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!

Friday, June 21, 2013

UPDATE: Paula Deen and “The N-Word”

Food Network Leads the Pink Slip Parade for the Controversial “Butter Queen”
Pity poor Paula Deen. She's stepped in it again. But this time it keeps getting deeper.

After being castigated by nearly everyone with access to a computer keyboard – including yours truly – for her disingenuous faux pas of hiding her diabetes diagnosis until a drug company made its revelation profitable for her, all the while shoveling pounds of butter and sugar down the gullible throats of her teeming fan base, the “Butter Queen” reinvented herself by slimming down a bit and adopting a pseudo-healthy approach to her signature Southern cuisine. Of course, that includes fronting a line of flavored “finishing butters” that her sycophantic legions could purchase at Walmart, but that's beside the point.

Now the very same media that raised a nondescript, dumpy, middle-aged Georgia home cook from a seller of bag lunches on the streets of Savannah to the Olympian heights of international culinary superstardom is threatening to bring her back down by branding her with the scarlet “R” of racism.

While defending a discrimination lawsuit brought against her and her brother, “Bubba,” by a former employee who surely knows a rich target when she sees one, Mrs. Michael Groover, aka Paula Deen, admitted to having uttered the infamous “N-word.”

Initially, Paula admitted to using the word a time or two in her life. But she says that was a long time ago and she doesn't do it anymore and she doesn't condone its use and nobody she associates with condones its use and she's all about equality and opportunity and love and acceptance and blah-blah-blah. And you know what? That facade drops the minute the cameras and microphones turn off. I guarantee when Mrs. Groover goes home and closes the bedroom door and talks to Mr. Groover, she ain't a-callin' her dark-skinned neighbors “African-Americans.” She's of an age and from a place and a culture where calling blacks “niggers” is as natural as calling your mother “Mama.”

Believe it or not, the sentence you just read was enough to get this article refused by the Yahoo! Contributor Network on the basis of "offensive language." Have we reached the point where we can't even talk about the subject of being offensive without being offensive? 

Anyway, an elderly gentleman of my acquaintance is a decade or so older than Paula and from even deeper in the Deep South. And he makes me cringe every time he opens his mouth. Whenever he sees a black person walking down the street, whenever he encounters a black waitress, nurse, store clerk, or whatever, whenever he sees a black actor, entertainer, or athlete on TV, it's always “that nigger.” And you can't change him. You can't correct him. You can't say, “Don't you know that's wrong?” He won't hear it. He gets angry and defensive if you even try. And yet if you accuse him of being a racist, he is utterly astonished. “I ain't no racist. I just don't like niggers.” He is mentally, psychologically and socially incapable of making the connection.

 At first, I thought Paula was smarter than that. I figured that she understood that you can't go around doing politically incorrect things in an increasingly politically correct world without being held accountable for it. So, Paula Deen, the celebrity cook, the Food Network star, the face of an incredibly lucrative franchise probably doesn't use or condone public use of the "N-word." But Mrs. Michael Groover, born and raised in the Jim Crow South? I'll bet she uses a lot of politically incorrect words when the spotlight goes out.

That's the problem with celebrity. Living up to the expectations of millions of adoring people who think you are perfect is a difficult cross to bear. You're going to slip, you're going to stumble, the facade is going to crack and expose the “you” underneath. And the media is a fickle bitch. It is both Brahma and Shiva. It creates fame and destroys it with equal alacrity. And when the “you” that is exposed has warts or flaws, the facade crumbles, aided and abetted by the sharp pickaxes of a scandal-hungry press.

And boy howdy, has it cost Paula a bundle. Her principal employer, Food Network, after “monitoring” her current crisis of character, decided to pull the plug on their controversial creation, saying, “Food Network will not renew Paula Deen's contract when it expires at the end of this month.” The announcement came on the heels of a pair of poorly conceived Internet video “apologies” issued by the Deen camp, in which Paula begs for forgiveness from her family and fans, saying, "Your color of your skin, your religion, your sexual preference does not matter to me." Deen continues, “I want people to understand that my family and I are not the kind of people that the press is wanting to say we are." And later, "The pain has been tremendous that I have caused to myself and to others."

The weirdness of the YouTube videos and their vaguely non-apologetic character just added fuel to the fire as did Paula's terribly ill-advised last minute bailout on a scheduled "Today" show interview.

And then the dominoes started to fall. For days it became a kind of morbid sport to log on and see who dropped Paula today. Food Network led the pink slip parade and was quickly followed by Smithfield. Then Walmart pulled the plug, leading to similar measures by Home Depot and Target. Ceasar's Entertainment stripped her brand from four of their restaurants. Even the rats at drug maker Novo Nordisk --the company that drilled the first holes in the bottom of her boat -- abandoned ship. QVC, Kohl's, Macy's, and Sears were all "evaluating" or "reviewing" their relationships.

While it's unlikely Mrs. Groover will be back selling bag lunches any time soon, her empire has fallen in a way that would astonish ancient Rome.  

As you may have determined, I am not a fan of Paula Deen. I've seen her on TV and I've seen her in person, and, frankly, I've seen enough. My biggest complaint is that she comes off looking as fake and as plastic as her fellow Food Network “star”, Sandra Lee. I live in the South. My sister married into a Southern family. My wife was born and raised in the Deep South. Most of my friends and associates are from the South. And we all agree on one thing: Paula Deen is too Southern to be real. If Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were to watch her on TV, they would both say, “Damn, girl. Tone it down a little.” She's like that annoying relative who can't complete a three-sentence thought without saying “you know” eighteen times. Except in her case it's “y'all.” If y'all are reading this in some locale other than the South, y'all need to understand that y'all would never hear “y'all” spoken by anybody y'all might meet in the South as often as y'all would hear it said by Paula Deen, y'all. Curiously, she managed to muddle her way through her string of mea culpas -- which actually came off as more mea NON culpas -- without uttering a single "y'all." She is a caricature.

But is she a racist? Probably not. At least not in the most repugnant sense. The dictionary definition of “racism” describes “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others.” I don't think Paula wants to rule anybody and I don't think she believes herself to be superior. Like most people in the contemporary South, she has educated and elevated herself beyond such reprehensible and primitive thinking. But she is still the product of a culture that openly promoted such ideas when her morals and attitudes were being formed and she's probably going to revert to that upbringing from time to time until the day she dies. Does that mean that she launders sheets for the Ku Klux Klan in with the table linens from The Lady and Sons? Of course not. But the fact that she even elucidated a thought about a scenario involving a “plantation-style wedding” in which “a bunch of little niggers” would wear white shirts and black shorts and bow ties and dance around like they did in the Shirley Temple movies proves that she is still capable of reverting to that unenlightened upbringing. And yet she remains puzzled by it all. “I can't, myself, determine what offends another person.”

Honey, you offended a bunch of other people by ending your crocodile tear-stained interview with Matt Lauer by openly and defiantly saying, "I'm not gonna change." And reverting to stereotypical black dialect with, "I is what I is" was a nice touch, too. Way to convince the fence sitters, girl.

The South has changed in the last fifty years. It has evolved and it continues to do so. But some people of Paula's generation are at the tail end of that evolutionary process. They won't completely evolve until they are completely dead. Even so – and I can't believe I'm saying this – give her a little slack. If you want to criticize her for being a fake or a fraud or a hypocrite or a caricature, go for it. But I think “racist” is a little overblown. I might give you “classless, ignorant, backward redneck,” but not “racist.”

Do you know what a “sweven” is? Probably not. It's an archaic word for a dream. It's been out of use for centuries. Friends, I have a sweven of a day in which “the N-word” and all the controversy surrounding it will be archaic and out of use, as well. Unfortunately, I don't think it will come true in my lifetime. Or in Paula Deen's.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Making Processed Food LOOK More Natural

These days, “natural” food is cropping up everywhere. Some of it actually is natural and some of it is just lipstick on a pig – almost literally.

The purveyors of processed food products are pretty adept at riding the latest waves of popularity and there's little doubt that “natural” is at the crest of the current wave. But when average consumers look at a package of, let's say, sandwich meat in the grocery store and see perfectly round, perfectly thin slices of ham or beef or chicken or turkey all neatly and uniformly stacked in shrink-wrapped plastic packages, they're not thinking, “Oh! That looks natural.”

Once upon a time, “modern” shoppers wanted food that looked “modern.” They liked the uniformity, because it said “this is neat and clean and perfect.” But the new “modern” shopper eschews the obviously processed and wants things a little more rustic, a little less formed and molded, a little more “natural.” And so the food processors have set out to give the customer what he or she wants: food that looks natural. Not that it's any less processed or any more “natural” than it was before, but, by golly, it sure looks that way.

In fact, Kraft Foods -- the company behind Oscar Mayer products – has spent years of time and tons of money developing – get this – specialized equipment designed to make processed food look natural by cutting it unevenly. They've got whole teams of people analyzing the way dads hack up turkeys at Thanksgiving and then creating machines to replicate that hacking in order to produce a more “natural” look. They even paint the edges of the slices with caramel coloring to make them look more like something that was carved right off a freshly roasted bird. Never mind that certain caramel colorings were recently determined to be carcinogenic. They just look so darn natural!

They say you eat with your eyes. I tried that and found it extremely messy. I prefer to eat with my

mouth and use my eyes to read labels. For instance, Oscar Mayer's Carving Board Oven Roasted Turkey Breast looks really natural. Right down to the turkey breast, water, cultured corn sugar, less than 2% of salt, sugar, vinegar, sodium phosphates, sodium ascorbate, sodium nitrite, and caramel color that you'll find in those “naturally carved” slices.

Or, you want natural? How about Oscar Mayer's “Natural” Oven Roasted Turkey, containing turkey breast, water, less than 2% of potassium lactate, (from corn), sea salt, evaporated, cane juice, carrageenan, celery powder, lactic acid, and starter culture. Carrageenan, in case you were wondering, is a gelling agent derived from red seaweed. It's considered safe in small quantities, but I don't know about “natural.” And what's a “starter culture? It's a bacterial culture used in cured meats to help develop color, flavor, and aroma. Just screams “natural” to me.

Of course, when compared with Oscar Mayer's plain old unnatural Oven Roasted Deli Turkey and its chemistry lab of turkey breast, water, modified cornstarch, less than 2% of sodium lactate, salt, sugar, sodium phosphate, sodium diacetate, sodium erythorbate, (made from sugar), sodium nitrite, and caramel color, I guess the “natural” stuff looks pretty natural at that.

I'm not just riding OM. Hillshire Farm Deli Select Smoked Ham has water, less than 2% of salt, sodium lactate, dextrose, sodium phosphate, sodium diacetate, sodium ascorbate, vitamin C, and sodium nitrite, and Healthy Choice loads up its Oven Roasted Chicken Breast with potassium lactate, modified food starch, salt, corn syrup, sodium phosphate, and sodium diacetate.

The point I'm belaboring is this; don't be taken in by buzzwords and marketing ploys. Currently, neither the FDA or the USDA has any rules regarding the use of the word “natural” in food labeling, although the FDA does actively discourage it. But there are no legal standards – or legal consequences – so manufacturers can slap the word on anything their greedy, market-driven little hearts desire. And since they know that the American sheeple are flocking to “natural” things these days, they're gonna do their darnedest to fleece them by any means necessary, including engineering processed food to look more “natural.”

If you are cooking at home with fresh, wholesome ingredients that you prepared yourself, then by all means make it look as good and as appetizing and as tantalizing as possible so that people will, indeed, enjoy the sight and eat with their eyes. But when it comes to prepackaged processed food products, don't let your eyes deceive you.