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  • Welcome to Flavortown:Guy Fieri's Populist American Food Culture
  • Emily J. H. Contois (bio)

Described as a "dude chef," the "rock 'n' roll comfort food king," and "a supernova of kitsch," Guy Fieri transformed food television when he won the reality show Next Food Network Star in 2006. Beyond his several television programs—most notably the Emmy-nominated Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (2007 to present) but also Guy's Big Bite (2006 to present) and Guy's Grocery Games (2013 to present), among others—Fieri's food empire now includes restaurants, cookbooks, rock 'n' roll gastro-tours, food products, and cooking equipment. With an estimated net worth as high as $10 million, he is routinely included on lists of top-earning chefs.1 Infamous for his catchphrases, sensestunning food, bleached-blond spiked hairstyle, casual wardrobe, and copious, garish jewelry, Fieri has for more than a decade been the target of considerable media attention, both complimentary and derogatory. As Julia Moskin wrote in the New York Times, Fieri "has brought a new element of rowdy, mass-market entertainment to American food television…. He has a Sarah Palin-like ability to reach Americans who feel left behind by the nation's cultural (or, in his case, culinary) elite."2

Guy Fieri constructs his populist brand of gastronomic entertainment in part through cultural tropes often presented as uniquely "American." Fieri posits his own definition of America, one espoused on his programs, especially Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and its accompanying cookbooks. The program asks, "What is American food?"—a polemic inquiry that encapsulates the [End Page 143] myths, tensions, and paradoxes that make up American identity. A close study of Guy Fieri and the definitions of America and American food that he proffers on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives illuminates some of the motivations behind the most recent rise of populist sentiment in the United States.

Defining Guy Fieri's Populism: "Welcome to Flavortown, USA"

An imagined location, Flavortown, USA, proves challenging to define, even for Fieri himself. In his first cookbook—Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives: An All-American Road Trip … with Recipes!, published in 2008—Fieri welcomes readers to "take a trip to Flavortown," a place that he created, one populated by the flavors, ingredients, dishes, restaurants, people, and feelings showcased on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.3 Fieri frames Flavortown as a destination, a place not all around us but one that we must travel to visit. Emphasizing this distance, Fieri's definitions of Flavortown often mention means of travel with phrases like "We've got a conductor on the train going to Flavortown" and "Me and the number-one bus driver goin' to Flavortown."4 Fieri hails his viewers, "All aboard!"

Revealing the slippery and at times contradictory meaning of Flavortown, Fieri has also described Flavortown in the language of recent food trends and values, using phrases like "food revolution" and "scratch-made, home-made, farm-to-table, knowing what's really in front of you."5 Fieri also emphasized the intangible (and even fanciful) qualities of Flavortown as "a state of mind" in a February 2017 interview in which he likened Flavortown to Willy Wonka's chocolate stream and The Matrix saying, "You can only get down with Flavortown if you believe in Flavortown."6 While a nebulous concept, place, and community, Flavortown overlaps in interesting and often inconsistent ways with the America that Fieri constructs, an idea of the nation that speaks directly to the rise of populism in our current historical moment.

Although widely invoked as a political buzzword, particularly in recent years in the United States, populism is a notoriously vague, often misunderstood, and hotly contested term.7 Numerous scholars have sought to define and clarify populism.8 For example, political theorist Margaret Canovan defined populism in modern democratic societies as "an appeal to 'the people' against both the established structure of power and the dominant ideas and values of the society," such as "individualism, internationalism, multiculturalism, permissiveness and belief in progress."9 Within such a framework, appeals are simple and direct, and "the people" are considered ordinary, decent, and associated with what Paul Taggart called "the heartland"; the people are the binary...


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