Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why I Hate Paula Deen

"If you're comforting yourself with the dictum 'Never trust a thin chef,' don't. Because no stupider thing has ever been said. Look at the crews of any really high-end restaurants and you'll see a group of mostly whippet-thin, under-rested young pups with dark circles under their eyes: they look like escapees from a Japanese prison camp -- and are expected to perform like the Green Berets."
--Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw

I have never eaten in a Paula Deen restaurant and have no plans to. I have never bought a Paula Deen cookbook, or prepared a Paula Deen recipe. (I have eaten Paula Deen pies prepared by others, and they were delicious.) I have certainly seen her shows, and I cringe every time I hear her food referred to as "Southern," as I have noted her fond over-reliance on Southern cuisine's trashier cousins, Velveeta and canned soup.

My mother (a virtual prototype of her target demographic) despises her, because when she and my stepdad ate at her Savannah restaurant, a staffer there told them that whenever a meal had to be comped (for whatever errors or complaints), that comp ticket came out of the staff's paychecks. Now, that might or might not even be true. That could've been a rogue employee who was just mouthing off about his boss. But it left a sour taste in my Mom's mouth; screw with the help at your peril.

While I thought Anthony Bourdain might be a little over the top (as he often is) in characterizing Paula Deen as an enemy of America, I was far more put off by her response, "You know, not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills." I don't care for the implication that parents have to feed their kids imitation food like Velveeta or factory-farmed-pork (from which she earns a healthy stipend) or canned soup to make ends meet. And even at the time (this was before her big Announcement), I didn't care for her implication that her Empire was just all about helping Families get by. (Smithfield is not exactly known for being a friend of the Worker, and this is old, old news).

So, I skeptically watched Deen come out to avuncular weatherman Al Roker with her Type 2 diabetes, while evading all dietary questions, snapping at his questions about her paid pharmaceutical spokesperson status ("I am compensated, just as you are for your work"), and I watched her backpedal the next day on The Chew, where she assured Mario et al that she and her sons were happy to be in a position to share some of her new Big Pharma proceeds with the American Diabetes Association. She didn't say how much, and it can't have escaped anyone's notice that Roker was the perfect soft-pedal choice to "break" the news (remembering how he evaded questions about his gastric bypass weight loss surgery for nearly a year back in 2002). I watched her "confess" her lifelong smoking problem to Dr. Oz a while back, while continuing the three-year facade.

Chefs are not doctors (and Paula Deen is not a chef), but it's disingenuous to protest "I'm yo' cook, not yo' doctor" out of one side of your mouth, and sell drugs out the other. You can't profess that your cooking is really meant to serve as "entertainment" in one breath, and call your books "the Bible" in the next. The word "Bible" suggests you are positioning yourself as something of an authority.

Of course sugar does not, per se, cause type 2 diabetes, and schadenfreude is a shitty, shitty thing. Nobody deserves a life-threatening disease, and all the online chatter that suggests she had it coming is shameful. Just because she's an asshole doesn't mean you have to be one too.

But, it is more than a little coy for her to repeatedly tapdance around all the "multiple, multiple" contributing factors like "age" and "genetics" without at least acknowledging that weight and diet are the Top Two. (Smoking isn't doing her any favors either.) No one dropped a safe on her head. She has been conferring with her doctor about this for three years post-diagnosis. Three years -- because she wanted to wait until she had "something to bring to the table" -- and this is is the best she could do? What she's bringing to the table is a spokesmonkey gig shilling diabetic drugs? (Will those "regular families" she's so worried about even be able to afford this controversial $500 prescription? Should their docs just tell them to give up on nutrition and exercise and weight loss?)

Yes, Deen is a big girl, but this is not an anti-older woman, weight bias issue. Before Jezebel and the gang hops on the bandwagon to characterize this as an age-ist, sexist, weight-ist debate, it isn't. Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten is an equally entrepreneurial and ample-sized cook (one with a far more delicious repertoire), but she isn't serving you her gorgonzola cream sauce with one hand, and selling you Lipitor with the other. Of course Deen has a right to both her lifestyle choices and her medical privacy -- she can inject butter right into her veins for all I care -- but if Giada DeLaurentiis smoked and then pitched asthma drugs on the side, there would be a similar outcry.

I TiVo'd every word Deen had to say on this subject, because I take it all personally, with a near missionary fervor. I know my A1C and odds are, I've asked you about yours. On New Year's Day, I went to a family birthday dinner where I sat across the table from a diabetic double-amputee. At the table behind me was a cousin who'd barely emerged from a diabetic coma and lengthy hospital stay in time to attend the celebration. His wife called 911 when his insulin pump malfunctioned, and he nearly died in the ambulance. On my left, was my cousin LJ, who candidly confessed to me (over mashed potatoes) that she'd had to recently consult a nutritionist because she was having a difficult time managing her diabetes, in conjunction with a diet that also accommodated her acid reflux. (The nutritionist purportedly recommended ice cream.) To my right was my diabetic stepdad, who's admittedly never carried an ounce of spare flesh in his life (but who is a lifelong drinker -- the ongoing kind, not the AA it-works-if-you-work-it kind). He was eating the fish and green beans. Whole, non-fake food is not a punishment. He does not suffer. Butter is real food -- he doesn't eat it by the pound, but it isn't on a banned list. Cream has a lower glycemic index and fewer grams of sugar than most milk. When he visits, I do not stock the fridge with "lo-fat" or processed "diet" food. I don't bake up any Splenda desserts (though my mother does). I do make sure he gets enough protein and vegetables, and I don't feed him white food.

What I wanted to do at this birthday dinner was whip out my iPad and conduct an impromptu seminar. Out of the 33 people seated, it's likely 25 of them have "The Sugar." And before anyone jumps to the genetic predisposition conclusion that Deen references, no, this was a table of in-laws and outlaws and steps -- only a few of us were related by blood. Also, their dogs have the same weight problems most of them do, and we know that's not genetic. No one in the family, extended or otherwise, is a Type 1 Diabetic (what used to be commonly referred to as juvenile diabetes). I whispered all this to my mother, and got some very stern looks that suggested I should keep my mouth shut. They wouldn't listen to me anyway. (But I know for sure they would pay attention to a Paula Deen.)

I did the "Diabeetus" Diet and exercise homework when my stepdad was first diagnosed a few decades ago (it didn't take me three years, and I barely had email at the time). But I really got serious about it when my favorite Uncle was diagnosed (the Uncle who threatens to buy me a wild Pomeranian).

I would like for him to live forever, and I was always a little concerned that on his diet of 32 Pepsis and a side of beef per day, he might not. We spend hours on the phone talking about what he should and shouldn't eat, and I spend most of my time infuriated by his doctor, who recommended potato chips to him for a mid afternoon snack, and told him tomatoes (one of three vegetables he will eat) are "hard on the kidneys" (though he's never had a kidney stone, which was the only thing I could find that might be incompatible with an otherwise perfect food like tomatoes). For Christmas, I got him soy nuts to try in place of his afternoon potato chips, and it was my greatest culinary accomplishment of the year that he didn't mind them.

Not everyone has my Uncle's willpower. He went from 32 Pepsis a day, to zero Pepsis per day. He smoked Kools for 40 years, and then flirted with Merits another ten as a "non smoker." But one January when his health insurance premiums went up, he asked the broker what the difference was between a smoker and non-smoker. When the answer came back $13 grand, he quit smoking on the spot. He's never picked up a cigarette since. He works 18 out of 24 hours a day and gets in more physical activity on the farm by 7 am than I do in a year sitting behind a desk.

I bring all this up to suggest that not all of us southern, salt-of-the-earth middle Americans fit that ridiculous fat, lazy slob stereotype. But I have observed that it can be difficult to find great medical care and advice and accurate guidance in small towns where "registered dieticians" regularly prescribe diet soda and diet ice cream and all manner of fake food, and where nephrologists perpetuate weird vegetable biases and outright misinformation.

Paula Deen is correct that diabetes does not have to be a death sentence, but it does have to be managed, and there are a million tasty ways to do that. Medication should be the last resort, not the first (particularly $500 medication that carries a blackbox warning). I would never suggest she move her show from Food Network to Discovery Health, and it's fair for her to say she's not a doctor. But, she does have a platform -- a bully pulpit that reaches millions and millions of folks with the same lifestyle issues and diagnosis she has.

It didn't take her three years to figure out the most lucrative way to say "y'all take a pill."


Bye, Bye Birdie  (or, It's nearly curtains for cousin's parakeet, Baby.)

Post-Holiday Shopping with Mom

Little Cuba


  1. I know this post is a little old, but I had to say..."Spot on!" As a Southerner I get so sick of this woman and the "southern food" that has been invented by the Food Network. There are some fantastic cooks and lots of fresh vegetables in our cuisine. Velvetta and canned soup are not THAT old so please stop acting like it's manna from the ancestors of old. Sheesh...


  3. I hate Paula Deen only because she is over the hill. Her cackle and her teeth and "hair" drive me crazy. She is Southern, but so repulsive to us who are southerners.....Take a powder Paula.

  4. I've never really seen much of Paula Deen except that an unfavorite relative ADORES her, so naturally I was predisposed to hate her. ;)

    This post was very well thought out and researched, and an absolute pleasure to read.

  5. Paula is no doubt a great cook. Her actions and reactions on air are ridiculous. I was born and raised in the South and she makes me and others look like fools. Her cackle is repulsive. Sorry, but I have to turn her off any time I see her, just like today on "The Chew".