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Food by VICE

Here's the Rub Behind the (Slightly) Racist Ribs in 'House of Cards'

Welcome to our new column, FAT TV, in which we dissect the relationship of food on the small screen. For our first installment, we turn to Netflix's <i>House of Cards</i>, where even the most chillingly devious of politicians can't resist a nice rack...

by Richard Parks
Apr 11 2014, 11:00pm

Illustration by James Braithwaite

There is a Venn diagram in an important science text somewhere where "food" is one circle and "television" is in another, and the heart-shaped intersection of the two is called FAT TV. This is a love collaboration between me and illustrator James Braithwaite to dissect the relationship of food on the small screen. When the doyenne of MUNCHIES, Helen Hollyman, greenlighted this idea, she must have had no idea that I don't actually own a TV. Looking forward to squirting new installments of text-thought and scribbles your way twice a month.

We rarely see TV characters eat. I imagine this is because eating and food are—generally speaking—immaterial to the plot at hand. Like Shakespearean tragedians who walk offstage to slay or be slain, TV characters tend to take their meals off-screen. I picture them devouring their craft service feedings like shameful bandits, hunched over an industrial sink situated just out of frame.

Not so in House of Cards. And even then there are really just two types of eating taking place in a repeated way during the Netflix series' first two seasons. Frank and Claire Underwood, the conniving couple at the center of the political thriller, like to share a sliced apple in the morning after a long night—maybe spent murdering or manipulating somebody or plotting some devious power grab. And Frank (extravagantly played by Kevin Spacey) spends a lot of time eating ribs at a dilapidated restaurant on the wrong side of the tracks called Freddy's BBQ Joint.

House of Cards is a show about politics and ambition and mistrust and abuse, but to an extent you could say it is also about food — subset barbecue and, very specifically, ribs. In turn, the ribs are about trust, at least until they aren't.

For Frank, Freddy's is like the womb and the pit master's rib racks are the sticky, tangy, meat-candy umbilicus from which he draws renewed strength. Frank feels safe at Freddy's—to indulge in soul food, to soliloquize, and to engage Freddy in (at times) overt and even humorously foreshadowing banter—ostensibly because the food reminds him of his childhood. And Frank feels safe with Freddy (a stand-out character coolly rendered by actor Reg E. Cathey), an affable, hulk-like, gravel-voiced African-American man with whom, we are led to believe, Frank shares a Southern upbringing.

Freddy is the only man on the show Frank actually seems to care about. While Frank is dubious of quite literally everybody else—even his wife Claire—he always feels at ease with Freddy, a folksy, softhearted reformed convict who makes Frank's favorite food for him at his bidding. Freddy provides respite where the rest of Washington presents nothing but problems as he lies, manipulates, and murders his way to the top.

While Frank's affection for Freddy feels authentic, the contract he and Freddy share is not one of conventional friendship, per se, but one of commerce. A contract that allows Frank to eat meat candy and engage in safe conversation, but never be beholden in a real or vulnerable way the way he would with, say, a friend from The Hill. Theirs is a meaningful, uncomplicated bond, the kind that emerges from the continual trade of legal tender for favored foodstuffs. (I'm thinking of Gory, the taco slinger who sets up outside the Episcopal church down the block from my apartment who calls me paisan.)

There are a lot of touching bro-down moments between Freddy and Frank as the congressman gnaws and licks his way through another platter of sticky ribs like a lion devouring his prey. It feels authentic because you never see Frank smile earnestly outside of Freddy's. And isn't it heartwarming to see a big-time DC Southern white politician and an aw-shucks blue collar black cook commune over a simple thing like ribs?

Yes, the ribs are also about race. Freddy is one of just two black characters on House of Cards. The other, Remy Danton, is a Capitol Hill player who frequently spars with Claire and Frank. Remy's a shark, and in a way, plays the perfect counterpoint to Freddy. Remy is dangerous in the same way Frank is. But Freddy, with his soiled apron, old-fashioned family-secret rib recipe, and even his f-bombs (as unpretentious as his ribs), is more than safe.

And therein lies the rub. (Sorry, had to.) Freddy does well with Frank not based on any moral (or, in the case of House of Cards's Washington, I guess it'd be immoral) intelligence or courage or strength of character as witnessed on screen. Rather, it is the troubling, stereotypically African-American circumstances of Freddy's life that somehow qualify him as a kind of equal and friend to Frank—albeit a dispensable one.

Freddy's criminal past confines him to a rib shack where he must toil in obscurity for modest returns, and, we are asked to assume, the rest of what comes with a hand-to-mouth existence in the African-American ghetto. A walk-up apartment in the projects, an estranged son, no wife, et cetera. Freddy will never come close to Frank's position, only darkening the doors of the Capitol and Frank's home to serve his inimitable ribs. Which is exactly why Frank continues to value Freddy's friendship, at least until he proves a liability.

When Frank must distance himself from Freddy for political reasons, Freddy accepts his fate valorously, rejecting Frank's charity money and the chance to get back on his feet again. Freddy's BBQ Joint closes. In this final act, Freddy is shown to be an exceptional man in the context of the show—one who makes choices that result not in personal gain, but in fact in his own material disadvantage. Which is something. But even this feels like a continued riff on an easy characterization of a gentle giant African-American cook, and a predictable exit. Not just predictable, but insidiously so: a paint-by-numbers approach to writing about race relations. But prevailing on Hollywood—or whatever metonymic non-entity is behind the wheel of television and, by extension, this original online series—to do it any differently seems as far-fetched as convincing Freddy to alter the recipe for his famous ribs.