As I was watching the news yesterday, I saw a scroll on the bottom of the TV screen saying that QVC had broken ties with Paula Deen. As someone who loves to cook and has followed chefs and their shows/books/etc. like I follow my favorite rock stars, I've been thinking quite a bit about this whole Paula Deen conundrum. And I've come to the conclusion that right now, in America, there are two kinds of people: The people who are saying "good riddance" and the people who think we're all being really mean and unfair to our collective southern grandma.
The "grandma" aspect is part of the problem. We think of her as "America's southern grandma," and some folks are taking her fall from grace very personally. Because she's on TV cooking our own grandma's favorite dishes, and because we associate food so much with memories and nostalgia, I think some of us actually see her as being part of the family. Which is why this is hitting people, especially people here in the South, so hard. The South is proud of its heroes and doesn't take too well to people calling them names. And hey, I understand that, but in this case, I think it might be best if we just let go. At least for now.
I used to be a fan, I'll admit it. I loved Paula Deen and watched every episode of her first few seasons on the Food Network. I loved her because she – which I'm sure is the same with millions of other Americans – cooked the kind of food that my grandmother cooked, which was near and dear to my heart. After my grandmother was too sick to cook much anymore, I wanted to make sure that I had all her recipes down so that I'd never forget them. And now that she's passed away, I'll make pot roast or stuffed peppers the way she did, or use her tricks for perfect mashed potatoes to feel like I was back in the kitchen with her.
Paula made the same kinds of pies and the same kinds of vegetables that my grandma did (i.e. the starchy ones), and she also used real butter, like my grandma did in the '80s when everyone else used that damn margarine.
I've also brought a few dishes made from Paula's recipes to parties that have been devoured and raved about. There were the "chocolate peanut butter gooey butter cakes" that inspired a few guys to beg me to go out with them back in the day. And then there's her grits recipe, which I still use when I haven't been to the grocery store in forever and all I have in my kitchen is a bag of corn grits and maybe a few raisins. But it's more of a ratio than a recipe.
She also kind of influenced my "kitchen speech" because I swear I can't say "spatula" anymore. I automatically say "spatular," mainly because I think it sounds cool, like a kitchen tool you'd use in space.
But for the most part, I've been over Paul Deen for a while now. Especially as she became less of a relatable southern home cook and more of a cringe-inducing caricature of her former self. Overexposed. Over-saturated. Her face used to schlep everything like pots and pans, processed Walmart cakes, Smithfield ham and their questionable practices, as well as custom eyeglasses and bedroom furniture, of all things. And she finally totally lost me as a fan when after years of promoting ungodly amounts of sugar and butter in her recipes, she came out as being a diabetic. And it wasn't even the fact that she was a diabetic and still put a pound of powdered sugar in most of her food for the camera, but the fact that she had kept quiet about it for so long and only went public after endorsing a diabetes drug. That was it. I was done.
Fast-forward to a few weeks ago and the debate about her use of that word kind of blew up. After reading many a comment section on articles about the scandal (and the subsequent time I spent in a corner rocking myself back and forth) here are a few of the conclusions that I've come to:
1. The media isn't doing a very good job at telling the whole story. They have boiled the whole thing down to her use of a racial slur long ago. It's so much more than that. If you're going to go on a Facebook tirade about the Food Network firing a sweet old lady who used the "N" word 20 years ago, then do everyone a favor and read a little further.
2. Paula Deen might remind you of your grandma, but she's not actually your grandma. Paula Deen is a gazillionaire and she's going to be okay.
3. The old stock-excuse for using racial slurs because "they were from a different time" is not going to cut it anymore. It's going the way of the Dodo.
And in closing, if you haven't read it yet, I urge you to read An Open Letter to Paula Deen by Michael W. Twitty, a culinary historian who writes a pretty fascinating blog about the origins of southern food. It's honest and sincere and not a bit mean-spirited, which is quite a relief after everything I've read on the subject.