Commentary: Where Was the Black Judge on Top Chef's Fried Chicken Episode?

An expert on soul food says a recent cooking show that neglected to put a Black arbiter on to judge a fried chicken competition was out of line.

Posted: 01/25/2013 12:16 PM EST
Commentary: Where Was the Black Judge on Top Chef's Fried Chicken Episode?

An interesting racial dilemma has arisen from the pots and pans of hit reality cooking competition showTop Chef this week. In an episode filmed in Seattle, the contestants, who are tasked with a different culinary assignment each time, were charged with making the best fried chicken they could.

Judging their efforts were a series of accomplished foodies, including one man described as “the pioneer of sushi in L.A.” Noticeably absent—at least to some people—however, was a Black judge. Adrian Miller, author of the -upcoming book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, finds that unacceptable.

Speaking to the Seattle Weekly soon after the episode aired, Miller said not including a Black judge for the fried chicken competition was “lazy.” Miller told Hanna Raskin:

I was really annoyed that an appropriately diverse table of judges didn't include one African-American … Fried chicken is an example of African-American cultural artistry. I want African-Americans to reclaim their contributions to the dish.

The elephant in the room here, of course, is that for decades now a go-to stereotype about Black people is that we all love fried chicken (and watermelon). That in mind, it’s understandable why a Top Chef producer may not be too eager to find a Black person to help judge the fried chicken competition. Better to use judges of other races and avoid the risk you’ll be called a bigot, right?

But Miller disagrees. “I see how a casting director would be nervous, but I think you can defend it,” he said. He also said that he doesn’t believe the fried-chicken stereotype “resonates with the younger generation.”

Miller’s assertion that young people are totally unaware of the Black jokes relating to fried chicken seems a bit of wishful thinking. That said, he’s probably not wrong about a casting director being able to “defend” a decision to have a Black person judging fried chicken.

Without a doubt, fried chicken does have a real place in African-American culinary tradition. Black food lovers and scholars like Miller himself know this and can speak intelligently about the dish’s origins in Black history if asked to do so.

If the Top Chef producers had been willing to dedicate a small part of the program to explain historical context and illuminate why a Black judge for the fried-chicken competition made perfect sense, it probably wouldn’t have been offensive in the way a Black judge introduced without explanation would have. Perhaps a lot of Top Chef viewers would have even learned something about where the “Black people love fried chicken” stereotype comes from.

Alas, they didn’t do that, just as so many other shows have taken the easy road when it comes to having frank but simple conversations about race. In the end, nobody is offended, but did we learn anything?

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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