The Archaeology of Paula Deen’s Kitchen
The heart of Paula Deen’s popularity–and the enmity for her–likely lies in her populist image: Deen’s Southern drawl, unpretentious and expansive personality, and embrace of a rich diet of comfort foods resonates with many people alienated by haute cuisine, bourgeois foodies, dietary crusaders, and Gordon Ramsey’s emotional brutality. Deen’s acclaim is firmly rooted in the sentiment that she is like a lot of us: Deen seems apparently unaffected by celebrity in her celebration of her Southern drawl, the love for delicious if fatty foods, a personal style far removed from high fashion, and her heartfelt affection for her family and friends. Regardless of how we each feel about the pitched battle over her unrenewed contract with Food Network, much of the depth of feeling for Deen can be illuminated by examining the material culture of Deen and thinking critically about us, our own kitchens, and our deep-seated feelings about the South, the color line, and food.
Deen’s youth in the Jim Crow South may well have been confirmed by her admission that she has used the N word and a variety of racist language, and she may have engaged in discriminatory employment practices. Yet much of the zealous pleasure taken in Deen’s apparent undoing is targeting her public materialization of a Southern culture whose real and perceived racism, poverty, and desire unsettle bourgeois notions of 21st century society. In a historical moment when public sentiments are often governed by ironic detachment, Deen’s inflated sincerity, expansive if not tacky style, and personal intimacy evoke key dimensions of what we might circumspectly call a “Southern personality.” W.J. Cash’s 1941 study The Mind of the South gathered together a series of prescient if rhetorical 1929-1937 essays outlining the Southern personality. Cash painted Southerners as romantics who were expressive, emotional, and wary of intellectual rationality. In his telling, Southerners embraced their desire, celebrated spontaneity, and lived for the moment as fierce individualists who were polite, conservative, and apprehensive of difference.
The degree to which her media presentation is the “real” Paula Deen may be irrelevant: what does matter is people’s genuine feelings about Deen’s sincerity (witness fans’ assault on the Food Network’s facebook page) and the strong sense of hypocrisy some observers seem to cast on Deen. Television reality shows carefully construct emotionally involving characters rooted in a real person’s personality: probably much of Paula Deen’s television presentation is unfeigned, but much of it is managed by handlers eager to craft a profitable entertaining product, because little if anything in these shows is impromptu. Deen’s incessant invocation of Southern culture refers to a hackneyed popular notion of the South that may never have existed outside TV, and her vision of Southern cuisine is indebted to convenience cooking and a populist kitchen as much as it is anything distinctly Southern. Deen and her Food Network peers—the persistently perky Rachael Ray, the blue collar appeal of Emeril Lagasse, the painfully egostical Bobby Flay—are personalities constructed to enchant us with hyperbolic traits we find alluring, familiar, and ideally “real.”
Like any popular cultural figure, Deen may be no more “real” than Colonel Sanders. Harland Sanders developed a fried chicken recipe in the 1930s at his gas station in Corbin, Kentucky, and in 1939 Duncan Hines lauded the fried chicken in his Adventures in Good Eating. Around 1950, Sanders began wearing a white suit and string tie and bleached his mustache to match his white hair, and in 1952 the 62-year old Colonel Sanders (a reference to his status as a “Kentucky Colonel”) franchised the restaurant as Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sanders appeared on the game show “What’s My Line?” in 1963, and despite selling the American chain in 1964 the Colonel did television advertisements from the 1960s until his death in 1980. Sanders’ “American success story” is still celebrated by the chain, and his cartoon likeness still peers out from the KFC sign.
Colonel Sanders became a supremely successful branded sign, but he would likely be envious of Deen’s devoted following. Deen’s following has been exceptionally defensive in the midst of her deposition, and much of this depth of feeling reflects how Deen’s fans identify with her. Shannon Lynn Knepp’s 2012 thesis Fanning the Flames of Fandom: How We Love (Paula Deen) So Much plumbs Deen’s following as a fandom. Knepp captures Dean’s persistent mantras that define her as self-taught, “down home,” and a success story rising above a difficult life. Knepp underscores how books like Deen’s 2007 autobiography, It Ain’t All About the Cookin’, are littered with Southern turns-of-phrase (e.g., “ya’ll” and “darlin’” aspire to capture the intimacy of private speech between friends) and self-revelatory explorations of her agoraphobia, sexuality, and youth. Knepp points out that Deen drops the –g off “trigger words” that imply emotional intimacy, like cookin’ for cooking, or talkin’ for talking, but leaves them on words like sitting. These textual mechanics reproduce the language she uses on television and evoke Southern turns of speech that are at the heart of Deen’s persona.
Much of Deen’s appeal revolves around her embrace of our universal desire for food, which implicitly evokes eroticized bodily desires. In 2011 Maxim dubbed Deen TV’s hottest female chef, observing that “imagining the slippery, sloppy butter-sex we’d have with Paula makes us…hungry for a bacon-wrapped, beer batter-fried stick of butter, weirdly.” Many of Deen’s less-sarcastic defenders are apprehensive of any dominant efforts to control their most basic bodily desires, and Deen openly acknowledges that the profound satisfactions delivered by Mississippi Mud Cake.
Deen’s style is much like her personality in its overdone aesthetic in which the meaning of food, the body, and dress cannot be separated. Deen certainly is sufficiently wealthy to wear designer label fashions, but her clothing is consistently unpretentious off-the-rack wear. Much of it might be characterized as garish or unflattering, but the 66-year-old Deen is not a size three, and attacks on Deen’s style and body are inevitably perceived as an assault on her fans’ bodies as well. In the midst of a story on Deen’s 30-pound weight loss in 2012, she was referred to by the New York Post as the “First Lady of Lard”. In January, 2012 the Huffington Post referred to Deen as “the large-living queen of heavy cooking,” and Chow referred to her as “disturbingly tanned [and] faux-fur-haired.”
The Vancouver Sun’s Randy Shore criticized Deen’s style and her version of Southern cuisine in one fell swoop when he indicated that “Deen’s extreme cuisine is a caricature of real home cooking, just as she is a caricature of a cook. Big hair and all.” Like Shore, many observers seem confused by Deen’s overblown persona and style. In 2012, a Chicago Tribune reporter interviewing Deen observed that “Meeting Paula Deen is like meeting someone wearing a Paula Deen costume. Many famous people look less airbrushed the closer you get. Deen, 65, looks like Paula Deen. Meaning, her tall pouffy head of silver hair stands out no matter how many assistants with clipboards surround her. When the entourage clears she smiles, and teeth whiter than fresh whalebone actively compete with her hair for attention.” Deen’s material style is much like that of many working-class Americans in its un-self-conscious sincerity and visibility, a naïve notion of style that ignores style arbiters’ proscription for a beautiful body, dapper threads, or good hair. Deen’s crass language, relaxed innuendo, and apparent tackiness evoke universal bodily desires for eclairs and sex alike.
In a nation eager to find scapegoats for pervasive obesity, Deen has often surfaced as an easy target. In 2011 Anthony Bourdain complained to TV Guide that “the worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f—ing bad for you. If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us. Plus, her food sucks.” Deen cleverly responded by invoking her association with “real” people and took aim on Bourdain’s bourgeois sensibilities, arguing that “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 . . . It wasn’t that long ago that I was struggling to feed my family, too.” Of course there are lots of cuisine options between Bourdain’s high-style restaurants and Deen’s comfort foods, but her populist response fashions an emotionally satisfying if contrived distinction between high-style and mass taste.
Last week the New York Times’ Frank Bruni observed that in 2012 Deen undermined her own claim to sincerity and risked now being labeled a hypocrite when she acknowledged that she had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years earlier. Deen announced on the Today show in 2012 that she had signed a contract with a firm manufacturing a non-insulin diabetes medication that costs $500 a month at normal therapeutic dose; the deal somewhat miraculously aspired to transition Deen from fat-laden recipes to a healthy lifestyle and reportedly netted her $6 million. Type 2 diabetes is indeed an adult-onset “lifestyle” diabetes shaped by diet, a lack of exercise, heredity, and resulting obesity and high-blood pressure, so despite her clumsy defensiveness that diet was simply part of the problem–“I’ve always preached moderation. I don’t blame myself”–it is difficult to exonerate her Krispy Kreme hamburgers and similar comfort foods. Deen had been reluctant to share her diagnosis publicly, but she implied the eventual public admission was a decision of faith when she told the New York Times TimesTalk that “I’m a very spiritual person. I knew that the opportunity to share would present itself.” Bourdain subsequently took a dig at Deen’s public invocation of faith and the $6 million contract with Novo Nordisk, tweeting “What was Jesus’s position on gout?” Bruni complained that Deen had “waited three long, greasy years since her diagnosis to come out. During that period, she promoted the deep-fried life without acknowledging her firsthand experience of how a person can be burned by it. That’s a profound, unsettling act of withholding.”
A host of fans and defenders were not particularly unsettled by Deen’s diabetes announcement. For instance, National Post columnist Marni Soupcoff defensively concluded that we should “let Paula Deen eat fried butter in peace.” Chow’s John Birdsall somewhat more thoughtfully defended Deen, arguing that “Perhaps our notions of health and excess are rooted in class. Deen, we assume, speaks to a down-market audience that needs to be lectured about nutrition and willpower. Bourdain speaks to the well-heeled traveler for whom a foie gras hot dog is an occasional indulgence, not a moral failing. Right? Or is it somehow acceptable for men to engage in extreme eating, while women have an obligation to show restraint?” As a strong and assertive woman Deen likely inspires anxieties among defenders of patriarchy, yet even as a diabetic, Deen condones our inexpressible taste for fried chicken and Twinkies; while nutritionists may not be happy with her suggestion to practice moderation her counsel does not deny our desires.
Shannon Knepp recognizes that much of Deen’s autobiography is a confessional that at least implicitly seeks atonement: Dean smokes, she had a decade-long affair, and she expresses shame for her experiences across the color line. Deen’s revelations consider her youth in the segregated South amidst civil rights transformations, indicating that “Black folks had always been a big part of our lives in the South; I played with the kids of the black women who took care of me and they were my friends. None of us were strangers to the black community . . . I would say we lived a pretty unexamined life in terms of politics or civil rights. . . I’m plain horrified that things could have been that way and I was so blind that I didn’t get that it was wrong.”
Deen’s history and experience are in many ways not at all remarkable. During an appearance on Who Do You Think Are?, genealogists confirmed that her family had owned captives, which somehow came as a revelation to the chef. In a Fall 2012 TimesTalk interview Deen struggled with that heritage when she indicated that after the Civil War “My great grandfather was so devastated, the war was over, he had lost his son, he had lost the war, and he didn’t know how to deal with life, with no one to help operate his plantation. You know, there was thirty-something people on his books and the next year census I go to find that there’s like zero. Between the death of his son and losing all the workers, he went out, I’m sure, into the barn and he shot himself.” Those “workers” were of course captives imprisoned against their will, but Deen’s struggle to preserve her romanticized picture of her ancestors and reconcile them with the historical realities is not at all unique. Deen awkwardly noted in the same interview that she had close personal links to African American employees, asking one to come out for the cameras. In a clumsy moment, she calls to him that “We can’t see you standing against that dark board” and compels him to face the cameras in the status of a silent prop as the crowd laughs without any particular self-consciousness.
The comments and episode are perhaps innocuous, and there is no reason to doubt Deen’s genuine love for this person or her multiple weeping apologies and insistence that she is “not a racist.” Racism thrives in the absence of critical and reflective thinking, but Deen is no more guilty of such an inability to see let alone address racial privilege than many of us. Deen pleaded to Matt Lauer that “I’m not an actor,” but she is in fact a character in our experience, reducible to the easy caricatures like Southerner that she has so expertly wielded on TV. Given Deen’s amplified sincerity and some genuine hypocrisy over her own diabetes and the impact of her food on others, she has lost some credibility to now speak against racism, but she has an enormously powerful position from which she can do so. Apologies do matter, and the ability to have forgiveness in the face of ongoing self-reflection is good for society, a point made in John McWhorter in Time. Calling Deen a racist risks missing that her unpleasant asides and everyday stereotypes of people unlike her are the ways racism and inequality are socialized into all of us. Much of the acrimonious attacks on Dean that grasp at her hair, makeup, drawl, or weight are inelegant but familiar tirades about class, gender, and the South that caricature all of those dimensions of contemporary life and may reveal less self-critical reflection than Dean herself is now experiencing in the blinding eye of public space.
2000 Vicarious Consumption: Food, Television and the Ambiguity of Modernity. Journal of American and Comparative Cultures 23(3):113-124. (subscription access)
Lori F. Brost
2000 Television Cooking Shows: Defining the Genre. PhD Dissertation, Indiana University.
1941 The Mind of the South. Knopf, New York.
Sherrie A. Inness
2005 Secret Ingredients : Race, Gender, and Class at the Dinner Table. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
2005 Debbie Does Salad: The Food Network at the Frontiers of Pornography. Harper’s Magazine October:55-60.
2005 The Essence of Cooking Shows: How the Food Network Constructs Consumer Fantasies. Journal of Communication Inquiry 29(3): 217-234.
Shannon Lynn Knepp
2012 Fanning the Flames of Fandom: How We Love (Paula Deen) So Much. Masters Thesis, University of Georgia.
2001 Cultural Feeding, Good Life Science, and the TV Food Network. Mass Communication and Society 4 (2):165-182. (subscription access)
2006 Cultural Citizenship : Cosmopolitanism, Consumerism, and Television in a Neoliberal Age. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
2009 Out of the kitchen, onto the couch. The New York Times Magazine, 2 August.
Paula Deen in kitchen image from Artists Agency
Matt Lauer and Deen image from New York Daily News
Diabetes ad image from CBS News