Playing with Food and Race: Snoop and Martha’s Dinner Parties

At first blush, few couples TV would seem more puzzling than Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart, who now co-host a cooking show, Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party. The protagonists and VH1, which airs the series, are fully aware of it. During the first episode, we hear the rapper muse: “I am not high right now, but whoever gave us this show must have been.” Immediately after, a disembodied voice explains: “The king of kush and the queen of cuisine are throwing a little dinner party… When you mix the best of high society with the best of high society, you never know what is going to pop off.”

The show is the epitome of food TV as pure entertainment. In front of a live audience, and with a DJ spinning music, Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg invite celebrities, cook together, and share meals, all while joking and teasing each other. Before I move into the critique of the show, I must clarify that I found it entertaining. It is somehow refreshing to have cultural and social issues of race discussed openly and without animosity, even if - for obvious rating reasons - the conversation is always kept at a high level of silliness and all mention of class is avoided. During each episode, two diverging approaches to cooking, socializing, and life in general come together without trying to demonstrate the inherent superiority of one over the other. If fact, it is quite surprising to see Snoop and Martha getting along famously: it does look like they truly enjoy each other’s company.

The first episode was, inevitably, about fried chicken, with the two hosts proposing very different but apparently equally delectable versions of the dish. Martha states that she makes it a wee bit better than Snoop, who reacts to the challenge to his “fry-hood” by claiming that he was raised on fried chicken and his pacifier was a drumstick. “I can’t lose to the hood,” replies Martha. Of course, the competition ends with a tie. While they are cooking, Martha divulges the theory that Scottish immigrants brought fried chicken to America, but that African-Americans improved it with novel spices and seasonings. As Snoop clarifies, “it was African-Americans who took that bland-ass chicken and made that thing to do what it do.” And to prove it, he crushes potato chips into his chicken before frying it.

The sensitivity of the topic of fried chicken among African Americans is well known, as documented in Psyche Williams-Forson in Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. The dish reflects a deep-seated ambivalence between the love for a cherished tradition and the refusal of damaging stereotypes. No better metaphor than fried chicken describes the tone of the show, which constantly treads a very thin line between painful typecasting and a well-meaning commentary on racial and class differences in American society – all while avoiding any reference to actual tensions deriving from long-standing power and oppression dynamics. Martha admits she is going home with a richer vernacular, a fashion style supplemented by “bling,” and greater familiarity with seasonings such as “lemon pepper.” When she mocks Snoop by telling him that if he took a buttermilk bath he’d be whiter, guest Seth Rogan replies: “If anybody knows how to make shit whiter, that’s Martha Stewart.”

In the show, whiteness is not taken for granted, but observed and made fun of as a racial identity among others, rather than the default – and often invisible – position of US mainstream culture. Martha provides lists of ingredients, quantities, procedures, and technical suggestions, displaying relative discipline in the cooking process, almost an echo of the New England home economics approach and its scientific aspiration to achieve respectability. Snoops cooks instead by sight and smell, using a “whole lot of something,” and apparently with great results. Martha often offers technical explanations to what Snoop does by practical experience, but does not deny his skills and the quality of what he prepares. The two hosts teach and learn from each other. “Teach me how to learn, Martha!” “Snoop is teaching me to learn.” The obvious class connotations are not addressed.

Interestingly, viewers can gain insights that often counter common perceptions about black males and, in particular, rappers. The guests show intelligence and reveal unexpected aspects of their personality. In the first episode we get to know that Snoop Dogg’s best subject in school was calculus and that Ice Cube graduated from an architectural drafting school. However, when Martha admits to Jason Derulo to be his fan, she shows images of the sweaty and glistening artist while he is performing. For a brief moment, a black male is once again reduced to an object of desire, but immediately he surprises the audience by speaking French.

As most of the conversations revolve around food, eating, and cooking, closely connected with pleasure and nurturing, all display of the belligerent, “gangsta” hypermasculinity often attributed to rappers is carefully avoided: for instance, Rick Ross presents himself as a smooth and sensual talker, shamelessly flirting with Martha who appears quite taken by his attentions. All the men squeal in horror when Martha tells them that she at times kills her own chickens by cutting their heads. Moreover, Snoop highlights the family traditions and the presence of strong women that are often pointed to as central elements in African-American culture, underlying its strength and vitality.

The show has already been confirmed for next year. The one-hour format, which was used in the first episode, works better than the half-hour slot, allowing the hosts and guests to interact and chat about all sorts of topics. We’ll see what set-up will be chosen for the second season. I, for one, would not mind more banter between Snoop and Martha.

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