Country Cookin' and Cross-Dressin':
Television, Southern White Masculinities, and Hierarchies of Cultural Taste
Greg M. Smith and Pamela Wilson
Television and New Media 5.3 (August 2004) 175-196
decades, chefs have offered television viewers the spectacle of preparing
haute cuisine flawlessly and flamboyantly, making dishes with exotic ingredients,
and demonstrating a range of specialized equipment and techniques. More
recently, a new wave of cooking shows has taken over the airwaves with
campy, energetic hosts dishing out gourmet international fare in a spectacle
of performative showmanship. In a very different
style, and in a class of its own since its 1981 debut, has been Cookin'
Cheap, a Virginia-based public television show that bills itself as
the longest continuously-running national cooking show in
shows have long been an undervalued genre in both academic and popular
television criticism, though they have been a staple of local television
for most of its history.Coming of
age in the 1950s, such programming reflected and reinforced the period's
efforts to make the domestic sphere "scientific." Local television stations
produced most such programming, often under the aegis of publicly-funded
rural home extension services. Aimed primarily at middle-class housewives
(as well as those aspiring to be middle-class) and frequently sponsored
by appliance manufacturers, the goal of such programs was to introduce
new technologies, advertise new products, and to disseminate standardized
"scientific" cooking methods. The presentational formats usually involved
a professional cook at a pseudo-kitchen counter in a studio, surrounded
by shiny new appliances, using direct address to demonstrate cooking techniques
to both the studio and home audiences, and preparing a number of elegant
dishes for display.
the sixties and seventies, a few chef-oriented shows redefined the genre
as an exhibition of skills of haute European cuisine by celebrity gourmet
experts such as Julia Child (whose The French Chef debuted in 1963)
and James Beard. In contrast to both the didactic shows of the 1950s and
the elite cultural aura of the chef shows arising in the 1960s and 1970s,
the 1981 inception of Cookin' Cheap
placed it as an innovator of a new kind of cooking genre at a time when
cooking for the masses on TV wasn't cool. However, as Cookin'
Cheap was gaining a strong local and regional following in the South
in the next few years, the programming explosion accompanying changes in
the broadcasting and cable industry during the 1980s reinvigorated the
cooking genre, making a wide range of new cooking shows available at the
national level through public broadcasting stations and cable networks
such as The Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel. By the early 1990s,
these cooking shows ranged from high culture (The Great Chefs of Europe)
to health-conscious but upscale (Jeff Smith's The Frugal Gourmet) to international/ethnic
cuisine (Yan Can Cook and World Cuisine), and
even saw the birth in 1993 of an entire cable network, The Food Network,
dedicated to food and cooking. Today, cooking shows have never been more
popular or more diverse.
distinctive Cookin' Cheap, produced
by Blue Ridge Public Television since 1981 and at one time distributed
nationally through the PBS system (and recently syndicated to the Good
Life Cable Network for a daily weekday time slot), provides an interesting
study through which to examine regionally-produced television discourses
about the cooking genre itself as well as insights about gender roles,
social class, and regional culture. A live-on-tape, seemingly unscripted
and improvisational half-hour that has always seemed on the verge of being
out of control, the self-mocking Cookin'
Cheap lacks the earnestness of most earlier cooking shows. It tries
to balance the entertainment and informational aspects of its hybrid form
as it attempts to provide its viewers with "recipes that would be easy
to put together," while framing such culinary practices in a comedic frame.
Stylistically, Cookin' Cheap is also
notable for the degree to which it has inscribed its viewers in the text,
aspiring to an interactive and open-ended relationship with its audience
both on- and off-screen.
methodological approach to this study has been an interpretive, empirical
one drawing upon a combination of textual analysis, historical reception
study, and ethnographic participant/observation. In addition to being regular
viewers of the program during several seasons, we had the opportunity to
spend time in the WBRA studio in
distinctive aspect of Cookin' Cheap
is that its two male hosts do not ally themselves at all with either the
high-brow masculine tradition of professional European chefs or the samurai
showmanship of the most recent wave of male television chefs such as EmerilLagasse
or Martin Yan. Instead, Larry Bly and Laban
Johnson have traced their culinary pedigrees back to a feminine, working-class,
regional tradition--the everyday cooking practices of rural white Southern
women. Taking pride in the amateurishness and simplicity of both their
food and their production values, the male comedy duo removes the discourse
of credentialed professionalism which usually frames gender and class issues
in cooking. Instead, they offer us an archetype of masculinity feminized
by tradition more than by modern "post-feminist" male sensitivity. The
show presents an archetype of gentle Southern masculinity far removed from
the rough-hewn Bubba or "good-ole-boy" stereotype. Cookin'
Cheap offers the spectacle of countrified "home cooking" to a microwave
society, invoking a nostalgia for the values of a traditional agrarian
or small-town community (in the rural white South) while it pokes fun at
bourgeois attempts to modernize and discipline the chaotic realm of domestic
taste, the kitchen.
originated in 1981 when Laban Johnson, a high school drama coach and occasional
host of local public television shows, proposed a cooking show to the local
public broadcasting affiliate (WBRA) in
then recruited Larry Bly, a local radio personality and advertising executive,
to join him on the air. Neither man was a professional chef, and both have
acknowledged that they acquired their practical and traditional cooking
skills under the tutelage of older Southern women in their families. Both
have discussed the need they faced, as bachelors in a generation of men
"out on their own" in the 1970's, to learn the skills traditionally passed
down among the women in their working-class or rural Southern families:
"I'd watched my mother, my grandmother, my father's sisters--a legion of
aunts--cook, but I had never cooked [until I taught myself as an adult],"
Johnson declared. Bly credited his Aunt Tootsie (a "salt of the earth type
lady"), who raised him on her
a well-received pilot episode, Johnson and Bly sought and acquired regional
grocery store chains and meat processors as corporate underwriters, obtained
battered cooking equipment from a local flea market, and designed a format
that featured the on-air preparation of simple viewer-submitted recipes.
To accentuate the "cheap" in their title, they originally kept a running
tally of food costs for each recipe on a kitchen blackboard on the set,
thereby foregrounding the economic aspects of their dishes. A truly local
show in its first seasons, Cookin' Cheap
was also able to incorporate local humor and to promote local and regional
events and community activities. Rural Southern baby boomers Johnson and
Bly soon proved to be a popular comedy duo as they quickly adapted their
fledgling comedy/cooking act to the rhythms and constraints of live television.
The two performers, who shared generational and cultural sensibilities
as well as self-described "wicked" senses of humor, began to play off each
other without establishing the traditional "straight man/funny man" dichotomy
of many comedy duos. Their humor on the set was primarily verbal repartee,
since their physical movements were limited by the kitchen set (though
there were times when they seem on the verge of breaking into song-and-dance
the second season, the show had been picked up by regional public television
stations and went national over the next few seasons. The shift from a
local to a national audience (and the accompanying constraints of PBS distribution)
significantly changed the character of the show, eliminating the local
and temporally specific features such as local humor and food prices, and
adding a pressure to professionalize the show to some degree: "PBS wanted
less comedy and more education," Johnson commented, though he added that
they never sacrificed comedy even while adding new elements to "keep the
of those elements added in the mid-1980s was the recurring "Cook Sisters"
routine: taped segments in which the two would dress in drag as their elderly
aunts "Tootsie" and "Sister" Cook and dispense addled cooking tips. The
Cook sister personas provided ways for Bly and Johnson to personify and
literally embody the sources of the feminine knowledge and traditions that
they bore in their gender-bending roles as guardians and purveyors of "down-home"
simplicity and tradition in cooking and other cultural tastes. However
solemnly they may have taken this cultural role, they never took themselves
too seriously; they injected humor and playful banter in all their interactions
and preparations. PBS mandates notwithstanding, they still considered themselves
to be more of a comedy show than a cooking show: "It's a real show. It's
an honest show. . . . People like that. It is what it is."
"Dear Boys, Please do not get too efficient, too free of a flop now and then and too many new utensils. Lick a finger now and then. Your charm is that you cook like people actually cook in their homes.... I measure like you do, I lick a spoon occasionally and I use often-washed fingers a lot. I also have made do with some innovative methods due to a lack of time and sophisticated utensils. I also have some flops but in general get the food on the table for the family.... Thanks a lot. Don't change the fun you have and try to get technical." (viewer letter, 1986)
is, of course, everything which belongs in the art of living, a wisdom
taught by necessity, suffering and humiliation and deposited in an inherited
language, dense even in its stereotypes, a sense of revelry and festivity,
of self-expression and practical solidarity with others (evoked by the
adjective 'bon vivant' with which the working classes identify), in short,
everything that is engendered by the realistic (but not resigned) hedonism
and skeptical (but not cynical) materialism which constitute both a form
of adaptation to the conditions of existence and a defense against them.
a similar vein, Cookin' Cheap advocates
an unabashed pleasure to be gained from food as well as from sociable interaction.
Johnson and Bly expressed a sensual pleasure through their cooking and
eating as well as their talk--exuberant talk about indulgences in food
and about other forms of cultural expression. They frequently have made
reference to bodily issues such as weight and health concerns, and viewers
over the years have witnessed (and frequently commented upon) the performers'
physical transformations. Although both were well-educated men, they chose
to speak a dialect on the air that reflected regional and class distinctions
and further represented them as festive, Southern, down-home 'bon vivants'
with a decidedly feminized twist.
and Johnson have repeatedly characterized their audience and the patterns
of cultural consumption reflected in their show as "down-home": replacing
distinctions based on socioeconomic class with a social category defined
in opposition to urbanism and the pretentiousness of an elite cosmopolitan
culture. Although Johnson and Bly themselves were Southerners, and have
admitted that their own sensibilities certainly reflected the culture of
the white, rural, working-class South in which they grew up, they have
perceived their national appeal, and the shared culture of their dispersed
national audience, as more broadly based upon and connected by values of
the local, the traditional, the post-agrarian land-based ethos of middle
America. Bly commented, "Oh, I think there's a lot that's Southern
about the show. In fact, I think that's one of the things people like about
the show--they find it Southern and charming. We hear that a lot from people
up North and out West. I mean, we don't work real hard to do that--but
we are Southern!" Johnson concurred: " I think there's a sensibility
to the lifestyle of the people of the South that lends itself to cooking.
To a degree it is rural, but that's not a valid term anymore--more traditional."
Bly continued: "I don't think we're the Mayberry RFD of cooking shows.
We're quaint, but in a little different manner." One might consider that
while their appeal is to an audience with an attraction to "country" sensibilities,
most of their viewers live in urban, modern lifestyles, and the show has
a contemporary appeal as well.
can be placed in the constellation of forms of cultural expression that
both invoke and extend the culture of the contemporary South. The last
quarter of this century has witnessed a sociohistorical process that John Egerton
has called the "Southernization of America"--the movement of what was formerly
a distinct and marginal regional culture into the center of what has come
to define a generic "down-home" mainstream American culture. 
This transformation has been characterized by an appropriation of regional
products and forms--most notably country music, Southern politicians and
"country" food and crafts--by an increasingly conservative national consciousness
seeking to find "authentic" models for its ideological turn toward "tradition"
and "family values." As Theresa Goddu has
pointed out, "Country, long-characterized as hillbilly music, is now selling
the nation an idealized image of America by mass marketing more wholesome
images of the South: rural nostalgia, conservative politics, and traditional
values," thus broadening its appeal.
During the 1980s, an entire industry blossomed to capitalize on this new
marketing constituency that identifies itself as "Country America" (the
title of a popular magazine publication). The demographics of this group
are national and varied, united by shared values rather than socioeconomic
categories or regional co-residency. It is a community that shuns urbanism
and romanticizes the past, the rural, and the "simple life." And it is
a community of people who consider themselves interpellated by the style,
tone and self-deprecating humor of Cookin'
viewers characterize the show's ethos as "country," "simple" (that is,
unsophisticated, in a low-brow kind of way) or reflecting "average," "everyday,"
and "normal" conditions of cooking; such viewers also positively contrast Cookin'
Cheap to "those other cooking shows." A
"cheapness" not only of the food preparation, but also of the television
production values on the show, has been a strategic decision by the producers
to evoke the style and mood of early live radio and 1950s television productions--reflecting
the same aversion to highly processed media texts that they express towards
highly-processed cooking techniques. This ethic of "cheap" simplicity,
connected to a nostalgia for certain rural traditions, pervades not only
the philosophy of cooking which is espoused on the show but also the philosophy
of television production as well.
then, reflects aesthetic and cultural values as much or more than it does
economic ones. Cookin' Cheap advocates
a set of values that are simple, "down-home" and pleasurable--for both
the producer and the consumer. Significantly, it advocates a perspective
in which distinctions between the makers and users of culture--between
professionals and amateurs, between performer and audience, between those
who cook and those who eat, between traditional men's and women's roles--are
blurred or de-emphasized. What becomes important in the culture of "cheap cookin'"
is the participatory pleasure of cultural production-and-consumption rolled
together into a single process.
"Another darned fan letter! Let me tell you how much I enjoy your program--particularly your simplified recipes. With some of the 'cooking shows' I see, one is required to have a chef's kitchen in a large hotel, plus a dozen clean-up people to help you...." (viewer letter, 1983)
after Cookin' Cheap gained a measure
of national success, the hosts continued to use equipment that clearly
differentiated them from professional chefs. In fact, this often became
a source of concern to viewers, who ironically failed to realize that the
show's "cheapness" was a strategic choice. For example, a letter from sympathetic
"My wife and I enjoy watching your show, but we're appalled at the utensils that you're forced to use! Get that network brass to open up their wallets and buy you some decent mixing bowls and wooden spoons. No chefs of your caliber should be reduced to using Tupperware! Your talents are obviously not appreciated" (viewer letter, 1994).
to the 1980s, most cooking shows took place in a rational, controllable
universe where there was little mundane effort or chaos. Cookin' Cheap's
combination of live-on-tape shooting with undependable cooking equipment
and arduous on-camera food preparation exists in an entirely different
universe, one where the possibility of chaos is never far away. Perhaps
the mixer will fall apart and have to be fixed during the show; maybe one
of the hosts will forget to put the top on the blender before starting
it; or perhaps one of the hosts will absentmindedly put an ingredient in
the wrong bowl and have to fish it out. One viewer commented, "You fellas
are real, which is great. Your show, too, with the flour a-flyin',
the liquids a-drippin', the mixer not always
a-mixin', the eggs a-sharin'
the bowl with the egg shells, etc., is just like what goes on in the average
(below average?) kitchen" (viewer letter, 1994).
these cooking disasters are not central to the comedy of Cookin'
Cheap, the possibility that such events might happen is crucial
to the humor, which shares much of the tradition of theatrical farce. Farce
is a genre based on the sheer recalcitrance of physical objects in spite
of human exertion. The humor of much farce depends on the occasional inability
of sophisticated humankind to make inanimate objects do what the humans
want them to do. Such farces of objects are great levelers of pretension,
recognizing that humans are not so highly developed that they are beyond
mundane matters of the physical world. When a recipe does not go smoothly
on Cookin' Cheap, part of the humor
is that we aren't supposed to see such moments on television.
Such moments acknowledge that the practice of domestic cooking is itself
a balancing act, a real site of potential disorder fraught with the possibility
of error, and that the domestic cook is often like a lion-tamer, on guard
to control the eruptions of chaos as they occur.
"Your recipes are very 'do-able'
(though not by you most of the time!)--not like some of those high-falutin'
shows!" (viewer letter, 1994)
show is relatively unusual, however, in that it does not maintain a strict
hierarchical separation between on-screen cast and offscreen crew. Bly
and Johnson have frequently asked questions of crew members, discussed
events in the lives of crew members, and have even been known to distribute
food to the crew during the show. This is not a radical rethinking of the
hierarchies of television production, since the crew's comments remain
offscreen for virtually all of the show, leaving Bly and Johnson both visually
and verbally dominant in the text. However the interaction between the
hosts and the crew gives the crew a significant presence in the show, unlike
most mainstream television in which stars perform in front of a nameless
crew who cannot intrude into the diegetic world. A regular watcher of Cookin'
Cheap begins to piece together "characters" named Harold and Doris
and Carol who spend most of their time off-camera but who indeed are an
integral part of the show.
and Johnson have positioned this strategy as a throwback to the pleasures
of radio and early television. Johnson said,
The thing about the show is that it is an ensemble effort, and it's not just us, it's with the crew. . . . But that comes strangely enough from my background and Larry's background. . . in radio going all the way back to Arthur Godfrey and Jack Benny and some of those people that had a whole host of people that you never saw but you knew who they were and what they looked like. We're creating in some respects, from that philosophical viewpoint, a kind of a radio theater of the air. You don't see the crew but we talk about them all the time. That's very much a part of the show.
"Dear Boys, Just recently I discovered your program ...We enjoy it so much, it's so refreshing. We get cooking programs on TV but they're all so sophisticated. But us mothers, we prepare food like you do" (viewer letter, 1994).
entire premise of the show depends upon viewers to send in recipes for
the show. Bly and Johnson explicitly acknowledge the viewers, by name,
who have sent in particular recipes. Often the hosts will question the
contributing viewer's wisdom in choosing certain ingredients, opening up
a kind of one-sided dialogue with the recipe writer. At the end of each
episode, Bly and Johnson would sit down at a table to sample the finished
recipe (often for the first time). If the finished product should be somewhat
lacking in taste or texture, the hosts would feel equally free to criticize
each other's cooking or the submitted recipe itself. The good-natured bantering
and kidding that the hosts exchanged between themselves was also extended
to the viewer who sent in the recipe.
each episode. Bly and Johnson would read a viewer letter on the air. These
letters were frequently written in a style approximating the hosts' style
of humor, as if the viewers were auditioning for a place on the show. These
letters usually asked Bly and Johnson to foreground a particular theme
for one episode, and so they served the purpose of introducing the subject
of next week's episode. At the same time, they allowed us to believe that
viewers serve as the true programmers for the show -- that viewer suggestions
initiate the individual episode's subject matter as well as providing the
actual recipes to be prepared.
addition to receiving letters (most of them requests for recipes), the
hosts and crew of Cookin' Cheap also
received gifts from viewers. Some of these were folk art pieces handmade
by viewers, including numerous pieces with a pig motif that have been highly
visible on the set. Viewers have also contributed hardware to remedy the
kitchen's obvious inadequacies (for instance, complaints about dull knives
resulted in several viewers sending them replacements), as if the show's
overt "cheapness" were a product of necessity, not choice. If a gift were
particularly noteworthy, Bly and Johnson would display it on the air and
thank the viewer publicly.
show foregrounds the viewer's contributions, encouraging acts of physical
participation such as writing letters or creating handmade crafts. Cookin'
Cheap constructs a place for the viewer within the text itself, a position
where the viewer (via the mail) can contribute humorous remarks or recipes
to be criticized or complimented. This makes the viewer appear to be a
silent partner in the banter, a winking contributor to the hosts' humor.
Just as the crew members can exert their presence from their position behind
the cameras, selected viewers can interject their input within the bounds
of the show's format. The reading of viewer letters on the air encourages
audience members to write creative and humorous letters in hopes of having
them read. The foregrounded importance of the viewer in the text further
flattens the hierarchy of star-crew-viewer, reiterating the program's populist
message that professional distance and demeanor is a power move, whether
in a chef or a television host. In its format as well as its culinary strategies, Cookin'
Cheap punctures the pretensions of professionalism by demonstrating
a do-it-yourselfer's approach to cooking and to television.
"I really do enjoy your show. I was raised on Baptist church lady cooking and am the only adult I know who will admit to still liking Jell-O" (viewer letter, 1994).
1994, Johnson and Bly discussed with us their views about being Southern
men of a certain kind: "Being Southern like this is fun when nobody's being
real self-conscious about it. I mean, you ain't gonna see Deliverance on
this set," Johnson proclaimed, to which Bly asserted with a twinkle in
his eye, "I think we're kind, gentle men of the South; there's not too
much of a mean streak about us, and if it is, it's against each other on
the air. I don't think there's too much machismo about us!" Johnson agreed,
"In a way, we're like everybody's Southern uncle. I had an uncle about
whom my mother would explain...we should speak to Uncle Will, but shouldn't
spend too much time with him! Turned out he was an old bachelor, a very
dapper looking old man, silver-haired. Turned out years later it was because
Uncle Will was a notorious alcoholic who carried around booze in a hair
tonic bottle. Just like W.C. Fields." The example illustrates the discomfort
that men of liminal gender positioning have
generated in mainstream Southern culture over the years.
men of Cookin' Cheap impersonate
the "mother" both literally and figuratively--by inhabiting her realm in
the kitchen as well as in their Cook Sisters drag act. The only part of Cookin'
Cheap that is not recorded live-on-tape in the studio has been the
remarkable, regularly-featured segment in which Bly and Johnson, dressed
in (not very convincing) drag, portrayed the Cook Sisters: two silly elderly
women who give a brief household tip to the viewers. There are several
obvious theoretical foundations that could ground a reading of gender in
this text. One could point to Joan Riviere's
and Mary Ann Doane's understanding of femininity
as a masquerade, or to recent considerations of the cultural signification
The entire text of Cookin' Cheap
is obviously open to a queer reading, since it contains many features that
have historically and stereotypically been associated with queer imagery
(two non-authoritarian men in the feminized setting of the kitchen who
occasionally dress up in women's clothing and who sometimes burst into
impromptu renditions of show tunes, pop standards, and 60's rock and roll).
However fruitful these avenues might be, the text is more complex and deserves
a strategy that takes into account the historical and regional specificity
of the masculinity on display in Cookin'
mythic white Southern women who taught Bly and Johnson to cook as children
figure strongly in both the verbal and the visual signification of the
In many traditions of white Southern culture, the woman is the primary
bearer of tradition, the person entrusted with propagating the old values
to the new generation.
Nina Silber details how Northerners portrayed the Southern woman in antebellum
and post-bellum popular culture as a dangerous enemy principally because
her efforts to perpetuate cultural traditions (including slavery) bolstered
the foundations of what they perceived as the decadent Southern system.
modern American films (Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias) have explored
this Southern matriarchal legacy as a passing of cultural values from woman
to woman, emphasizing a construction of the feminine sphere as quite distinct
from the world of men. This focus ignores the passing of Southern tradition
from female to male, particularly to boys. Cookin' Cheap's
hosts embody an image of the feminized Southern man, a man who has been
shaped primarily by matriarchal figures and who continues to exhibit traditionally
"feminine" values in his adult life. Bly and Johnson have rarely discussed
their male forebears on the program, though their aunts' cooking practices
have frequently come up in their on-screen conversations. They do not draw
connections between themselves and overtly masculine Southern traditions.
Instead, their reminiscences are of time spent in the kitchen, watching
and helping their aunts with the cooking.
appearance of non-authoritarian men in the universe of modern Southern
popular culture, which is still dominated by macho figures such as the
"good old boy," is significant. The omnipresence of testosterone-driven
characters in Southern imagery encourages one to construct a South populated
primarily by such stereotypes. There are less domineering Southern white
male types in popular imagery, but as John Shelton Reed points out, they
are relatively few in number and are usually depicted as unsympathetic
(such as the indolent hillbilly, or the aristocratic Ashley Wilkes in Gone
with the Wind).Cookin'
Cheap shows an alternative view of Southern masculinity: one that is
both sympathetic and non-authoritarian, one that acknowledges matriarchal
traditions as primary influences, one with the "gentlemanly" charm of the
old South but rooted in a more working class and less aristocratic class
academic and popular discussions of social roles have tended to be based
upon several key political dichotomies: black/white, male/female, homosexual/
heterosexual, North/South, upper/lower class. More recent work has complicated
these polarities, and we have begun to examine imagery as a nexus of several
intersecting tensions. We now more explicitly acknowledge that the combined
identity cluster of Southern/white/heterosexual/ working-class masculinity,
for example, is a distinct phenomenon with a particular set of images.
And yet this new scholarly sensitivity to the intricacies of identity still
gravitates toward polar extremes. Cultural and literary studies have recently
examined "white trash"
as a cultural category distinct from both the white plantation owner and
the African American slave imagery that has dominated discourses about
the South. However, while such work is valuable in the way it pays simultaneous
attention to race, class, and region, it still simplifies the range of
imagery in popular circulation.
all Southern white working-class masculine images are "white trash" or
"redneck." The distinctions here are sometimes slippery since the very
meanings of the terms change in everyday identity politics. For instance,
Patrick Huber has traced how the term "redneck" has changed from an exclusively
pejorative label in the 19th century to a semi-positive affirmation
of empowering values in the late 20th century. In this paper
we have discussed how the concept of "country" values has gone from a primarily
regional notion rooted in the South to an international marketing tool.
Claiming that one is "country" or a "redneck" has meant different things
in different eras, and each discourse needs to be considered in its historical
the slippery universe of Southern rhetoric (as well as rhetoric about Southerners),
we should not reduce our attention to the more extreme categories of roles.
Instead we should note how patterns of regional/gendered/ethnic upbringings
can provide a range of experiences rather than a single unitary experience.
Scholars have noted the strong emphasis on family and on the strong separation
between "women's work" (raising children, household tasks) and "men's work"
(physical and public labor) in the traditional Southern home (both fictional
This can, of course, result in well-known stereotypical roles: the Southern
belle, the redneck, etc. But these forces can also produce other results,
such as the gentle feminized Southern man. Because the traditional Southern
matriarch is charged with simultaneously raising children and cooking,
the young boy may spend significant time at his mother's apron in the kitchen.
Although the boy is supposed to grow out of the kitchen into a harder,
less domesticated man, it is easy to see why many do not. The gentle working-class
Southern man with strong attachment to "Momma" is a distinct category from
both the ineffective aristocratic dandy and the rough-hewn "redneck."
Examples of this Southern "Momma's boy" have grown up to be important producers
of Southern humor
with a national following. Also, it is this Southern figure who has appealed
enough to the political center to take the White House in the last decades
of the 20th century, rather than the tight-fisted local political
bosses such as Bull Connor and George Wallace. And it is this appealing
Southerner who promotes "country" values and slapdash cooking in the figures
of Larry Bly and Laban Johnson.
is tempting to call this figure a "New Southern Man," an inhabitant of
the post-Sixties modern industrial South. The concept of the modern South,
exemplified by urban and urbane
presents a "forgotten future" for the South, one that both is compliant
with modern life but also rooted in older values. It evokes a land where
simplicity reigns over pretension, where roughhewn-ness is preferable to
slickness, and where Southern masculinity acknowledges its feminine heritage.
It depicts itself as not "new" but so tied to old working class and feminine
tradition that it represents a distinctive alternative to modern dominant
cultural practices. This show emphasizes the ties that "cheapness" has
to a wide range of traditions: rural/working class values of simplicity,
live radio/television, and feminized domesticity. The careful construction
and maintenance of this show's "cheapness" activates old sentiments of
community and values in a land overrun by commodities. In an era where
Starbucks threatens the roadside diner and where "reality" television becomes
overproduced dramatization of artificially-created situations, Cookin'
Cheap reactivates the pleasures of simple comfort food repackaged for
the microwave society.
authors would like to thank the producers of Cookin'
Cheap and, in particular, hosts Larry Bly
and the late Laban Johnson, for their cooperation
and good-natured assistance in researching for this article. Special thanks
as well are extended to Linda Wilson, who introduced us to Cookin'
Cheap as an afficionado of the show,
without realizing that she was planting the seed for our decade-long relationship
with the program. We also thank many of our television studies colleagues
whose feedback after the presentation of an earlier version of this paper
at the 1995 Console-ing Passions conference in