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Paula Deen: Populist Cook or Diabetic Scam Artist?

Tradition doesn't need to be thrown out, but adapted as we learn about the body and adjust ourselves to the more sedentary ways of modern life.

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Paula Deen has been widely criticized for her reliance on processed food and prepackaged ingredients. She grew up in Albany (pronounced "Al-binny"), Georgia, where her parents ran a gas station and souvenier shop connected to a hotel. A chef for the 1 percent she is not, although her lucrative television career, complete with endorsements for products like Smithfield ham (associated with atrocious factory farming practices), has certainly lifted her into that category. Her cookware is popular at Wal-Mart.

Did she overdo it? Yes, I would say unequivocally that she did. Her schtick was pushing the envelope on fat-laden ingredients, as she did in this famously hard-to-watch video showing Deen assembling a hamburger using donuts in place of buns. Not only is it gross, it seems irresponsible at a time of widespread obesity to be so giddily celebrating excess. Brushing aside criticism with a standby line: "I'm your cook, not your doctor," she seems to have had scant concern for the effects such meals might have on the human body. Her decisions to both postpone coming out with her illness for three years and the tone-deaf hawking of a diabetes drug in the bargain are highly questionable. The woman has shortcomings.  But some of the vitriol heaped upon Deen does seem to be laced with classism and anti-Southern sentiment, along with a dash of sexism thrown in (check out the comment streams on recent articles and you will see various unpleasant expressions denoting Deen's gender and weight).

And what of the fellow chefs who have criticized her so aggressively? Her nemesis Anthony Bourdain is a staunch defender of foie gras, and can be seen in this video sneering at "a few twisted, angry people would like to take your foie gras away." For many, the force feeding of birds to plump their livers is a ghastly and intolerable cruelty. But for Bourdain, such concerns are for "fanatics." He applauds the "traditional" aspect of foie gras -- which is great, apparently, if you are French, but very bad if you happen to be from the South. There is a part of me that would like to tell Anthony Bourdain to shut his pie-hole before he goes criticizing the ethical stance of other celebrity chefs.

Tradition does not need to be thrown out, but adapted as we learn new things about the body and adjust ourselves to the more sedentary ways of modern life. Paula Deen's son is doing that, with his " Not My Momma's Meals" approach to lighter fare. But let's also remember that not everyone grew up in an environment where nutrition was emphasized and where heaps of arugula -- that you didn't have to grow yourself -- were widely available.

As for me, come summer, I'll be making Paula's tomato pie.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of 'Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.' Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

 
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