Focus on Deen dishonors rich, troubled heritage of real Southern cuisine

     In her interview on NBC's

    In her interview on NBC's "Today" show, celebrity chef Paula Deen said she was not a racist and was heartbroken by the controversy that began with her deposition in a lawsuit. (AP Photo/NBC, Peter Kramer)

    It’s hard to avoid clips of Paula Deen’s apologies, explanations, outrage and tears. There’s a conversation this event provokes that goes beyond the glossy magazines, formulaic food shows, mass-produced cookbooks and pot-stirring accusations of racism. 

    Whether you watch Paula Deen on The Food Network or not, we’ve all been drawn into the controversy of her alleged racism. It’s hard to avoid clips of the apologies, explanations, outrage and tears in her interview on the “Today” show.

    What made me squirm, more than the idea of her using one of the worst pejoratives in our vocabulary, was Deen’s concept of a “plantation-style wedding,” complete with black servers dressed as slaves. What was she thinking? A buffet line with cheerful folk in shackles serving up grits? Bartenders tap-dancing as they shake up a milk punch? A wedding cake presented with tigers chasing each other around it until they melt into a bucket of butter?

    The irony of these stereotypes is that Deen herself has assembled a brand built on a caricature of the White South. In July, 2008, I interviewed her on WHYY’s radio show, “A Chef’s Table,” about her newly released book, Paula Deen Celebrates.

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    From the moment I greeted her in the lobby and met her entourage, which included her second husband, Michael Groover, she presented herself in character — fun, bawdy and full of her wry Southern life observations. Although, I do recall a somewhat serious personal exchange about the ramifications of our respective divorces and agoraphobia. (Deen’s biography often recalls her starting her business as a way to pull herself out of this affliction and the financial ruin of divorce.)

    Our interview consisted mostly of folksy quips, which set the tone for what was clearly going to be more sauce than meat. Unfortunately, whenever I asked her a question about a recipe in her book, she went a little deer-in-headlights. (Hey, I understand most celebrity cookbooks are ghost-written, but you should at least read your book before touring to promote it. Otherwise, it’s hard to see you as authentic — even with the folksy tone.)

    So, who is Paula Deen? Is she a racist, and should she have been fired from the Food Network? We’ll have to see how this evolves, much as we did with Martha Stewart. I will observe, however, that the lawyer who sent her into that deposition clearly unprepared, and who couldn’t keep the deposition under wraps until a potential trial, probably ought to resign. The question that got her into such trouble wouldn’t even have come up had that been handled better.

    Still, like the fallout from a divorce, this could be an opportunity for Deen to drop the brand persona. She is 66, and when the dust from this episode settles, she should have enough money to retire comfortably. If, as she said in the “Today” show interview, she “is who she is” and wants to exhibit integrity, maybe she’ll do some volunteer work for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Or promote Southern culinary history without the branded pots and pans, ghosted cookbooks and publicity.

    The truth that Deen has managed to avoid acknowledging — expressed in a New York Times op-ed and and this Afroculinaria blog post by Michael Twitty — is that, beyond caricatures and stereotypes, Southern cuisine would not exist if not for the culture of slavery.

    Deen’s recipes, while tagged as “southern,” rarely hold anything more than a passing resemblance to southern cookery. A Food Network list of Deen’s Top 100 recipes offers three versions of Asian chicken salad and inexplicable dishes such as Fat Darryl’s sandwich (made with fried chicken tenders smothered in French fries). Her recipe for Chicken Brunswick Stew is somehow mutated into a version made with liquid smoke and canned cream corn. Historically, while there may be debate on its origins, Brunswick Stew is made with rabbit, squirrel or other game meat and cooked communally over a fire in a giant iron pot. The final blow for me is her treatment of Southern fried chicken. While I haven’t read all 14 of her cookbooks, fried chicken does not come one-size-fits-all, as it appears she suggests online. Just ask Alabama or Texas or even Maryland what constitutes fried chicken.

    The past few days have sent me back to the works of Nathalie Dupree, Jessica Harris, John T. Edge and John Egerton — all southern food writers who feel their primary mission is to honor the region and its roots. There’s a conversation this event provokes that goes beyond the glossy magazines, formulaic food shows, mass-produced cookbooks and pot-stirring accusations of racism. As John Egerton wrote over 20 years ago in his book, Side Orders, Southern food, like music, was “born out of strife and travail and suffering, tempered by servitude, flavored by poverty and injustice.”

    We owe the creative hard-working individuals who planted the seeds, served in the house, and worked in Jim Crow kitchens at restaurants where they could not be served at least a real conversation about our food history. And it’s going to take more than a pat of butter to make that go down easily.

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