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.

PINT: Values Lost

Bottles. Glass, Paper Chord.

Fairly early in the writing of my doctoral dissertation, I found, like many engaged in this process do, that there are issues and questions that I could not easily pursue within the scope of the project.  These, coupled with the impulse/need to have a creative outlet for those moments when ideas want to come, but refuse to be written cogently, resulted in the development of an artistic project.  PINT: Values Lost is a series of artwork developed to compliment/complicate my interdisciplinary dissertation project.

Though created to stand independently, the five mixed-media projects together tell a multi-layered story about contemporary American culture, capitalism, power, everyday material artifacts, and the raced and gendered subjectivities that emerge in relation to such fraught and overdetermined formations.  Though I showed this work in February 2014, all pieces are still in progress.

The first piece, A Thinking Man’s Game, takes up the historically messy interconnections between the brewing industry, baseball, American identity, and black masculinity in an installation of deconstructed and re-contextualized baseball cards.  It contemplates the economic reliance of pervasive American industries, such as beer and baseball, on black male bodies and these industry’s simultaneous efforts to conceal that reliance.

A Thinking Man's Game. Collage
“[In Progress] A Thinking Man’s Game”: Collage
The second piece, Bottles, explores beer consumption as a site of meaning with reference to urban blackness.  It introduces rarely posed questions about gendered interaction in these sites of meaning making through textile-based explorations of the brown paper bag and 40oz beer bottle.  By using the same materials that circulate urban everyday life—paper and glass—in a formal engagement that makes use of a traditionally feminine art, Bottles seeks to dislocate and thus question the meanings that circulate with this object.

Bottles. Glass, Paper Chord
“Bottles”: Glass, Paper Chord

The third piece, a collection of currently untitled photographs, raises questions about the pervasive narratives that characterize America’s founding fathers as patriotic homebrewers of beer.  Given the general understanding of brewing as women’s work in the colonial era, and fact that domestic labor was organized within the apparatus of American slavery for privileged families, these photographs envision a probable (but undocumented) tradition of brewing among African-American women.

The fourth piece, an unhinged polytych, charts the brewing process as a creative interpretation and subversive response to the recipe, as an organizer of brewing practice.  Conceived simultaneously as exploratory recipe cards and archival documents of actual brewing experiences, Gravity and Other Measures contemplates the brewing process as a space of confrontation with convention as it operates within the world of brewing and beyond.

[In Progress] Gravity and Other Measures, Wood, Paint. Collage
“Gravity and Other Measures”: Wood, Paint
The fifth piece is a collection of homebrewed beers designed to compliment the four pieces of visual art in the series.  “All-American Pastime Pale Ale”, “Belgian Blue Malt Liquor”, “Brew House Negro Colonial Ale”, and the “Divine Red Ale” were brewed to be tasted in concert with the visual experience of each piece—making use of brewing techniques and experiments that are intended to extend or provide further commentary on the themes broached in the visual work.

Tasting Flight. Hand-crafted Beer
“Tasting Flight”: Hand-crafted Beer

The Unbearable Whiteness of Brewing: An Introduction of Sorts

Calm Before the Storm

I’d like to begin by giving a nod to Josh Smicker, who is responsible for the truly epic play on Milan Kundera’s classic work that has become the title of this blog series. You, Sir, are a king among men.

Beginnings are Never Easy

In fact, I’ve not begun writing this series of blog posts on numerous occasions because I could not decide how to begin.  I debated starting with an anecdote that reveals the significant internal tension I experience as a black, queer, woman navigating the overwhelmingly white, heteronormative, male (to lesser degree) world of craft beer.  I thought about starting with a list of instructions/disclaimers about how the casual reader should engage with this blog, in hopes of intercepting the inevitable accusations that I’m just another nut-ball academic that wants to make everything about race.  Then, I thought maybe a better way to go might be to introduce myself, try to build some credibility by giving a short summary of my intellectual, professional, and emotional commitments to beer culture at large.  At the end of all this waffling, I figured I better do it all and try to use some humor along the way.

So, without further rambling, the introductions.

Introduction A – The Anecdote

It’s not quite 8 am, on a Saturday no less, as I trace a slow lap around 3,000 shining square feet of empty space. The double doors that open to an alley shared by a row of bars and restaurants were left unlocked by the cleaning crew—a wiry-armed black woman and a stocky, somewhat stone-faced man I imagined to be her son—and so I spend the few minutes I expected to pass standing outside by the door, inside pacing idly and imaging where to begin setting up tables.

We’d let them in, the “cleaning crew,” after 11:00 pm knowing they would more than likely be cleaning the recently renovated space through the early hours of the morning. Having returned, in all likelihood, just hours after they’ve left, I involuntarily shutter, trying to shake off a sharp stab of embarrassment at the folksy nature I’d adopted with their arrival—a compulsory response to the abrupt discomfort of seeing other black folks performing the kinds of under-paid and under-appreciated labor about which I so often have the luxury to write criticism. We still “get” each other though, I’d thought at them with an over-enthusiastic smile.

In just over four hours, my nagging fear that the event will not draw enough attendees to be considered a success is replaced by the fear that the 200+ gallons of beer donated and served by area homebrewers and the 50+ gallons donated by local breweries will be gone well before the festival is over. In just over five hours, the event will sell out and we will begin turning people away at the door. In just over six hours, I will begin to loosen my tense hold on sobriety and see the festival, for the first time, from the perspective of its attendees rather than one of its planners. I will snake through the crowded room to visit homebrewers proudly pouring beers that were brewed in backyards and kitchens, conditioned in the corners of closets and basements. In just over nine hours, I will, with far less speed and precision, begin to collapse and restack the tables that I am currently covering with disposable plastic tablecloths. I will smile to myself with the sounds of enthusiastic complements still ringing in my ears. I will reflect upon the surprising number of women in attendance, still a very modest percentage of the overall attendees, but a percentage that stands in stark contrast to those seen at the events I attended just five years ago, frequently as one of only three or four women in rooms of hundreds of beer enthusiasts. I will begin, finally, to suspect that the festival raised a respectable amount of money for the food bank—a suspicion that will be confirmed a week later when $6,000 donation check is cut.

These are excerpts from the dozens of journal entries I scribbled about my experiences co-organizing and co-managing the inaugural Homebrew for Hunger festival in Chapel Hill, NC in the fall of 2011.  There’s hardly a “story” told here, but my hope is that these brief reflections begin to stir up some of the great mucky mass of “stuff” that has been inspiring me to write this series for more than a year now.  During my comparatively short tenure in the world of craft beer (10-15 years or so), I have seen things shift tremendously, particularly with reference to the presence of women.  But, there is a group that is nearly as conspicuously absent today as it was in the late 1990s (and I suspect in the 1970s and 1980s when American craft beer was getting its legs), people of African decent (that’s PC-speak for black people).

This isn’t an absence I go looking for, despite the frequent accusations of a few well-meaning friends.  It’s one I can’t help but realize.  I’ll try, gently, to make this point.  Over the years, I’ve been involved in a number of interracial relationships (big whoop, I know) .  Years ago, I brought a partner of European descent (that’s PC-speak for white people), to a family gathering.  Afterwards, we were doing the customary family gathering debriefing and he expressed that he’d experienced some serious discomfort on account of being “like, the only white person in a room full of black people.”  At the time, I probably wasn’t as sensitive as I needed to be, pointing out that I had a name for the reverse condition (being “like, the only black person in a room full of white people”) and that name was “school.”  But painful relationship memories aside, there’s a bit of perspective-taking that I hope can be opened up as a result of this little story.  Even the most secure, confident, not-racist, jazz appreciating, white folks out there who “have like four black friends” notice when they are the only one in a room full of black people and feeling discomfort in this situation is part of the complexity of being human, not inherently racist.  It should follow that black folks, like myself, navigating similar situations, who happen to notice and voice their thoughts about them aren’t playing the race card.  Rather, we are noticing what’s plainly obvious around us… and this is something I can’t help but notice in every quality bottle shop I enter, every taproom, every tasting dinner, homebrew shop, festival, or brewery tour.  From every casual scanning of a craft brewery’s website to the Staff page of Brewers Association, it’s pretty obvious to anyone inclined to notice that craft beer is remarkably white.

Introduction B – The Rules

Cultural criticism is a funny practice.  For all the thought and over-thought that gets put into it, it’s tremendously easy to pull things out of it that aren’t intended.  In an effort to address some of the more likely ways this could happen, I’d like to spell out some rules and disclaimers for this blog series.

  1. White people, nothing is your fault.  I know that sounded super crazy, but I mean it.  Nothing here is meant to put any group of people on the defensive, suggest culpability, or place the responsibility to change the current state of things on any one group of people.  (Though if anyone feels inclined to offer reparations in the form of craft beer, email me and I will send an address through which you may absolve your guilt).  Lord knows, I wish that some committee of crusty old, racist, greedy capitalist types were off somewhere pulling the strings on things like this so that there actually was someone to “blame,” but in the absence of such a group lets just say that things are the way they are because of the intersecting influences of an innumerable number of cultural, social, political, and economic factors.  This series of blog posts can be taken, then, as a feeble attempt to wrap my head around some of what we might call “significant” factors.
  2. I’m not talking about your friend.  As a college professor, I’ve become familiar with a number of interesting knee-jerk responses to particular types of shared information.  There is perhaps none more predictable than the responses given to generalized information about cultural inequity.  For example, I might offer, “Women in the United States earn 77 cents to each dollar that men earn for comparable work.”  In response, I might get, “Well, I have a friend who works at a PR firm in town and she earns more than her male associates and also she got a raise before all of them and also she knows how to change a tire.”  Generalized information isn’t offered to explain EVERY situation, but rather speak to the majority, what is considered “normal,” or the status quo.  In short, your friend is rad.
  3. Yes, I have heard Garrett Oliver… and I have a large beer-foodie crush on him.  Unfortunately, the existence of one black craft beer superhero doesn’t do much to change the widespread phenomena about which I’ll be blogging.
  4. The world is not black and white.  I am afraid I am already guilty of a gross omission, of distilling the cultural landscape of craft beer into two racial categories, which we all know is a far cry from reality.  The fact is, craft beer is diversifying, and I do not want to take attention away from that process.  At the same time, I suspect that some of the old preconceptions and stereotypes that falsely divided the US into a black and white nation are what are at work within the brewing industry — certainly within “Big Beer” but also within the craft segment.  I use this false dichotomy in order to 1) draw attention to its falsity and 2) be frank about the kinds of assumptions people make.  In no way do I want to exclude the experiences of other groups of people (particularly those who are regularly “othered”).
  5. Comments are welcome and encouraged!   I have two great aspirations for this blog series. First, that more people than those I can personally threaten will read it and, second, that folks will comment.  To be honest, I have been terribly afraid to say many of things I have said already and will be saying over the coming days and weeks, not because they are overly inflammatory (I hope), but because in my experience they are simply not talked about. It would be tremendous if this series helped to bring a little more volume to this conversation.  Just keep it classy folks.

Introduction C – About Myself

This blog series is a result of the fact that I think about craft beer all the time… really.  I am completing completed a Ph.D. in Communication & Cultural Studies at the University of North Carolina (GO HEELS!) and writing  wrote my dissertation about the cultural-economic condition of the American Brewing Industry since the turn of the 20th century.  You can read some of this research soon.  “Drinking Local: Sustainable brewing, alternative food networks, and the politics of valuation,” will appears in a forthcoming the edited volume from Lexington Press,  Food and Everyday Life.  I supported myself through graduate school, in part, by managing purchasing for the Homebrew and Winemaking arm of Fifth Season Gardening Company a “Brew-and-Grow” retailer with five locations in NC and VA — through which, I gained first-hand knowledge of some of the industry’s largest manufacturers, growers, and wholesalers of brewing supplies and ingredients.  I am an avid homebrewer who has taught numerous  classes on  homebrewing and have had the good fortune to speak at a couple of festivals and academic conferences on the topic.  Finally, and like most anyone who would be reading this blog entry, I love beer.  I love drinking it and talking about it and making it and the community it engenders.  I love learning about it and teaching others about it and the sense of like-mindedness I experience around other craft beer drinkers. And I want to make clear that this sense of community, of like-mindedness, exists in spite of the racial disparities I’ll be discussing here.  It is not my intention to chastise, rather to hold up a mirror to a community of which I am proudly a member.  I believe, as Christopher O’Brien, suggests that beer can be a catalyst for positive change in the world.  And if we are to make that change, we need to do so intelligently.


NEXT UP >>> Part 1: Paper Bags, 40 oz Bottles, & Malt Liquor Sub-Brands: How Big Beer helped to Define Black Beer Culture