Friday, January 20, 2012

Hey, Paula

There has always been a special place in my heart for Paula Deen. As a child of the south, I ate my fair share of fried chicken and collard greens with fat back. But, thanks to a very health-conscious mother, I also ate plenty of brown rice, kale, and pressed salad--if you don’t know what pressed salad is, don’t ask. And although these days my diet is much more inclined in the latter direction, the deepest currents of my food cravings will forever be tinted by hot buttered biscuits and deep fried chicken livers. My father and I enjoyed those as a special treat when I was young. By the bucket.

For me, watching Paula cook has never been about the search for new recipes or cooking ideas. Nor is it about nostalgia; although there are many who would consider her a queen of southern food, her dishes don't often bear much resemblance to the cuisine that I knew. Too much of it comes out of cans or packages, or simply smothers the ingredients in bread crumbs and fat.  Really, as with many people I know, watching Paula cook is all about the spectacle. Think two sticks of butter seems excessive for one dessert? Paula will use three. And if that’s not rich enough, how about just straight up deep frying it? Yup. Melon balled spheres of butter, breaded and deep fried. I watched her make them. I watched her eat them. I felt sick for the entire 30 minutes, but I couldn't look away. It's a freak show as much as a cooking show. Something you pull up on Hulu on a lazy Friday night when you’re looking to be shocked and amazed. 

Full disclosure: as conscious as I am of what I eat and where it comes from, the notion of throwing all caution to the wind and eating a concoction made from butter, canned condensed milk, and some sort of flavored powder seems sinfully liberating.  We can have our butter and eat it too, all in the spirit of good, crazy, Paula Deen fun. Who wants to worry about something boring like health? I mean, if it tastes good, let's eat it. By the bucket.

Enter diabetes. As most of you surely know by now, Paula announced last week that she was diagnosed a few years ago with Type 2 (also known as adult onset) diabetes. This is, of course, one of the most serious problems facing Americans and our healthcare system today. And, we must all admit, if Paula Dean’s actual diet bears any resemblance to what she cooks on her show, it is no great surprise that she has developed the disorder. I first heard the news in passing, and while my first thought was of concern for her health, it was quickly followed by the idea this here was an opportunity. Who better to reach out to all of us who love rich, fatty, sugary foods and show us a way toward moderation? There are hoards of us, and there aren't may people better poised to reach that audience than the queen of overindulgence herself.  Her bubbly personality can make just about anything appealing, and here was her chance to really put it toward good use.

Instead, Deen has found a very different way to profit from her disease. She came right out of the gate endorsing a diabetes drug made by Novo Nordisk, along with her two sons, neither of whom have the disease. Score for big Pharma and the Deen family, tough luck for the rest of us. With more and more American's faced with diet-related health issues--including the terrible lack of access to fresh food in so many urban communities--I find it particularly devastating to see such a beloved public figure leave her power on the proverbial plate. As a chef, she could be preaching the power of food to impact health and  quality of life. She could transform the way that Americans relate to their pantries. She could help to turn the kitchen into a place where we think first of nourishing ourselves and our families, even with the occasional dinner of fritters and pudding. Instead, she says to us, head to your nearest pharmacy, and leave a little bit of your money in my pocket while you're at it.

In the recent Times article covering Paula's revelation, Anthony Bourdain is said to have called her the "'worst, most dangerous person' on the Food Network," because of the unhealthy nature of her food. (Many would counter that even the fanciest French chefs rely on a whole lotta butter, but I would say that there's also an element of moderation that goes along with that type of cooking, and it is absent in Paula's world.) His comment, while harsh, reflects a reality that I had previously ignored: while I may view Paula's show as a culinary amusement ride, there are many, many people who identify deeply with both the woman and the way she cooks, and there is nothing amusing about failing to consider the impact that your celebrity may be having on the health of thousands upon thousands of people.

Is Paula Deen personally responsible for our epidemics of obesity and diabetes? Clearly, she is not. Is she personally responsible for turning these issues around? Again, certainly not. But there is no denying that with a shift in her message she could use her considerable power to help the very people who are responsible for her remarkable success. Shame on her if she doesn't.

No comments:

Post a Comment