trophy kitchens, and the pursuit sublimely unexpected flavor profiles, but about how many people you can feed and how you can make food taste good without premium ingredients.

I am struck by the speed with which she cooks and her ease at multitasking.  This is a kind of expertise that is extraordinarily valuable for those without the luxury of time (maybe they work a few jobs), a kitchen or home freakishly devoid of other people (maybe they have a couple kids), or a hoard of off-set assistants to hand off ingredients and half-cooked versions of the meal in the middle of the demonstration.  This is a kind of expertise that is categorically missing from Food Network, foodie culture, and good food movements.

I actively cheer Aunt Fee’s no-bullshit instruction, a Robinhood-esque humbling of overly-technical narratives of food preparation.  Notice Aunt Fee doesn’t instruct us to “reduce the cooking liquid in the skillet to about 10% of its original volume.”  She shows us, “Look at that.  You don’t see no water in the bottom?  This bitch is ready.”

While I wholehearted admit that I am generally enamored with people who have so seamlessly integrated the word “motherfucker” into their vocabularies, but the biggest reason I am quickly becoming huge fan of Aunt Fee is because she cooks with obvious heart and unfiltered honesty–as she says she “just loves 2 cook.”  She reminds us that the love of food is not the same as the fetishization of food that elevates it to the largely inaccessible and hyper-elitist world of high-dollar foodie nonsense.  She reminds us that the expertise of black women in the kitchen has been a constant in the U.S. since the colonial era.  She is a breath of fresh air in the pretentious climate of good food foodieism in which self-congratulatory revelations about the “discovery” of the wonders of kale or the appreciation of bone marrow, liver or sweetbreads abound, when black folks in the south have been eating greens and offal for generations.  She is like early 80s hip-hop shattering the pop conformity of foodie culture and I will be eagerly watching her Youtube channel.