On Paula Deen

I almost didn’t want to use this space to make any sort of commentary on the whole Paula Deen fiasco.  As a white girl foodie, part of me feels out of my depth in even having an opinion on such a complicated, racially-charged issue.  But I have to admit I can see both sides.  Let me explain:

As a Virginian and Southerner by birth, I’ve grown up eating and loving Southern food.  There’s nothing better than a flaky buttermilk biscuit stuffed with Smithfield ham, or a big bowl of grits with red-eye gravy.  But, like Paula and so many other white Southerners and Southern food fans, I have been ignorant.  Over the past few years, I’ve become more and more interested in history, both family history and the history of Southern food – Virginia food in particular.  I’ve started to discover the tangled web of influences on the style of cooking that is most well-known in the South – how things like barbecue ribs carry the hidden story of the slaves who received the least-desired cuts of meat, combined them with familiar spices and ingredients as well as those native to the Americas, and created something new and delicious.  How the okra and squashes and peppers that came from Africa on slave ships were brought into the kitchens of wealthy planters and politicians and became something altogether unique.  How a man named Jefferson brought his slave James Hemings with him to Paris to learn gourmet French cooking techniques from some of the best chefs of the day, then ultimately freed him and paid him wages as he worked in kitchens at Jefferson’s residences at Monticello, in Philadelphia and New York.

I read Michael Twitty’s “Open Letter to Paula Deen,” and I nodded my head as he explained how the controversy surrounding Paula stems from so much more injustice than whether she did or didn’t say the n-word.  I felt guilty for not having known the origin of hoecakes myself until I attended the Dinner with Jefferson Davis a few weeks back.  And I cringed as I read Anne Rice’s accusation that the media backlash is part of “lynch mob culture.”  Could two older white women that I used to respect really be so out of touch?

I think that’s what’s at the heart of all of this.  Do I think Paula Deen is a malicious person?  Not really.  Do I think she’s a racist?  That’s harder to say.  I can’t know what’s in her heart, but I do know that she has made her career and fortune on the Southern food tradition without ever really giving an explanation or paying homage to where that tradition comes from.  Look, I get it.  Talking about race issues is hard.  Especially here in the South.  But Paula and so many other celebrity chefs and foodies have the opportunity to open a dialogue here.  When I can sit down to watch a show about a barbecue cookoff – a style of cooking so steeped in slavery and the black experience (see “Barbecue in Black and White“) – and all three of the judges are white dudes, there’s something a bit “off” about that.  When a white dude from New England is the face of New Orleans/Creole food, we’re missing a lot of the story.

I’m a history geek, a foodie, and a Southerner.  And I want to know where the foods I love come from, even if their backstory is pockmarked and hard to talk about.  I want to learn.  I want to give credit where credit is due.  I want the Food Network and the mainstream food media to talk about the issues surrounding the Paula Deen controversy in a deeper way than just keeping a tally of which of her sponsors have jumped ship.  Maybe I’m asking too much.  Maybe this discussion is one that needs to be kept smaller, more human – talked about by all kinds and colors of people over meals in their local restaurants.  As I try to do with most things, I hope so much that something positive can come from this, and I wonder if the world of food  – nourishment, hospitality, pride in one’s traditions – isn’t the best place to start this dialogue after all.

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