Sunday, January 22, 2012

Oh Paula

photograph from the Food Network website

It doesn't seem like much of a news item, yet Paula Deen's acknowledgement of her diabetes seems to have a life of it's own. The commentary and vitriol just keeps coming from all sides.  Hell, it almost makes the  Republican primaries look tame.

What's interesting to me are the plethora of people coming out against her kind of cooking.  A lot of people are very angry and quite nasty. And some even manage to be both yet funny in their comments on her "revelation."

My favorite mean spirited, yet funny example is this now oft-quoted, imaginary recipe of Paula's for Fruit Salad:

1 lb Skittles, 3 Cups Ranch Dressing.
Mix well and serve at room temperature.

I actually worked for Paula when I did cooking at the Food Network and as it happens one of the things I made for her show was a layer cake (I forget how many layers or what it was called) with tons of cream cheese frosting that was suppose to be garnished with crushed Skittles.  Unfortunately no one in the kitchen could figure out how to actually crush Skittles - they are almost indestructible!  In the food processor they got all gummy - turns out you need to freeze them first with liquid nitrogen.  The cake pictured above is her version of the classic Mexican Tres Leches Cake with the guild the lily over the top garnish of, yes, Skittles.

Surprisingly, I want to say something that is in defense of Paula's cooking.

A lot of which is not to my liking at all.  She uses too many packaged products and not enough ingredients, and she does go over board.  But this is the thing: she has an audience who enjoys watching her show and what she does is a reflection of that audience. Nobody has ever been forced to eat a deep fried twinkie or a donut hamburger, they have done so of their own free will. I'm not saying I think it's good, but in the case of desserts, well they are desserts.  And one can choose to not add the extra candy or other crap that might be in the recipe, you don't have to use Skittles to that cake, really you don't.  The bottom line is that her dessert recipes when they stick to the traditional actually use the basics: butter, sugar, flour and dairy.  Even with those ingredients it's up to the individual making the recipe to buy the quality of butter that they feel they can afford and want. Ditto sugar. Most people are not yet exclusively using organic goods.

So without going into too much of tirade here I think that Ms. Deen is a charismatic business woman who made a name for herself as the over the top southern cook, but in reality all she has been doing is providing entertainment for people who basically already ate like that.  The problem, as I see it, is more about our culture and what foods are actually available depending on your economic status then it is how we were taken down a dark corn syrup alley of temptation by this Southern Temptress.  

I loathe recipes that have brand name products suggested as ingredients, so I just don't make them.  And as someone who writes about food and constantly thinks about food, farming and sustainability I am keenly aware of how many food blogs and websites that are out there that make a point of being virtuous about what they cook and publish on.   It's our choice as to what we choose to make, eat and watch.  

Is Ms. Deen an opportunist?  She is now plugging her son's cooking healthy  show (aptly named Not My Mama's Meals) ) and has teamed up with a pharmaceutical company to pitch a diabetes drug?  What do you think?

If she were Newt Gingrich she would be lauded for admitting the error of her ways and doing the right thing now she's realized how wicked she once for making Paula's Double Chocolate Ooey Gooey Butter Cake Ice Cream 

At the end of the day The Food Network is interested in ratings, which is why most of what they produce is reality TV.  The fact is we live in a time when more people watch more cooking shows then ever before and cook less than ever before.  People aren't watching these shows so that they can be inspired to cook, they are watching them for entertainment.

So when Anthony Bourdain tweets about Paula's diabetes ("Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later") you have to take into consideration that he called Alice Waters a bit too Khmer Rouge for his liking for her instance on healthy, traceable, sustainable food.

So you're either too healthy or too unhealthy in Mr. Bourdain's world unless of course you are Mr, Bourdain who apparently is perfect. Although, let's recall that as a chef Mr. Bourdain's claim to fame was making steak and french fries - not my idea of health food - even though I love to eat them, on occasion. I don't want to eat most of Ms. Deen's food, but on occasion to eat something as a treat if that was your thing, why not?   For me it keeps coming back to personal choice, she exists because there is a market for her and her food, as much as that pains me, but it's reality.  Just like there is a market for Anthony Bourdains' acerbic wit and arrogance, which I often love to watch.

The bottom line is, well the bottom line.  Food TV is about entertainment, it's not about food.  If you
are really interested in food you'll spend more time doing things like going to farmers markets in all seasons and being inspired by what is available.  Joining a CSA or reading cook books and making dinner parties instead of ordering and watching people on TV make food.  To be that is really whats at issue here, Paula Deen is just another cook wanting to suck on the corporate teet.  Tons of chefs do it, suggestion brand name products in recipes to ensure advertising dollars.  

If you are looking for healthy inspiration your first big mistake is to be looking for on a corporate TV channel. Those days ended with Julia Child.


just after I wrote this I noticed Frank Bruni's article in the NYT  - check it out.

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