The Gleeful Gourmand: In Defense of Paula Deen (Sort Of)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In Defense of Paula Deen (Sort Of)

I’ve been mulling over this Paula Deen debacle for about a week now, figuring out how I felt about it, and I think I’ve finally come to some personal conclusions and opinions. (In case you’ve been living under a rock, Deen confirmed last week that she has Type 2 Diabetes.)

I have been watching Paula Deen since the beginning of her career on the Food Network, back when she was filming out of Gordon Elliott’s home kitchen in New York, and her restaurant in Savannah, Ga., The Lady and Sons, was just becoming a huge hit. My mom was the one who insisted that I watch her show, so I gave it a try. And now, I love Paula Deen.

I do, I love her. I actually adore her like she’s a family member. When she revealed that she had Type 2 Diabetes and was taking a paid endorsement, it pained me to then hear Dr. Nancy Snyderman on the “Today Show” call her actions egregious. Deen has been called far worse by critics these past few years, so I’m sure she’s used to it. And I do think her diagnosis was inevitable. But it wasn’t always that way. When I started watching her, she wasn’t so much into glorifying fatty food (hello disgusting burger between two doughnuts) as she was about making all the dishes so famous in the South, the kind you’d find at Sunday dinner, the kind a lot of us grew up with. Back then she didn’t make any bones about the fact that she used butter, and back then it was endearing. She used butter, so what? Anthony Bourdain called her “the worst, most dangerous person to America,” yet Bourdain himself has often pointed out that what makes the food we eat in restaurants, and the food that he has made, so great, is…butter.

I loved watching her not because I wanted to necessarily make her food – in fact, I have a lot of her cookbooks, and have only made some desserts, never any entrees or sides – I just loved watching her. She was so real, and so approachable, and she always made me laugh. She looked like she was enjoying the hell out of cooking, talking, and eating, just like the rest of us. I fell in love with her, and watched her every day. We even went to Savannah and ate at The Lady and Sons (best fried chicken ever, anywhere, hands down). But something changed over the years. She never lost her approachability, but it was almost like she became a caricature of herself. She took her own personality over the top, making outrageous food, and taking huge sloppy bites of the food she tasted. Watching her eat kind of became gross.

It really doesn’t matter to me whether or not Deen has Type 2 Diabetes. I believe that if anyone watches her show and thinks it’s a great idea to eat that way all the time, or even most of the time, that person is a fool. I believe that it was her right not to tell anyone that she had the disease, and I don’t believe her actions are “egregious” as Dr. Snyderman said (Dr. Snyderman said that in connection with the food she eats, not necessarily how she went about her announcement). I do, however, think her timing was off-putting and wrong. To wait until she was paid by a drug company to come clean certainly paints her in a money-grubbing type of light. I think it’s her right to be paid, but she should not have waited until she was getting paid for endorsements to share her secret. She should have either A) Been up front with her audience right away or B) Not said anything at all, but also not taken the paid endorsement. (By the way, this is not the first time I’ve disagreed with Deen’s actions. I also dislike that she endorses Smithfield ham, but that’s a totally different story.)

She is under no obligation to now be the poster child for healthy living. She does that and the brand of Paula Deen dies. I know to some health fanatics that would be just fine and dandy, but that’s not who she is, and it’s not her responsibility to change her ways for her audience. As she is so fond of saying, she’s not your doctor she’s your cook. She isn't making America sick and overweight - we are doing that to ourselves, and would do so even without her. You wouldn’t go to the chef of your favorite burger restaurant and ask them to change what they’re doing, would you? No, you just wouldn’t go there anymore. Plain and simple, if you think your diet needs a change and you want to change your health, it’s your responsibility to turn off your television and do something about it, not hers.

Myself, I don’t watch Paula a lot anymore. I still adore her, but I do wish she’d tone it down and go back to her roots. I know that won’t happen, though. I wish her well in her fight against diabetes, and still dream that someday I’d be able to sit down and share a meal and a laugh with her.

P.S. – I want to take a moment to say that I do lead a healthy lifestyle. I enjoy eating healthy and being active, which is perhaps why I don’t make many of Deen’s dishes. The point is: It is possible to love Paula Deen, watch her show, and not get fat. It’s a choice. I know lots of people just like me who can make the same claim.


Elizabeth Wilson said...

Totally agree with you.

Unfortunately there are so many people who don't realize that they need to be in control of their own lives and not rely on the influences of Paula, Oprah, Dr. Phil and/or Dr. Oz.

Kirsten Oliphant said...

Here's something else: how many people who watch her show (or any show on the cooking channel for that matter) actually MAKE that food? I don't! I love the Food Network and basically anything food related on TV. I sit and watch and think, "Mm, that looks delicious! That looks fabulous! I'm going to make that!" And then I forget. So in addition to your well-made point that it's personal responsibility, I also think she isn't making people fat because people are already too lazy to get up and make their own food. If people are going to be mad and up in arms, they need to be careful. She isn't PROVIDING any food, unless you go to her restaurant.

I don't, however, think that celebrities of any sort are fully able to distance themselves from that responsibility they have as examples to all of us little people. When they take that leap, they are accepting that reality, whether that's something they want or not. It comes with the territory. So I do agree also with your points about her way of revealing this. (And I HAVE been under a rock, so I had heard rumors of this but not the actual story. Also, um, what about Smithfield ham?? Pray tell!) I think what she does now will say a lot. How will her show change? Because it HAS to change. How will she stay herself and yet adapt to what's happened? I'm interested to see.

Also? I love butte.r

Jenna said...

Yeah, I completely agree Kiki. I really don't make much that I see on Food Network, with the exception of Giada's recipes. I just like to watch for the fun of it.

I don't know if you've ever seen Food, Inc., but they did a piece in that movie on Smithfield about how they treat their livestock, which is abhorable, and also how they treat their employees. Basically they knowingly hire illegal immigrants, and then when their employees are raided and deported, they do absolutely nothing - they just sit back, watch it happen and then go out and hire more. I know Paula Deen has to know all of this, and the fact that she endorses this company crawls all over me.

Kirsten Oliphant said...

Giada has a big head. That's all I have to say.

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