Paula Deen: Populist Cook or Diabetic Scam Artist?

Personal Health

By now you've probably heard about the controversy surrounding Paula Deen, the southern cook whose butter-soaked, sugar-fueled meals and home-grown style made her a hit on the Food Network. Since admitting to having contracted Type 2 diabetes three years ago and signing on to be a diabetes drug spokeswoman, her publicist has quit, she was condemned as a food hustler by fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and many have gloated that the old gal got what she deserved. The Deen brand is not in good shape.

I'm not much of a Food TV person, but I am a North Carolinian who has lived most of my adult life in New York City. Every time a restaurant opens here promising me "southern" cuisine, I get excited, and then ultimately disappointed. How hard is it for Yankees to make grits?? Very hard, I conclude, staring at the lumpy mess on my plate where a shimmering heap of buttery corn goodness should be. 

If I want sinfully delicious southern eats, I usually have to make 'em myself. Paula Deen's recipe for tomato pie is one of my summer favorites. Layers of juicy, ripe tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, and a topping of shredded cheese held together by mayonnaise. That last part probably freaks out a lot of health conscious folks. But it's a treat that I make probably four times a year and it reminds me of all the lovely things I connect with eating in the South - abundance, hospitality, and sun-steeped afternoons. When people in the South get together, they like to do so over food. In North Carolina it's a Pig Picken'. In South Carolina it's a Low Country Boil. Oyster roasts, fish fries -- are all occasions to celebrate the warmth and delight of sharing grub and good times together.

There are also things about southern cuisine that leave something to be desired. When I was a kid, I thought that fruit came out of a can, as in fruit cocktail, a syrupy mixture that, when poured into a bowl, constituted a form of "salad." Another special salad was half a canned pear sitting on a leaf of iceberg lettuce and topped with a dollop of sour cream. Unlike the stereotypical southern woman, my mother didn't particularly like to cook, and she would usually rely on prefab ingredients whenever possible to pull something together for dinner, or "supper," as we called it. She worked full time, and as my dad was neither handy nor eager to help in the kitchen, the idea of preparing elaborate meals was beyond her physical and mental stamina at the end of a day teaching. There was something else, too, about that reliance on prepared foods that I didn't understand until later. But it has to do with women and class and rural experience -- a fraught combination that may not register for a young generation of city-dwellers.

My mother was raised on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, where there was always fresh food no matter how pinched the family might feel in other ways. But the difference between this fresh food and the items I buy at Whole Foods was this: my mother had to work hard for that food. Very, very hard. If her brothers went fishing, it was the women who would have to clean and gut the heaps of catch. If there were vegetables, they had to be grown, and tended, and picked, and cleaned, and put away for the winter. If there was pork -- let's not even go there. On a farm, there was no break from this constant work, and women bore the brunt of it. No wonder that in the 1950s, as canned and prepared items became available, rural women often rushed out to buy them. Being able to afford such items was often a luxury, and it was prepared food, rather than fresh food, that served as a class marker in rural areas. Very likely the casseroles and what-not put together with endless cans of cream of mushroom soup and processed cheese were not very good for anybody. But in a time when people got far more exercise, the effects were probably slower to register. Research shows that fifty years ago, even suburban women doing housework burned up many more calories than we do today.

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.

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