Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mixed Plate: Put Down That Stick of Butter and Nobody Gets Hurt!

Paula Deen has diabetes. It wasn't so much the shot heard round the world but the self-satisfied guffaw of “I told you so's” and whispers of Food Karma from the Peanut Gallery that followed. As far as breaking news, it had as much impact as a big ol' "no duh," so why even bother to weigh in on this after so many armchair quarterbacks have snarked their way through this news? Because the only thing more troubling than the news of anyone getting dire word of one's health, is how the string of events following this news reveals our own food hangups and the true face of food-as-celebrity.

Buttah Makes it Bettah? Uh... not always - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Surface jokes aside about the Queen of Butter being given a big red X on her bill of health, I truly feel for the gal. While I've never met Paula Deen, she seems a perfectly charming and well-intentioned soul, and this health verdict would come as unwelcome news to TV celebrity and average 99 Percenter alike. Type 2 diabetes isn't pleasant – it requires dilligent dietary upkeep, can mean a lifetime of medication, and if unchecked, heart attack, stroke, roll end credits. It's also one of the more common types of diabetes, often brought on by poor eating habits and smoking. Paula was guilty of both. She's never promoted her Southern comfort style cooking as healthy -- if anything, her blatant disregard for common nutritional sense warmed my heart in an anarchist sort of way. And really, is it any different than seeing Anthony Bourdain, one of her most vocal critics, wallowing in yet another food masturbatory soliloquy over pork fat and duck liver?

Paula Deen is not the enemy. If anything, she's the familiar food-frenemy we all have, the one who calls out “Cheesecake Break!” and encourages everyone to have just one more slice, or the one who brings bags of Oreos to the book club because Nicholas Sparks books are love story downers with a body count and everyone really showed up to get crunked on wine. She's the one who encourages indulgence and won't give you a scrap of guilt for any of it. And while one could argue she put the buttery gun in your hand, you're the one who ultimately decided to use it. Paula Deen is a symptom of a much larger problem America as a whole suffers from, its dysfunctional relationship with food. It's in our friends and family who take a pill every day for cholesterol or blood pressure, the school lunch systems that affect our children, and our kitchens stocked with preservative-filled conveniences we justify as timesavers for a  life we are unwilling to ratchet back. And I consider myself guilty on all counts, but I know it's my responsibility to make changes, not rely on what the talking head on TV says. Paula Deen didn't cause this cycle of bad choices, and while she did nothing to aid in the remedy, she's a reflection of ourselves that we were comfortable with until the Ugly Truth showed up. And then she became the monster to chase out of town with torches, not because of what she did, but because she serves as a reminder of a fate many of us will share. For all the finger-wagging “shame on you” critics who are eager to tear Paula's buttery hide a new one, shake that finger right back at yourself. No one compels anyone to sprinkle crushed Ritz Crackers and bacon on everything, and just because someone's on television, it doesn't give them the credentials to be an expert, much less a role model. As Homer Simpson said: “It's not like I'm running for Jesus.”

I will say the thing that left me most unsettled was how calculated the whole affair seemed to be, and how carefully everything was positioned in her culinary empire before the D-Bomb was dropped. Deen waited several years to reveal this news, having already started on insulin medication. She's given full disclosure about becoming the new spokesperson for the medication she's on (her publicist has since quit), leading to new criticism that along with being hot for money, she's using the drugs as a crutch to continue eating maple bacon ice cream sundaes in the public eye. I'd like to use Bourdain as another comparative visual aid – he's admitted he's on cholesterol medication and continues to dine on fatty swine. I don't see anyone decrying his use of meds as a crutch, likely because it's less about nutrition and more of a high school popularity contest. Yes, Deen's sponsorhip is a ham-fisted (har-har) show of good ol' American Capitalism, which has made a lot of people upset, but really, for the longtime critics who find her actions reprehensible, she was already on their Nixon List and disappointed-er is not a real word. It would be like expecting more from Donald Trump, why he didn't marry a homely-looking girl with a nice personality. Chalk it up to chronic bad decision-making that the Queen of Butter is becoming the purveyor of pharm-fresh goods. The sponsorship was likely a move to mitigate the future financial losses of not being able to put out another cookbook dripping with butter and frosting. While that's all sorts of wrong, I think the shine needs to be thoroughly rubbed off all celebrity cooks in general. I have my personal favorites of famous food personalities, but I hold no illusions that the food is just window dressing, because at the end of the day, it's all Food Inc.

Over the weekend I watched the new cooking show, Not My Momma's Meals, by Bobby Deen, one of Paula's sons on the Cooking Channel, where he tries to health-up his Momma's recipes and reduce calorie and fat counts. Not a bad concept, but it was of course part of the planned effort to start the slow, eventual rebranding of Paula Deen's Kingdom of Butter, carving it down to more of a slim margarine tub. It seems unthinkable now, something calorie-conscious coming from the woman who makes Krispy Kreme bread pudding, but I think that's why it's her son hosting the series, acting as a buffer to initiate the ultimate goal, change a branded lifestyle of carbs, fat and sugar into something balanced and maybe someday, nutritionally sound. It's what anyone diagnosed with diabetes would do, the only difference is Deen is doing it in the public eye, and has million dollar sponsors to avoid alienating, as well as her minions who want her to continue to legitimize their own bad eating habits. And that's the shame – when the cameras are off, she may be on a lemon-chili-water juice diet for all we know, but because food fame is less about principle and more about moving product, there is a need to keep up appearances until polls are taken and demographics are realigned, to see if the public is poised to accept a more health conscious Paula Deen. Welcome to the industry of celebrity food, where TV networks and flashy products will always take the side of sales numbers. Yes, it's the choice of the individual to dance with the Devil in the pale moon light, and Deen continues to remain a cog in this Machiavelian food machine at the risk of personal health, it's just a sad state of affairs to see this kind of co-dependency. It speaks to our own media dependencies and how we rely on broadcasting to channel ideas and people into our lifestyles. The umbrage at Paula Deen is misdirected -- don't hate the player, hate the game. 

This reshaping of a high profile cooking personality makes me think of Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet. He started out in the 60s and 70s as a celebrity chef with cookbooks and a television show. His style was classic French cooking – full-fat butter, cream, the whole nine. And then his health started to fail and he had to make drastic changes which eventually led him to where he is today, being a well known healthy cook. It took time to reestablish himself, but that was probably twenty years ago, and it's nothing like how it is now, where as a food celeb, in order to truly “make it,” you have to give yourself over to sponsors who make you align yourself with their product. It's all well and good until that product is the enemy that's slowly hardening your arteries. The food-as-celeb factory that puts edibles into the spotlight is a devourer of its own young, ambivalent of the choices and risks people accept to keep themselves relevant, which continues my disdain over the notion of celebrity as a whole. But it also reiterates the idea of choice. People choose to do whatever it takes to get famous, even risking one's well-being, so that's a fate one walks into knowingly. And consumers can also choose what goes onto their plate, make smart choices on their own, including the best choice you'll ever make, to turn the Idiot Box off. Or as the movie Cable Guy put it best: Kill the Babysitter.


  1. I don't hate her (nor much like her) for her "interesting" choices of late, but I will say that celebrities have a certain code of moral and social responsibility to uphold regardless their personal lives. Ie I don't think it's what she did for so many of us, it's how she did it.

    1. Agreed, it all came out in a very calculated, PR-spun sort of way. I know there have been rumors of her health condition for years, she just refused to comment until now, which is curious. I think once there were a half dozen "Housewives of..." shows and Kardashians on TV, celebs as a whole became very silly creatures; we deserve to discover better heroes than a person on a screen.

  2. The single thing that infuriates me about the entire incident is the deal for Diabetes meds. Promotion of lifestyle choices is one thing. Paula Deen's co-branding her life with a pharmaceutical business (and making money doing it,) rather than, I don't know, DOING ANYTHING ELSE BUT THAT, is an insult to people who are going to develop diabetes or other chronic diet-related health problems, and it's a mark of shame for American culture.


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