Your Weekly Pop: Ribs and the Rhetoric of Authenticity in House of Cards

Just in case you haven’t yet binge-watched the show, this post contains spoilers for Chapters One, Two, Four, Ten, Sixteen, Eighteen, Twenty, Twenty-Two and Thirty-Eight.

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Does watching House of Cards on Netflix make you hungry for a rack of ribs? You are not alone. This week the Southern Foodways Alliance examines how those mouth-watering ribs, that appear plate after plate, episode after episode, are about much more than Frank getting his hands dirty and a satisfied look on his face.

House of Cards follows Frank Underwood, a South Carolina politician, as he ruthlessly fights his way into the presidency. Although Washington D.C. seems like a long way away from Gaffney, Frank never disconnects from his Southern roots. Rather, he leverages his Southern identity to further his own ambitions.

In the third season, hired biographer Tom Yates describes Frank as a “redneck boy from Gaffney, who married a debutante from Texas.” Claire’s roots in Texas are downplayed in comparison to her husband’s in South Carolina. They mention that she once had an accent, but unlike Frank, we never hear Claire tout her background. She seems disassociated from the South altogether, while Frank plays up a more “authentic” Southern identity–one shaped not by wealthy debutantes but by poverty and hardship. Frank’s South is a place where a person eats or gets eaten. Appropriately, what and where Frank eats paints a clear picture of this dichotomy.

One of Frank’s favorite spots is Freddy’s “Southern Style” Rib joint, and he shares some of his most intimate soliloquies there. For example, in chapter one Frank gives the first insight into his childhood:

My one guilty pleasure is a good racks of ribs… Where I grew up in South Carolina nobody had two pennies to rub together. A rack of ribs was a luxury, like Christmas in July. I’ve had a weakness for them ever since.

Frank’s association of Freddy’s Rib Joint with the poverty of his youth becomes a touchstone for authentic Southern identity throughout the series. In episode four, Frank answers a phone call while dining at Freddy’s and explains that he is “on the other side of the tracks trying to find the meaning of life.” Freddy’s location is mentioned repeatedly, signaling to viewers that this is authentic barbecue by associating it with a low-income neighborhood. This measure of a barbecue joint’s authenticity is all too familiar; in fact, many barbecue aficionados advise that to find real barbecue, one must seek out the most run-down places. (I’ve been told to look for a diversity of cars and a woodpile.) Frank’s level of comfort there speaks to his personal history, reminding us again that he was not born into privilege and power.

The second season complicates this association of Southernness with poverty and hardship. As Frank becomes increasingly successful, the Vice President’s favorite place to eat draws investors who want Freddy to start a franchise, the proposals for which specify that the linoleum in the new location should be peeling up “to make it seem real.” Freddy rejects this image, saying, “Well, I wanted it to look nicer than this.” He also calls out the strategy of marketing a sanitized experience of a low-income neighborhood to wealthier patrons, arguing that its purpose is to let “white folks to feel like they slummin it.”

By this point, the series has solidified Freddy’s credibility as the most reliable and unpretentious character, the one that minds his own business literally and figuratively. Frank, the most dubious, even admires this quality in Freddy: “[i]n a town where everybody is so carefully reinventing themselves, what I like about Freddy is that he doesn’t even pretend to change.”

In his rejection of this well-worn trope, then, Freddy claims the authority to narrate his own version of authentic Southern identity, one that contrasts the image created by outsiders and reinforced by the politically savvy. His moment of power is short-lived, however. Freddy, his family, and the rib joint all get caught in the crossfire of Frank’s underhanded political dealings, despite Frank’s claim that he “won’t leave one of [his] own bleeding in the field.”

Although Frank might have once recognized common ground between himself and Freddy, his encouragement of Freddy to downplay their friendships breaks the illusion. Frank eventually gives up his rib habit, and Freddy is left to start his life over from scratch. That Freddy loses so much, while Frank’s power continues to grow, speaks to another important aspect of the barbecue joint in the show–race–but that is a topic for another day as the Southern Foodways Alliance continues to look at ribs in Netflix’s House of Cards.