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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Shame on Paula Deen

Tar and Feathers for the Butter Queen

I don't know what to make of Paula Deen.......but then again, I never have.

She started out in the food biz as a Bag Lady. Working under that name, she made bag lunches, which her two sons marketed and delivered to local business people. She moved up through the ranks, ultimately establishing herself with her uber-successful “Lady and Sons” restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. A self-published cookbook followed, then more cookbooks, then the Food Network came calling, and the rest is history. Paula Deen is now the Southern Julia Child with a string of popular TV shows, a bunch of bestselling cookbooks, and enough product endorsement contracts to choke a mule. She's won an Emmy, fans throng to her public appearances, and her restaurants continue to do land office business. Not a bad shake for a divorced mom from Albany, Georgia.

When she first showed up on TV, Paula, who had once suffered from panic attacks and agoraphobia, was concerned that a national audience would find her “too Southern.” Instead, they found her completely captivating and her down home style of cooking – with lots of butter and sugar and other naughty ingredients – was a novel counterpoint to the prevailing trend of bean sprouts and brown rice.

All well and good. But.........

I live in the South and have done so for more than thirty years. Never mind the Yankee audience; I find Paula Deen to be too Southern. Even my Alabama-born-and-bred wife admits that Paula's overblown magnolias and mint juleps persona gets on her nerves. I mean, nobody in the South says “y'all” eighteen times in a single sentence. Dial it back. Please! It's almost a caricature.

I've seen the “Buttah Queen” in person on several occasions and I've yet to make it through one of her cooking demos. In the first place, she doesn't cook, relying instead on assistants to man the pots and pans while she regales her fawning fans with personal anecdotes. Some of them are very personal. Paula, do we really need to hear about your adult undergarments at a cooking show? To paraphrase another fine Southerner, the late, great Lewis Grizzard, “Sister, I don't believe I'd a told that!”

For another thing, Southern cooks don't live in an antebellum time warp. Things like olive oil and low fat milk do exist in Southern kitchens, and Southern cooks are hip to current health and nutrition trends. It ain't all about hoecakes and fatback and collard greens anymore.

It was wretched excesses like deep fried butter balls that put Paula's homey little Southern granny image on the radar screens of people like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, both of whom have roundly criticized Paula's peddling of unhealthy foods to a nation struggling with record setting obesity. The release of a children's cookbook called “Paula Deen's Cookbook for the Lunchbox Set” prompted Barbara Walters to join the chorus, asking Deen if she seriously thought telling kids to eat cheesecake for breakfast and chocolate cake, meatloaf, and French fries for lunch was such a good idea. Bourdain has famously called her “the most dangerous woman in America” for sweetly smiling at the camera while simultaneously throwing metaphorical anchors to people drowning in fat.

Want an example? Try one of her signature dishes, “The Lady's Brunch Burger.” To make one of these cardiologist's delights you need a half-pound of ground beef, an egg, two slices of bacon, a modest tablespoon of butter, a “house seasoning” that consists of salt, pepper, and garlic powder, a little onion, a little parsley, and a couple of glazed doughnuts.

You mix the beef, onion, and parsley together and “season liberally” with the “house seasoning.” Next you fry up the burger, fry up the bacon, and fry up the egg in the butter. Now you slap the burger on a doughnut, top it with the bacon and the fried egg, and cover it with another doughnut!

And now Paula Deen says she has type 2 diabetes.

The announcement was met with a growing wave of outrage. Not that anybody is surprised. She's 65 years old, overweight, and is the mainstay of America's butter, sugar, and salt industries. She also smokes. But the timing just stunk.

You see, Paula was diagnosed three years ago. Three years during which she continued to flog her Lady's Brunch Burger, Krispy-Kreme Bread Pudding, Bacon Cheeseburger Meatloaf, Deep-Fried Cheesecake, and The Lady's Cheesy Mac – a concoction of deep-fried macaroni and cheese wrapped in bacon – to an unsuspecting public. Three years during which she opted not to share her diagnosis with her Food Network bosses lest they say something like, “Umm.......Paula, maybe it's time to shift focus.”

Paula, who excuses her three-year lapse in judgment by saying that she needed time to adjust and felt she had no advice or help to offer the public when she was first diagnosed, has gone on record refusing to change her fat and sugar laden ways. But now she apparently feels she has something to offer the public; her new contract as a spokesperson for drugmaker Novo Nordisk's new Victoza, a daily non-insulin injectable.

Tweets the irascible Bourdain, “Thinking of getting into the leg breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later.” But then Anthony never has had the warm fuzzies for Paula.

Now, however, even her stalwart fans are jumping into the fray. One such likens Deen to someone who brags on the joys of smoking two packs a day and then shills for a nicotine patch after developing lung cancer.

Diabetics in her fan base are outraged. Some think that she should volunteer to serve as an unpaid spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association instead of tucking herself into the wallet of a drug company.

Oddly enough, the Association is currently supporting Deen, saying that she may “inspire many people living with type 2 diabetes to take a more positive approach to their diabetes care.” Yeah! Maybe they'll be inspired to have a “Lady's Brunch Burger” AND a side of “The Lady's Cheesy Mac!” Get a clue! The woman has publicly stated that she has no intention of changing her style. How do you inspire people who are forced by the disease to change their lifestyles by refusing to change yours?

Paula's principal employer is standing behind her – for now. Food Network is ready to “support her as she confronts this new challenge, taking her lead on what future episodes will offer her fans.” We'll see how that goes. Coincidentally, Paula's boy Bobby has just premiered a new offering on the network. “Not My Mama's Meals” takes Paula's recipes and makes them healthier. Hmmmm........wouldn't it be better under the circumstances for her to take that one upon herself?

Hypocrite. That's the word in the headlines today. It was easy for the sweet old Southern lady to brush aside attacks from bad old culinary curmudgeons like Bourdain and Zimmern, but can she withstand a backlash from her simple, down home fan base? I think Paula really needs to embrace her current situation, apologize for her bad judgment, modify her on-air persona and style, back off her questionable financial arrangement, and take her fans' advice to volunteer.

C'mon, Paula! We all know you're not a classically trained chef. You're just a common old Southern cook who done good. But is your son better? How come he can make healthy Southern meals and you can't? Maybe it's time to stop being so defensive and let some of the honest criticism sink in. Humble pie might be a good recipe to include in a forthcoming diabetic cookbook.

Just my opinion, y'all.

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