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Casey Ryan KELLY (2017), Food Television and Otherness in the Age of Globalization

Lanham, Lexington Books
Irena Knezevic
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Casey Ryan KELLY (2017), Food Television and Otherness in the Age of Globalization, Lanham, Lexington Books

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1Food Television and Otherness in the Age of Globalization is a book I read with envy, wishing I had written it. Kelly presents ideas that have been percolating among scholars of food and media for a while now, but have thus far not been articulated quite as thoroughly and eloquently as Kelly manages to do.

2The main question that the text asks is “how does media culture invite American audiences to think about the relationship between food, geography, travel, and cultural difference” (p. 4). Kelly answers this through examining food television, which “is not simply frivolous entertainment but one of primary mediums by which food culture is made visible and knowable to Western audiences” (p. 15). Drawing on literature in food studies, media studies, postcolonial thought, and critical social theory, the introductory chapter, titled “Eating the Empire”, is a must-read for anyone interested in the intersections of food and media.

3Kelly investigates how food television constructs, reproduces, and uses the contrast between mundane, “normal”, American food that is positioned as “clean” in media rhetoric, and the impure tastes of “the other”, which encompasses both the American poor and marginalized, and those in non-Western world. The ostensibly elevated taste of mainstream America is, Kelly argues, a vehicle for Western hegemony in that it promotes not only American consumerism, but also — in its exploration of “other” cuisines — Western notions of cosmopolitanism and adventure, all ascribed to colonial ideology that normalizes the power relations of inequality. The “other” is a place to visit, to consume, and enjoy as an exotic break from the mundane.

4Kelly traces these ideas through a critique of six US television shows organized in five chapters: Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern; Bizarre Foods America; The Pioneer Woman; Man v. Food; Diners, Drive-ins and Dives; No Reservations.

5The two shows about “bizarre” foods present classic examples of exoticization of the “other” as the shows’ host travels the world looking for foods that are too strange for the Western palate. These foods are positioned as a new frontier, a challenge to the tough, to the ones in search of adventure. The adventures include foods of Taiwan, Morocco, and Ecuador, but also the rural American South and Indigenous communities in Alaska. The featured foods exemplify “imperialist nostalgia” the term Kelly borrows from cultural anthropologist Renato Rosaldo who described it as a colonial lament for the precolonial world. And yet the shows also present them as something that is only to be tried sparingly, and is otherwise to be kept at arm’s length from the mainstream American palate. Some foods are presented as literally inedible to Westerners. The rural American South plays a key role in Bizarre Foods America, as the dishes featured in the show are a legacy of poverty and marginalization — the “make do” foods of struggle and necessity. Making them into chic adventures, the show obscures the class inequalities implicit in such dishes, and turns them into a “hot commodity that adds diversity and deliciousness to the bourgeois American palate” (p. 49). This, Kelly argues, is an exercise in exoticization of poverty through an act he describes as “culinary slumming”.

6In The Pioneer Woman, the colonial logic prevails in very subtle ways. Kelly contrasts the show’ host Ree Drummond with Paula Deen, another Food Network host who fell from grace in 2013 as her casual racism became publicly known. Drummond in The Pioneer Woman is Deen’s more wholesome, idyllic replacement on the Food Network. Kelly suggests that “the pioneer homesteader and the intrepid cowboy of America’s vast interior” (p. 66) are the key tropes of this television program focused on the food for the rugged American mid-West. The reverence for the “cowboy mystique” and the frontier myth, which is essential to the show’s set-up, glorifies colonial expansion as an act of nationalism, and sanitizes the violent history of that expansion. In analyzing the subtleties of the show, Kelly draws compelling parallels between the hard-working all-American family narrative of Drummond’s show, and the rhetoric of contemporary conservative movements, including the political narrative of the Tea Party in the United States.

7Such deep reading of food programming continues in the reflections on Man v. Food and Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, the shows that under the heading of abundance and indulgence, Kelly proposes, actually celebrate mass (and over-) consumption and free market enterprise. The shows are an ode to the American Dream, laden with notions of consumer choice and “the freedom and the imperative to consume” (p. 92). Man v. Food focuses on eating competitions and challenges, and the show makes a spectacle of overeating, whereas Diners, Drive-ins and Dives casts restaurants that offer large portions of indulgent food as “pillars of the community, businesses that catapulted the entrepreneurial working class, particularly immigrant families, into middle class respectability” (p. 99).

8Perhaps the most complex commentary is in the chapter on No Reservations, a show hosted by the revered chef and author Anthony Bourdain. Kelly notes Bourdain’s disdain for Eurocentrism, contempt for consumerism, and the knack for “temporary disavowal of privilege” (p. 130) displayed through never refusing a meal no matter how far outside his experience. And yet, Kelly also notes Bourdain’s optimism for Western-style economic development as a subtle exposure of Bourdain’s privilege. In dissecting the nuance of Bourdain’s approach Kelly simultaneously praises his openness and self-reflexivity, and criticizes the remnants of adventurous, cosmopolitan Western ethic. To travel for the experience of food, one has to be in a position of privilege, even when making a genuine effort to suspend that privilege, as the suspension is only temporary. In tempering both the praise and the criticism, Kelly’s analysis of Bourdain’s show offers a poignant assessment of the limitations of this type of media content, and also provides a glimpse of what more progressive food shows can look be.

9Food Television and Otherness in the Age of Globalization is a cultural critique, but one that does not shy away from the political implications of studying popular culture: “Whether explicit or implicit, all the programs examined in this book express some kind of political commitment through the common language of food” (p. 143). Kelly’s book is not light in content and ideas, but it is easy to read. For scholars of food and media, it is at once informative and entertaining. As a potential text for teaching food and media studies it is complex enough for graduate students, but also accessible enough to use in upper level undergraduate courses. Kelly has found — to use the inevitable food metaphor — a sweet spot at the juncture of rigorous scholarship and engaging writing.

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Irena Knezevic, « Casey Ryan KELLY (2017), Food Television and Otherness in the Age of Globalization », Communication [En ligne], vol. 35/2 | 2018, mis en ligne le , consulté le 02 juillet 2020. URL :

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Irena Knezevic

Irena Knezevic teaches at Carleton University (Ottawa). E-mail :

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Les contenus de la revue Communication sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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