Last weekend, Rachel and I took a much needed day trip out of town. As we drove north of Chicago to the suburbs of Milwaukee, the buildings seemed to grow farther and farther apart. Trees, meadows, and shopping plazas planted themselves in the negative space, the landscape flattening the farther away from Cook County we got.
I won’t lie. It’s been a challenging seven months in the city and this wasn’t our first trip to “the outside”. We had previously enjoyed a camping trip with a group of friends downstate and had also taken a long road trip to see my family (chosen and otherwise) in Ohio and Pennsylvania, while the weather was still nice enough to visit with folks in the out of doors.
In whichever direction we’ve driven- North, South, East, West- the changes in the landscape looked slightly different depending on where we were heading, but one stark change remained the same no matter where we were headed- the names on the political signage.
We shifted in our seats a bit each time we saw one. She removed her hand from my lap. I stopped running my fingers through her hair from behind the headrest. We were having feelings we never have in our progressive little urban community- feelings of fear for simply being ourselves and loving each other, and the deep seated knowledge that we were humans whose existence was outside the realm of what an entire political party deemed natural and good.
Approaching the steeple-specked skyline of Waukesha, we began to relax a bit, finally seeing some blue signs mixed in among the red. We were ready for a beer and a brat, specifically a much coveted New Glarus beer (which is delicious and ONLY distributed in Wisconsin, for those not in the know). Our hosts, Julie and Derek, did not disappoint.
Actually, I should say that Derek did not disappoint. This was my first time visiting their home and it was impressive and endearing the way Derek buzzed around the kitchen, ever the attentive husband, making apple strudel dough and throwing together a simple, fresh slaw from the purple cabbage cut just moments prior from their garden. Julie gave us a tour as she harvested poblanos, foisting a kohlrabi upon us, the size of which we had never seen (find out what I did with it here). “Is that a mandrake?!”, Rachel exclaimed. We were both sure we heard it shriek when it was picked.
As we sat down on the patio to eat, we first complained the standard unpleasant pandemic pleasantries, so as to get them out of the way, but quickly shifted talk of Julie’s struggles as an in-person classroom teacher and my challenge at having to generate arts programming for the digital classroom to the far less maddening thing we both we held in common, a love for reality cooking shows.
Our latest collective obsession? The American Barbecue Showdown. Eight cooks from different parts of the South complete various long-smoked meat challenges for a panel of expert judges. It’s not exactly a ground-breaking television format, but it is Netflix, so it’s at least got a strong aesthetic sensibility and an eye toward inclusion and diversity. The black and white hosts huddle together laughing in the straw-filled bed of an old Studebaker and sit down to taste each entry at a big, rustic outdoor table on carefully curated, mismatched vintage lawn chairs.
We northerners admittedly don’t know much about barbeque (that is, aside from quickly grilling off a cheddar brat over propane) and the four of us found the allure of this program to be twofold. On one level, it offered us an opportunity to learn technically how best to make everything from smoked brisket to possum stew. On an entirely different level, it provided us a glimpse into the culture and food folkways of the South, divided dutifully and equally along diverse racial lines by the network.
In many ways, this show is cringey in the way that almost all television in the Pandemic era is. “People are so close to each other! They’re hugging! They’re holding hands in anticipation of the announcement of the challenge winner! Ew! Germs!” But, beyond that, there’s another nagging little problem in this show that smacks of inauthenticity. Everyone is so nice to each other. They seem to really like each other, root for each other, and get along. That’s not how I, a dyed in the wool Yankee, have been educated regarding race relations in the South.
I know, I know. I’m stereotyping white Southerners! I haven’t spent enough time in the south and I don’t have enough southern friends to speak with any firsthand knowledge about what white southerners are actually like, but I am a pretty avid student of American History and understand well the Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynchings, and general second class citizenry that black folks throughout the south have been subjected to in the centuries since the North “won” the war.
It’s no secret that the losing confederate states have been, almost exclusively, Republican strongholds since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, so it is not difficult for me to imagine that the political signs dotting the idyllic Georgia countryside where this program was filmed might look very similar to the signs of white resistance to our country’s shifting demographics found along the road in suburban Wisconsin.
How then, does Netflix manage to paint such a rosy picture? Yes, there is a brief nod to pre-colonial cooking techniques and ingredients, as there is also mention of Antebellum techniques used by sharecroppers to roast whole animals in the ground, but these moments of true social import seem almost obscured and overshadowed by the friendliness of the competitors.
When good ol’ North Carolina boy, Ashley, becomes frustrated and nearly throws in the towel, weeping in grief over the passing of his friend, Big Worm (itself a laudable and rare display of male emotion); Jamaican-born Rasheed holds him, comforts him, and encourages him. I wonder if they still hang out- if Ashley went home and started proudly proclaiming to his friends that Black Lives Matter. I wonder if it made them think differently about immigration, voting rights, healthcare… Maybe they’d even strip the confederate flags from their bumpers once and for all?
Now don’t get me wrong, all of this is not so much criticism as observation. All four of us agreed- we had watched the show and thoroughly enjoyed it. More than that even, we needed it, needed to see the possibility of harmony, needed a trip to race-relations Disneyland the same way we needed this quick escape to the Badger State. In a time when it has become so difficult for us to travel, the show helped us to explore something far outside ourselves and, in the meantime, portrayed a South we’d like to believe in, one of cooperation, equality, and collegiality, a hope for the future of our country.
But, to my knowledge, the ills of humanity had not yet been settled over beers and brats and, before we knew it, afternoon turned to evening, the early autumn air turning cold along with it. The four of us said our goodbyes and, as we were leaving, Julie told me that she couldn’t wait to read my new cooking blog, to see what I had done with that giant kohlrabi!
“Oh, thank you,” I blushed, “but it’s going to be about much more than that…”