Life

How Food TV Is Failing Indigenous Chefs, And What To Do About It


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Fact 1: Food TV has never been more diverse.

Fact 2: It’s still not diverse enough.

Fact 3: As inclusion has increased, Indigenous Americans have been entirely left out of the conversation.

This is to the detriment of food culture, especially in relation to the Americas — something that was made painfully obvious in Netflix’s new food competition, The Final Table. Being a food writer and former kitchen grunt, I gave the highly binge-able cooking competition a whirl. It’s a pretty decent show, for the most part. Cultures are celebrated, the talent level is extremely high, and there are some fun cameos. For that format, I think Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain, and Ludo Lefebvre’s The Taste had a bit more bite, but still… good stuff.

All was going along swimmingly until I arrived at the Thanksgiving episode. Or rather the “United States Episode” which declared Thanksgiving dinner to be our nation’s greatest-ever contribution to the culinary conversation. In one short hour, the show eroded all the goodwill it had earned with me.

For what it’s worth, I’m wholly behind “traditional” Thanksgivings. What’s great about American Thanksgiving is that regionally and culturally the meal is adaptable. I’ve been at tables where ravioli was the highlight or stewed red cabbage or ribs. Yes, turkey, stuffing, etc. is the normcore version of Thanksgiving the Don Drapers of Madison-Avenue-yesteryear sold us on. But ultimately, where we come from defines the nuance of every Thanksgiving meal around the country. It’s a meal that opens itself up to endless interpretations. And that’s cool.

So, when Dax Shepard, Colin Hanks, and — does a quick Google search — Sam Sifton showed up to judge the Thanksgiving episode, I felt a huge letdown. Look, Shepherd is there for comic relief and he brings it. The man is very charming. But three of the whitest white dudes on earth judging a Thanksgiving challenge feels off in 2018. (This was also the first time all season that the three-judge panel had been all male.)

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After raving to friends about the deeply respectful Mexico episode, I suddenly had Colin-izer Hanks settler-splaining to the only chefs who dared use Indigenous American ingredients in their dish that they were wrong for doing so. No one argued with him (not even the food critic who works at the NYTimes, a paper that championed Sean Sherman) so the duo — who literally framed their whole dish around the Native American foodway — ended up in the bottom three, facing elimination.

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