Today's Black reality stars are widely considered to be an embarrassment to the race and are rarely seen in anything remotely resembling healthy, loving relationships. However, one only need to turn to the Food Network to find a loveable pair that turns those depressing images on their head.
Of course we're talking about Gina and Patrick Neely. And while you surely know their name (and perhaps some of their signature Southern recipes), perhaps you've slept on the significance of seeing the couple cooking, loving and building an empire together on the small screen.
Food Network's Down Home with the Neelys made its debut in February of 2008. Audiences were instantly charmed by the couple, as they shared the secrets behind their favorite dishes and their passion for one another from their Memphis home. The show was the highest-rated series debut in the five-year history of Food Network's "In the Kitchen" weekend block and continues to be one of the network's most popular offerings. In 2009, Pat and Gina released their first cookbook —also titled Down Home with the Neelys—which landed on the New York Times best-seller list and followed up with The Neelys Celebration Cookbook: Down Home Meals for Every Occasion last year.
2011 also saw the opening of the Neely's Barbecue Parlor, a stunning replica of a sprawling Southern home located in New York City. The restaurant is decked out in carefully selected vintage furniture and allows hungry city-dwellers to experience Pat and Gina's country barbecue specialties and Southern staples while being temporarily transported out of the hustle and bustle of urban life. Pork lovers, save some calories for the candied thick-slab bacon, coated in brown sugar and served in a little Mason jar. Among the other don't-miss dishes: the sauteed shrimp and grits (featuring some of the largest, juiciest shrimp our tasters have ever had in the increasingly popular brunch dish), Pat's "Blue Ribbon" chicken (fried with a can of beer on the inside!) and the sticky-sweet pecan pie. Oh, and the Memphis Mojito made with sweet tea bourbon is the perfect way to wash it all down.
We caught up with the lovely couple at this year’s Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival. During an eighties-Luke-Skywalker-meets-Ashford-and-Simpson demo, Gina sipped Moët from the bottle while her husband, Pat, caressed the grill. Her peach spritzer presentation was part of The Neelys fans hooted and howled as Mrs. Neely wined down to the floor in Beyoncé-esque heels. And for those of you who are wondering if The Neelys are as icky-southern-comfort-sweet in person as they are on the screen; yes, they are. Their down-home, food-and-booty jubilance is for real. They love food the way they love each other…and this is why we love them.
EBONY: Do you still enjoy cooking together now that you’re famous?
Pat Neely: Yes, we do. When we’re in the kitchen, it’s like a dance.
Gina Neely: Yes. I love cooking with Pat, but I also love spending time with my girlfriends.
EBONY: How has your relationship with food changed since you’ve become famous? Are you more conscious of how you look, for example?
Gina: No. I am not more conscious. I am who I am, I enjoy who I am and I love my booty.
Pat: Yes. I definitely feel more conscious of looking good in public, but being famous has not changed my love for cooking.
EBONY: What has been your latest food discovery?
Gina: Hummus. At first I thought it was bland, but I had a really nice hummus dish recently, so I’ve been experimenting with a chipotle hummus recipe.
Pat: I really love fried chicken, but it’s not healthy, so I’ve been eating salmon. Salmon is the new fried chicken (well, not really).
EBONY: Do you have a passion for wine?
Gina: Yes. I really like Sonoma wines, especially Pinot Noir. I also love Barefoot Pinot Grigio.
Pat: We have received so many bottles of wine in our bar room that we end up giving them away as gifts. But at the end of the day, I’m a Tennessee man, and I love Jack Daniels.
EBONY: What projects are you working on now?
Pat: We are so excited about the grand opening of our barbecue parlor in Manhattan.
Gina: Wait ‘til you taste those collard greens!
Dinkinish O’Connor is an award-winning writer. Her food sojourns have taken her everywhere from the shanty town bistros of Kingston to the gnarly vineyards of Bordeaux. She has written for Wine Spectator, Condé Nast Traveler, The Miami Herald and other publications. Dinkinish received her sommelier certification and hosts innovative wine tastings. To see what’s happening in Dinkinish’s sumptuous, little world, check out, “Gourmet Squatter,” a blog that explores how to sip high on a low budget.