Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Two re: Paula Deen, Y'all

A couple of thoughts on the Paula Deen controversy, on this, her 65th birthday.

1) Ms. Deen, her fans, and even her detractors, tend to characterize her fat-laden and heavily-reliant-upon-convenience foods cuisine as "Southern Cooking." Many of us acquainted with real food cooked for and by people from the American South would disagree. Unibrowed Canadian (and now, by virtue of residence and culinary bona fides, Southern American, or alternately, "New Southern") chef, Hugh Acheson raises this point in a recent article. 

What is it if not Southern? Cookbook collectors, among others, might remember the sorts of books published en masse during the 1960s and early 1970s that featured garishly colored photographs (especially of various birds "a l'orange," invariably with little chef hats on their legs) and a reliance upon frozen foods, pre-made seasoning packets, canned cream of everything soup, and the twin tenets of that "cuisine": any five ingredients can be made into a casserole, and anything can be a Jello salad. My mother is about the same age as Ms. Deen and once had quite a collection of these books. Fortunately for me, Mom learned to cook from both of my grandmothers and relied on these rarely, though I do remember eating my share of Tuna Noodle Casserole and Jello mold "salads." The books themselves, however much they figured into my daily eating, made an indelible impression on me as a young food enthusiast--namely, the impression that I would never cook like that.

Though this type of cookery as a legitimate model for contemporary cuisine has almost completely disappeared from public consciousness, I'm fairly certain it lives on in other guises, such as Ms. Deen's "home cooking." This is not southern home cooking, but rather cooking by Betty Crocker and Better Homes & Gardens of 1963 - 1973 or so. It's no wonder that when Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cooking was published in the early 70s it was a revelation--not only for those looking to explore the real cuisine of Italy, but for those whose tastebuds had been assaulted and deadened by a decade of fat, MSG, and preservatives and were looking toward a fresher approach; maybe this is ho
w our grandparents really ate. 

Of course our fast food culture and internet-driven "bigger and more is better" trend (see Epic Meal Time if you doubt me) ensures that we're still eating crap, but the cuisine of Paula and sons is a distinctly historical, American, if not exactly Southern, phenomenon. It deserves a certain begrudging respect if only because by recognizing its provenance, a quasi-mythical Middle America and its "liberation" of housewives from the shackles of kitchen drudgery, we are encouraged to examine its historical significance.  This cooking trend and the cultural forces that I'm suggesting shaped it are not to be condemned but understood.  

Finally, as much as cringe at plugging her (who needs no endorsement), on thing we've learned from Rachael Ray, for example, that easy, relatively healthy cooking doesn't have to be time consuming. The runaway daytime hit, "The Chew," for all its cheesiness, butt-grabbing, pseudo-macho posturing by a not typically macho crew (A female Southern Top Chef also ran, the young daughter of a famous television physician, Mario Batali, one stereotypically "manly"-looking but possessed of an interestingly feminine laugh, and one gay male fashion expert) for a typically stay-at-home female demographic, is surprisingly refreshing it its ability to demonstrate quick-cooking and delicious-looking dishes well within the capabilities of any home cook of any skill level.   (Excuse that tortured sentence, please.)

2) Though I understand, and to a point agree with, the cynicism with which Ms. Deen's recent diabetes announcement was greeted with in the press, I can also affirm that having diabetes is something someone often is uncomfortable revealing because, believe me, it really does change the way others view you, especially those who think they're doing a good thing, who think they're looking out for you. There is nothing like being ghettoized by something you have little control over. 

Now, this is not to say that nobody has control over their diabetes, but there are different types of diabetics, and this particular disease seems to carry with it a certain stereotype of the "typical" diabetic. We don't all fit that model. So if I had it to do over again, I might have also kept my mouth shut about it.

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