The XX Factor

The Trouble With Paula Deen’s Diabetes Announcement Isn’t the Food

RIDGEWOOD, NJ - OCTOBER 12: Paula Deen promotes the new book ‘Paula’s Southern Cooking Bible’ at Bookends Bookstore on October 12, 2011 in Ridgewood, New Jersey. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

When celebrity chef Paula Deen announced yesterday that she has Type-2 Diabetes, many critics of the Georgia native’s boisterous and buttery “Southern” cooking style responded with a self-satisfied, “We told you so.” Blogs like Gawker, while being careful to avoid outright victim blaming (“No one deserves to have a disease”), were barely able to contain their scorn for the woman who has built her career around an unapologetic embrace of rich, indulgent cuisine. Predictably, Deen’s longtime nemesis Anthony Bourdain mocked her concurrent announcement of a promotional partnership with diabetes drug manufacturer Novo Nordisk with the tweet, “thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later.”

In considering the controversy around Deen’s big reveal, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, as a fellow Southerner by breeding, I read much of the negative discourse around her food and manner as snobbish classism. However, I also agree with Bourdain and others that Deen’s hawking of a diabetes drug without any real commitment to lightening the focus of her culinary empire is distasteful at best, if not downright cynical—but then again, Grandma always said it was good business to get ’em coming and going.

With regard to the Southern thing, I’ll start just by pointing out that Deen’s food is not so much Southern as it is working-class American. Hers are recipes with ingredients that you can easily and cheaply pick up at your local Super Wal-Mart, make in bulk, and satisfy a large swath of palates. True, it’s not particularly healthy; but if Deen has committed any real crime in her rise to fame, it’s been her conflation of what we might call a class-based style of cooking with a regional one. Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten’s chic Hamptons preparations, meanwhile, don’t skimp on the heavy cream or lardons; but, presumably because she’s classy and kind-of-French-since-she-has-the-money-to-go-there-a-lot, we give her a pass.  

In the New York Times’ article on the Deen announcement, Southern food writer Virginia Willis echoes my point:

Paula’s food often reflects modern cooking and convenience foods more than Southern tradition. … She feels like she cooks for ‘real people,’ and for better or worse, that is how many people in this country choose to eat.

But there are problems here deeper than regional misrepresentation. In criticizing her food, most people argue that Deen’s love of butterfat, salt, and sugar are somehow ethically unconscionable in a country that is suffering from an obesity epidemic (implying, of course, that diabetes is her punishment). Paul Campos has written a thoroughly scientific rebuttal against the notion that a decadent diet, on its own, can cause diabetes. But he also points out the inherent hypocrisy in not applying the same moral framework to other, more bougie forms of cookery, such as Ina Garten’s French adaptations or Anthony Bourdain’s old butter-laden stomping grounds at Les Halles:

But the fact remains that, at least among certain trendy segments of society, a male celebrity chef with a serious drug habit in his past is, oddly enough, considered a less problematic spokesman on health matters than a matronly woman who does not disguise her affection for comfort food.

There’s more than a little insidious sexism piggy-backing on the classism that I’ve already described in this case—we all know that if Ferran Adrià put a test tube of soupe de beurre in front of Bourdain, he’d have no problem tossing it back. Matrons, after all, are supposed to protect us against our bad judgment, while bros are all about collusion and risk and adventure.

In the end, however, the question here is of taking responsibility for one’s own choices. While there are clearly systemic problems in our country regarding access to fresh produce, culinary education, and the like; Americans, deep down, have a bad relationship with food. One piece of gooey butter cake every few months is not going to make you obese; nor will cutting any single ingredient necessarily make you skinny. One can absolutely call her out for questionable corporate partnerships, but expecting Momma Deen to pack your or anyone else’s lunch box according to the Food Pyramid is silly. That’s not her job. As she said on the Today Show: “Honey, I’m your cook, not your doctor. You’ve got to be responsible for yourself.”