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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Food Network says it’s dedicated to teaching. But it never let me say ‘slavery’ on air.

(Michelle Pereira for The Washington Post)
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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.

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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.”

I replied: “But how do we explain marinara when we get to an episode on red sauce? Tomatoes don’t arrive in Italy until after Europeans start packing folks against their will into the bottom of ships and sailing them back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.”

Another producer smiled and said, “Well you can talk about the ships, but we’ll just call them 16th-century cruise liners.”

I tabled the conversation, and then we made the pilot.

Throughout the process, I watched as a network executive and the executive’s handpicked production company cut anything they thought might be “controversial.” We were still in preproduction, so the snipping was either in our scripts or on the phone, where I was encouraged to acquiesce to reach the ultimate goal: a series order from the network.

They removed watermelon from the script because it meant we had to discuss its origination in the Kalahari Desert and also the way its image has been used as a vehicle of discrimination in this country. They removed ketchup because the network wanted to tell only the story of Heinz, instead of the 2,000 years leading up to that blood-red final chapter (a story that begins in Vietnam and helps explain why some spell the word “catsup” and others “ketchup”). They asked me to pretend the Middle Eastern owner of a Hawaiian restaurant was of Hawaiian descent, assuming viewers wouldn’t know the difference.

In September 2019, after the pilot failed to garner a series pickup on Cooking Channel, I submitted a post-mortem report to the network. I documented the “cruise ship” comment, the watermelon and ketchup removals, and a few other moments that painted a picture no one would want hung in their living room.

No one ever responded.

Flash-forward to January 2020. I was hired to appear on a few episodes of the network’s new cooking app, Food Network Kitchen. In my fourth appearance, I made seasoned peanuts. Since this was a live cooking demonstration, there would be no swap-outs to save time like you’d have on edited TV, and I’d have to vamp while I was toasting seeds and spices in a skillet. At the end of my explanation detailing the circuitous path that peanuts took to reach North America, I said, “Finally, peanuts arrive in North American cuisine only after Western Europeans enslave Northern and Western Africans and bring them across the ocean in a ship.”

When the segment was over, a producer pulled me aside, became visibly nervous, then told me, “We try to keep things light here.” I knew what the producer was trying to say, but I wasn’t going to help it be said.

I responded, “I did keep things light, I just made peanuts!”

The producer then exhorted me not to talk about “the difficult stuff.”

Very loudly (because I wanted to make witnesses of all the staff on the studio floor), I replied that the network knows who I am, we’ve worked together for years. I’m a professional nerd. If you hire me to be me, then you’re going to get a dose of history along with everything I put on a plate. I offered a deal: I would promise not to say any of the words that the network had banned, as long as the network put them in writing.

The next day I emailed to say thanks for handling a difficult situation so delicately. I reminded the producer to “send me that list!” The response: “No worries, all good!” We have never worked together again.

In May 2020, with the nation engulfed in protests, I asked four producers who worked for either Food Network, Cooking Channel or Food Network Kitchen if we could talk about disagreements we’ve had over my attempts to refer to slavery. I suggested that, as White people in culinary media, we have the power, privilege and responsibility to be anti-racist in our work. No one responded. Instead, I heard from the network’s legal department.

Their lawyer assured me she’d speak with the necessary parties on her end and get back in touch. That was June 2020. From my side of the computer, it felt like they were waiting for the country to move on, or for me to forget.

I haven’t forgotten. And apparently neither has Kardea Brown.

Brown did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but in the June 2020 article in Southern Living, she recounted filming an episode of her show. “I started talking about slavery, and people said, ‘We don’t know if we can say this,’ ” she told the magazine. “I was like, ‘Why not? It’s the truth!’ … Sadly, it is 2020, and we are still not ready to have that conversation.” The Southern Living piece went on to say, “So her goal for the next season, which begins filming soon, is to have those in-depth conversations and give people an even more thorough education on Gullah cuisine; African American history; and yes, slavery.”

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When The Washington Post requested a response to the Southern Living piece, a Food Network spokesperson said, “This is not something that either Kardea or her executive producer recall as ever happening/being said on the set.” Pasquale DeFazio, executive producer of “Delicious Miss Brown,” issued a statement: “No one ever directed us to avoid talking about any subject, nor did we ever direct Kardea to avoid talking about any subject. In fact, we encouraged Kardea to be open and honest about anything she wanted to talk about, including the history of the Gullah people. As the show has developed from pilot to present (85 episodes in) there has been a natural progression and exploration of Kardea’s personal history, as well as the history of her culture and the Gullah people.”

The network also disputed my other points. “This is inconsistent with what producers who have worked with Dan recall,” the spokesperson wrote. “Creative discussions happened on many points and there was never any intent to silence any topic.”

While it looks like the tides may have turned, it makes me wonder what else the network has banned from its content and how we might ever learn what’s being hidden. The obfuscation over slavery eroded my trust in the network as a valuable storyteller and teaching entity.

Over the years, producers’ most common argument to me against talking about slavery was that the network isn’t political. They’d tell me that viewers didn’t want to be reminded of the outside world when they tuned in, that “they’re just here for the food.” And producers of all stripes have said some version of: “Dan, we agree with you, we’re liberal, too, but sometimes you’ve got to play the game. Don’t you want the show to get greenlit?” It’s the “just be a good boy and eventually you’ll get what you want” argument that insidiously ripples through all industries.

As an amateur historian, let me point out that any decision to pointedly not talk about slavery is as political as you think speaking it aloud might be, if not more so in its tacit denial of facts.

I say this not because I want to tear Food Network, Cooking Channel and Food Network Kitchen down, but rather because I think the network represents our best shot at making a significant change in the food world. Distributed to nearly 100 million households and with more than 46 million monthly unique Web users, Food Network is one of largest arbiters of culinary taste in this country. In the fourth quarter of 2020, the network was ranked the top non-news, non-sports cable channel among women age 18 to 49. That same year, Cooking Channel was on track to have its highest-rated year in network history for all viewers between 25 and 54. Food Network Kitchen has a 4.9-star rating in the Apple app store, with 501,000 reviews. These outlets have incredible power over our plates. And as every iteration of Spider-Man reminds us, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Recently I noticed an Instagram post by TV host and food stylist Megan Hysaw, who describes herself as Black and Korean. “@FoodNetwork and @FoodNetworkKitchen have been actively putting in the work to remedy the institutional racism within the company structure and are implementing a workplace cultural transformation,” she wrote. “As a result, I have re-signed my contract with them as talent, and have some fun projects coming your way soon!” Though they’re late to the game, I am thrilled to know that Food Network appears to be putting in place some guiding principles that will hopefully help improve the way it produces content. (The network declined to respond to a question about Hysaw’s post.)

On its website, Food Network proudly proclaims that it “strives to be viewers’ best friend in food and is committed to leading by teaching, inspiring, empowering, and entertaining through its talent and expertise.” For too long it seems to have forgotten its own mission statement. Best friends are supposed to be the folks in life you can trust to tell it like it is, not hide the truth under the varnish of “entertainment.”

Kohler is the senior culinary producer of Hallmark Channel’s “Home & Family.”

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