Food Network Says it’s Dedicated to Teaching. But it Never Let Me Say ‘Slavery’ on AirHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, food, culinary history
Something special happened when Kardea Brown discussed Jim and Henry Hutchinson on a recent episode of her show, “Delicious Miss Brown” on Food Network.
As she prepared to host a fish-fry fundraiser to refurbish the historic Hutchinson House on Edisto Island, S.C., she said, “They were former slaves and they built a house … and it’s the only house owned by a freedman that’s still standing on Edisto.” Later, she said: “Coming from being former slaves and probably living in slave quarters, to them this was a mansion. But to me, even though it’s a little smaller, it feels big, it feels large because you know the story behind it.” She even talked about how her own great-great-great-grandmother was the last person to own the house.
I was delighted to see and hear this, and not just because of the convergence of culinary content and American history — my own wheelhouse. But I was amazed that she talked about enslavement at all, because for years, Food Network and its associated properties (Cooking Channel and Food Network Kitchen) wouldn’t let me make any such mention on its outlets.
Over the past four years, producers working with the network, owned since 2018 by Discovery Inc., have repeatedly asked for my silence on the topic of enslavement. And just in case you think I’m the only one, just last year, Brown — one of the few Black hosts on the network — told Southern Living magazine that she had experienced the same resistance.
I began working on a pilot for Cooking Channel with Food Network executives in spring 2017. I’m an amateur food historian, and my specialty is building interactive maps that track where foods originate and how they spread around the world. You will not be shocked to learn that the reasons foods travel are often unsavory: enslavement, conquest, climate change and war. Nonetheless, one network executive loved my maps, so we set out to make a pilot exploring the international roots of American dishes.
In the second production meeting for the pilot, I said something like this: “Let’s have a difficult conversation now, so we don’t get hung up on problems later. As we build this pilot and look forward to a full series, how do we address the role that the enslavement of folks plays in the ways foods spread around the world?”
I was greeted with polite laughter, and then the admonishment from one of the producers, “Oh, you’ll never say ‘slavery’ on air.”