Paula Deen: The message and the market

Paula D.The implosion of Paula Deen’s empire continues with today’s announcement that Caesar’s will close four of her casino restaurants. Additionally, Wal-Mart stores will no longer place orders for her branded items. These developments follow the termination of her Food Network contract and her lucrative promotion with Smithfield Foods once details of a court deposition surfaced that suggested racial insensitivity, if not outright racism, on her part.

During this week of Paula’s downfall, there has been no shortage of online Schadenfreude but also no shortage of outrage from her fans, who feel she got a bum deal. Respected Southern cooks have taken the opportunity to voice the opinion that her sugar-saturated, butter-drenched shtick has little to do with the actual repertoire or techniques of Southern cooking. If she were to really teach people about traditional Southern cooking, she’d stash the deep fryer and take out some garden produce and canning jars.

The legacy of racism in the South and the presence of racism everywhere have given fodder to editorial writers. People who used to only know Deen as that maniacally smiling face from supermarket checkout line magazines now parse video clips of her on the subject of race. In an interview with New York Times Atlanta bureau chief Kim Severson, Deen fondly describes her assistant as “black as that board,” pointing to a black stage backdrop, and then jokes that no one can see him standing in front of it.

But I think the most telling news has been that her ratings after 11 years at the Food Network had fallen off substantially, and her contract was already under review. America may already have had enough of Paula Deen and her take on Southern cooking. The market dictates what is popular on food television, and the market may have said, “Enough.”

As a non-Southerner who has written about this food for the past 15 years, I’ve seen the country’s attitude toward the South turn at least a couple of times. I was frankly shocked when I first moved here by how routinely the country’s food trust snickered at the South. One famous and universally beloved food writer came to town to promote a book and found every single thing he ate here too sweet or too salty. He approached each meal with bemused exasperation and quietly told me, “I don’t know how you can live here.”

That attitude was common: Southerners had a coarse palate, an addiction to sugar and salt. I opined that the convenience-food revolution of the previous decades had been hard on the South, but it had been hard on other poorer regions of the country, as well. I got snippy with one visiting New York food writer who pulled the “Southern food is so unhealthy” line. “Have you ever eaten in New Jersey?” I countered. “Or Albany?” Outside of select urban markets and a few areas where people lived closer to the land (Northern California and Vermont, e.g.) American food everywhere had suffered decades of degradation.

It was into this atmosphere that Deen began charming television audiences with those “y’alls” that she cold stretch into six syllables. Southern food is unhealthy? Well, that’s just too bad, she seemed to be saying. If something tastes good, I’m not making any apologies.

Emeril was bamming merrily along, and the Food Network appealed to regular people, countering the tacit snobbery against the high-fat, high-calorie dishes that many Americans took comfort in.

The message proved to be appealing, empowering and — contrary to expectation — universal enough that even the foodies came on board. Don’t make apologies for flavor.

Here’s where the South repaired its image, by laying claim to classic American dishes — fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and even pimento cheese (which my niece grew up with in Nebraska and has always considered a Midwestern treat). Use good ingredients and techniques handed down from generations of good family cooks. Southern food is the most quintessential of American cooking, and Paula Deen has always known this.

This plump, funny lady had a gift for self caricature, and she was happy to take her typical Junior League cookbook recipes and turn them into parodies of themselves. Did she really love every bite of deep fried cheesecake and Krispy Kreme bread pudding? Who knows? The job of food TV hosts is to bite, make the yummy face and say a lots and lots of dishes taste great. You may hate Paula Deen and love Anthony Bourdain, but in the end of the day they’re both giving happy reaction shots to foods they may or may not actually like. (Is Bourdain going to walk into some poor village woman’s kitchen and say her stew needs salt?)

The nation’s assessment of Southern food has shifted again in recent years. Once a land of unhealthy food nightmares, then a place to get really good fried chicken and cornbread, the South has lately become something of an American culinary beacon. Everyone understands that the connection to the agrarian past is stronger here, and the repertoire of recipes is broader and the connection to the past more intact than in most other places. As Nathalie Dupree so smartly observed recently, the South is the new Italy when it comes to food. Paula Deen did not come along for this latest development.

Could you imagine Paula Deen headlining the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival? Could you imagine her being welcome at it?

I’m not a fan of Paula Deen’s cooking or of her “more butter” message. (I’m not a fan of the “more meat” message that hipster foodies promote either. All good things in moderation.)

But here’s my cynical point: Paula Deen imploded for reasons far beyond her troublesome deposition transcript. It’s because her message is no longer relevant, and the market stepped in. For 11 years the market wanted her, and now it doesn’t.

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

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