The Anti Paula Deen


With Paula Deen’s recent PR “situation” (call it an exposĂ©, call it a fiasco, call it a hot Georgia train wreck), I’ve been thinking a lot about Southern Food, and why Paula Deen has always made my skin crawl.

Sure, there’s the racism and poorly run HR thing which is bad enough. The New York Times does a great job of summarizing that particular hornet’s nest. Then there’s the hypocrisy of Deen making millions of dollars each year by shilling unhealthy foods on the American public, while at the same time profiting from being a spokeswoman for diabetes drugs. Yuck.

My own personal issue with Deen, however, is simple:

Paula Deen does not honor food. She certainly doesn’t honor Southern Food.

I grew up with good food. Real Southern food. Honest food. Healthy Southern food. It’s a cuisine based on austerity – using what is available to you and making it stretch. It’s one chicken coupled with some dumpling dough and nothing else but salt and pepper to make the lip-smacking chicken & dumplings to feed a hungry family. It’s using everything, like the water in a pot of greens picked from the garden as “potlikker” to soak up with cornbread, filling your gullet with nutrition for just pennies. It’s an original U.S. nose-to-tail eating – from ham hocks to pickled pigs feet to chitlins.

Southern Food is based on local ingredients and seasons. “Homegrown” (garden ripe tomatoes) in the summertime, oysters in the months with “R” in them, crawfish season, ramps in the spring and peaches in August. Crabbing in the marshes off the coast for sweet-as-sin Atlantic blue crab, and fall hams as pure and savory as to rival those in Italy.

Southern food isn’t about gluttony. It doesn’t mean drowning everything in BUUUUUTTTAH. It means, as the French do, adding it simply for flavor, texture and a bit of satisfaction. Sure we use it or leaf lard in pie crust; it’s pie crust for ‘effin sake. This isn’t about being a martyr, it’s about good things as a treat and in moderation. It’s about common sense. It’s about sharing your bounty with anyone who needs it. “It’s OK to not give someone money, but it’s a sin to let someone go hungry”. This is what my Grandfather from Lancaster County, South Carolina taught my father, who in turn taught it to me. You share what you have. That my friends, is Southern hospitality.

Southern food means heritage, family and keeping a thread of common traditions alive. It’s what often keeps families together. Rather than talk about the brutal realities of life that no one can do anything about, at least we can focus on a happy party – food. Food keeps people together through celebrations, wakes, good times and bad. These culinary traditions have really shrunk in other U.S. regional cultures. Read John Thorne’s essays on lost Maine food for his take on this issue. Southern food means community. It means sitting around at a family reunion talking about which Great Aunt made the best pecan pie. It means arguing for hours about Duke’s mayonnaise in the potato salad. It means meeting a stranger, and within an hour being invited to their cousin’s graduation crawfish boil. That’s just how us Southerners do things.

Southern food remains slow food. A roux takes an hour to make for gumbo. Pulled pork is smoked over a wood-fired grill for over 12 hours. A pot of red beans and rice sits the stove all day for dinner.

Southern food has many influences – British, French Acadian, Caribbean, African, Haute French – even Indian Raj spices and ingredients though the influence of sea captains during the Colonial era. Yes, these days new flavors and influences emerge: Vietnamese (Vietnamese PoBoy anyone?), Mexican (pulled pork tacos, y’all), Cuban and more as the South continues to morph and change in demographics, but still manages to hold on to the amorphous things make Southern food, well Southern.

Southern food isn’t one generic cuisine either. It’s highly regional. A burgoo in Kentucky is very different from a Frogmore stew found in Brunswick, Georgia, even though they may share similar ingredients and cooking techniques. Cajun gumbos in Lafayette, LA are certainly not like the ones found in the Creole kitchens of New Orleans, and they are even more remote than the ones found in Mobile, Alabama. They may have a roux, or maybe not. There might be okra, or not. There might be file gumbo (or not). It might be light and bright, or as dark as dark chocolate. Gumbo epitomizes that there ain’t one Southern cuisine. There are plenty.

Whew, boy, don’t even get me started on BBQ. Barb-e-cue, Barbecue, whatever. “In the South BBQ is a noun.” We laugh, but it’s more like a religion. You wanna see a family feud? Forget the Hatfields and McCoys. Just ask three North Carolinians – one from the Eastern part of the state, one from the top Northwestern part, and one from the “Lexington” region. You’ll get three very different and passionate opinions on what makes BBQ, with one commonality: that pig had better have been darn slow-smoked for at least 12 hours spit-tender, falling off the bone, and melt in your mouth. Slow foods at their finest.

There are ethnic differences too. The Eastern European Kolaches of Texas. The Scotch-Irish tea breads of the Mid-Atlantic South. The Mountain necessity of squirrel or possum stews the Appalachian regions. The Cajuns, the Creoles, the Seminoles and other Native American tribes. The proper British colonial dishes, and dishes brought by African slaves in the distinct Gullah Island cuisine. The freed Creole-French slaves from Haiti. Name all the regional variations and regional cuisines in the South. Try it. I betcha can’t; it’s just that complex.

My beautiful Cousin Leah, from Cary, North Carolina

Southern food isn’t just “Slap Yo’ Mama” soul food, either. Sure, we all love some fried okra, grits, fried chicken, mac n’ cheese, and greens every now and again. What kind of fool doesn’t? There’s all kinds of Southern cuisines though: lunch counter tomato soups and pimento cheese sandwiches. After church, cold “picnic chicken” and fried hand pies. Country biscuits and gravy after a day of working hard in the fields, or 20-layered “Sunday supper” biscuits as light as clouds, served on the good Civil War era china. There’s grande plantation style cooking with 20 dishes or more for one meal set out on a buffet, and country club cuisine such as Country Captain Chicken with its exotic coconut and curry seasonings, or deviled crab broiled and served right in the shells, most elegantly. There’s simple down home goodness of Hoppin John black-eyed peas, or leftover eaten at the kitchen table, the types of Southern foods most people recognize. There’s cracking crabs over newspapers everyone’s elbows dripping with juice. Yes, you bet there’s crossover. A hummingbird cake, is a lane cake, is a red velvet cake no matter whether it is served on paper plates or fancy hotel porcelain.

Southerners have a language of our own when it comes to food. We do. I should say languages, for once again they are regional. “Tea” almost always means iced cold sweet tea unless you are in New Orleans – for some reason sugar there seems optional. Everyone knows what boiled peanuts are, and they are sold along the road right in the shells, although some just call them “Goobers”. It’s pronounced Co-Cola, not Coke, and some folks still put a drop of ammonia in Co-Cola to make it taste more like Pepsi, which used to be impossible to find in some Southern states. Then we got our 1001 ways to describe liquor: Hooch, Shine, Mountain Dew, Moonshine, and Shinny, as immortalized in To Kill a Mockingbird,

“Maycomb welcomed her. Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight.”

Southerners DO enjoy their beverages.

Yet, Paula Deen ignores all of this rich, beautiful, wonderful history and uniqueness, choosing cartoony over-the-top Y’all caricature and the trickery of salt-fat-sugar over honest food. No, the South is not a friggin’ 1500 calorie burger on a donut. This salt-fat-sugar is a trick crappy and cheap processed food makers use to cover up poor quality. It has threatened U.S. cuisine, especially in the South with the encroachment of the fast food drive-through, all-you-can eat casino buffets, and chain restaurants masquerading as down-home goodness (yeah, you Cracker Barrel). Food like this, including the food Paula Deen makes and pushes as being from the self-proclaimed Queen of Southern, is pure and utter B.S. As a Southern lady might say in the worst insult known to all Southern ladies, “ah, Paula Deen made some kind of I-don’t-know-what food again. Bless her heart.” BLESS HER HEART is the Southern lady F.U. royale.

Paula Deen is about as authentic Southern Food as Olive Garden is authentic Italian. Pffft.

We live in a day and age when communities and food professionals around the South are working hard to bring back almost extinct local dishes and ingredients, bring back small locally owned quality restaurants, high quality produce, meats and other good foods. We live in a time when organizations and individuals are working to preserve, document, educate and promote Southern food in all it’s regional and cultural nuances and glory – Deen is the Devil in the Church Pulpit.

Yet the Paula Deen problem isn’t all the above. No sir. No Ma’am. Rather, Paula Deen does not give credit where credit is due. For in the South it was African American cooks employed by families and before that forced through slavery to codify food and elevate this cuisine. They did it, often passing traditions down by word of mouth ( not being allowed to learn to read and write), with spectacular results. African American cooks were the ones sweating in non-fanned kitchens all day. They were the ones in the fields growing the food. They were the ones taking fancy recipes and subbing out what was actually available to them and their “employers” during lean years, so that the manor could indeed keep up appearances in society. Yes, whites, especially equally poor tenant farmers, Cajuns, and mountain folk have had their contributions as well; I’ll save that for another discussion. But, it remains the African American cooks who, above any other, contributed to America’s most well-loved regional cuisine. African American cooks are the ones who preserved it through ongoing soul food traditions throughout the U.S. when it started to stray into Campbells Cream of Mushroom Casserole and Jello salad territory. African Americans need to be recognized for their absolute central contribution to Southern cuisine, especially recognized in mainstream media. Paula Deen as a so-called “leader” and “expert” should have a responsibility to educate the public. She hasn’t and she won’t. That is the Paula Deen problem. Here’s a little history lesson on the importance of African American cooks in the development and preservation of Southern and American cuisine.

For Deen to steal this food, say it’s her own, and give nary a credit to those who deserve it, while enjoying wealth, fame, and a love of “Slave themed dinners” is where it all unraveled on her and where she shows her true colors. The Southern Hoochie Mama has been exposed, and in the light of the naked truth, Deen is weeping like the top of a lemon meringue pie on a hot summer day.

So let us move on from Deen and hope the likes of the Food Network and the American public will as well. Let’s hope that, moving forward, Americans have the opportunity to discover real honest, good and wholesome Southern food, and the historical and current culinary heroes behind it; food I have been lucky to know my whole life. Food that continues to inspire me every single day. This one’s for you Ms Edna Lewis, this one’s for you.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Angela Waterman says

    Lizzy– Thank you for a beautifully written and educational tribute to the un-Deen cuisine of the South.

  2. psp2pdx says

    A beautifully written ode to southern cooking. Thank you Lizzy and may I dare to say…… so long to white trash (cooking).

  3. Gary Scott says

    I’m not much of a fan of the Dean machine, never have been and probably never will be. But that being said I have a problem with someone with money being thrown under the bus. Certainly the use of the N word is inappropriate in most cases but in reading what I have been able to ferret out about this case it appears that the original complainant tried to extort money from the Dean enterprises as she made several attempts to get money by threatening to go public with her allegations.

    Lizzy makes the point that Paula Dean over uses butter, “It doesn’t mean drowning everything in BUUUUUTTTAH”. I don’t know how old Lizzy is but I can remember two notable chefs that used lots of butter, the infamous Galloping Graham Kerr Gourmet and the much revered Julia Child. Both used lots of butter. So to me commenting on Dean’s use of butter is a straw man argument.

    But I do agree with Lizzy that the Deans, mother and sons, are doing their best to trash what is probably one of America’s best original cuisine. Yes the south stole from lots of different cuisines but isn’t that how new cuisines emerge?

    While I’m not a big fan of the Dean machine I have to give them credit for raising our awareness of southern cooking. Before Paula Dean southern cooking shows were limited to scruffy old southerns garoonteeing(sic) that their food was the best around. I watched the show but how many min stream American did?

    To me it appears that the Deans have had some hits and some misses but I hate to see them be crushed by the often hypocritical politically correct. We all have done things in our past that we are not proud of. Yes, I’ve used the N word in my past but no one is going to call me out for making some slur about blacks or homosexuals because I have no $$$.

    We have become a country too willing to throw stones at people that we don’t perceive as being politically correct and having lived through and participated in the civil rights upheaval I can tell you that in most of the United States the lives of most blacks is far better today than it was fifty years ago and that is what many people tend to forget. (I’m not saying that their lives are perfect by any means but there are plenty of opportunities for driven blacks to succeed, one only has too look to the highest office in America for validation.)

    Change takes time and there will always be throwbacks that insist that change is bad. But the question for me is; Is she just a product of her success and isolation from every day people or is she a racist? One deserves our understanding and pity while the other deserves to be stoned.

    Just my opinion.

  4. Good Food For Me says

    Perhaps Ms. Caston should be more worried about The Food Network. Do we really think Alton Brown pulls out his science books before every meal to analyse it like a science project? Do we think every meal Rachael Ray makes is in 30 minutes? Paul Deen was doing what she was paid to do, produce a show that people liked, and like it people did. Perhaps that is what pisses Ms. Caston off the most. She was able to build an empire based on what our culture wanted and The Food Network allowed and invited her sons into it as well. Guess what? Paula Deen is a result of our culture, maybe not the true Southern One that Lizzy envisions as the “code,” that’s what makes America great right? Acceptance at all levels. Fortunately, here you don’t have to watch or embrace something you don’t want to. I admire the people that took issue with Paula Deen and her cooking practices before it became popular like Anthony. Clearly Ms. Caston owns the words “Southern Hospitality,” while the only thing I see in this expose on “What’s wrong with Paula Denn,” is just another “Ugly American,” While Ms. Caston has a very nice writing style and has recounted history as she understands it her valuable insight is somewhat lost in the heat of her cast iron skillet. Perhaps this is a result of our harsh, reality driven, violent, say what you want anytime you want, recent cultural decline. I hazard to guess that back in the day, she’d be told to, “Hush up.” You can follow those Southern rules as you see fit right? I guess the results will play out and the chips will fall where they may, if the pre book sales by Paula Deen’s newest edition is an indicator, she’ll still be able to pay her mortgage. “Lines out the door of her restaurant and off the chart pre book orders.” Now Ms. Caston simmer.

    • says

      As of this afternoon, she’s lost Smithfield Hams, Walmart and Caesars Entertainment (which owns four of her restaurants, and plans to rebrand them). So much for the “lines out the door.” Her “apology” today isn’t exactly going over well either. Oops… you can add Home Depot to the list too.

        • Good Food For Me says

          You are so right, it’s time for the pitchforks, then we can flip her when she is really done. I hope they don’t go after Jimmy Carter for standing up for Paula. Is it the same as saying the word if you stand up for her? This is really a lesson in society that continues to amaze. I’ll be interested to see what happens next. Martha Stewart is taken down with a federal crime and gets back up again. Will this happen to Paula? Will the Neely’s have her on their show as a guest? That would be something….

  5. danita says

    From the SOUTH and still love ya Paula! I support you Paula… That word is used by many from the South of all races, and it has nothing to do with race… Think the word mean “stupid” and if the word is so negative and offensive, then low class rappers should be banned from using it. The rap world drives around with loud music you can hear a mild away using its low class stupidity. I’m so sick of people catering to a race that allows there on people to degrade themselves and their women with the other word “Btch”. People grow up and get over it.

  6. Pattycake says

    As someone who is a Southerner going back to the Revolutionary War, and who is also NOT a fan of Paula Deen, thank you for writing all this up. Powerful stuff.

    That said – wanted to call your attention to the following errors / typos / general nitpicks:

    1) A is missing from the end of “Paula” in the first line.

    2) Brunswick is in Georgia, not South Carolina.

    3) Frogmore should be capitalized as it is the proper name of an unincorporated community on St. Helena Island in Beaufort County, South Carolina, United States, along U.S. Route 21, and home to the Frogmore International Airport.

    4) There is no place called “Gullah Island.” There was a children’s television show back in the 1990’s called “Gullah Gullah Island,” but it was not named after any actual place. “Lowcountry Gullah cuisine” might be a more accurate expression.

  7. Craig says

    Lizzy, excellent read! It makes me long to go back South just to eat. One small correction, though: You state that Brunswick is in South Carolina. Maybe you meant Beaufort, which is the town in SC that originated frogmore stew. However, frogmore stew is actually a seafood boil, nothing like burgoo or Brunswick stew, so maybe you meant to say Brunswick stew instead of frogmore stew.

    Looking forward to more of your writing, thanks!

  8. jenn says

    Here’s a much better read:

    An Open Letter to Paula Deen by Michael W. Twitty

    This article wasn’t all bad, but it just felt like another pile on. It’s so easy to beat someone up when they’re down. It’s basically America’s number 1 pastime. Read through the lines, and you’ll see there’s a lot more going on. Lizzy is hating the player, when she really should be hating the game.

  9. mary says

    Thank you for an excellent article. I grew up in the Baltimore/Washington area in the early fifties. I’m white and while my mother liked to play the consummate southern belle I seemed to inherently know that this common language and disdain for a whole group of folks just wasn’t right! I didn’t “get it” then and 60 years later I still don’t. In the late 70’s I bought a book by two sisters who lived in NYC but whose family was from the South. It is a beautiful testament to the courage ;and intelligence of this family. Its called SPOONBREAD AND STRAWBERRY WINE.

    Fortunately Random House came to it’s senses and the world won’t have to lose more trees for a book that pushes butter sugar and fat. Look on Amazon for a copy of the above mentioned book

  10. JT says

    Yes, Southern food is unhealthy. The South is historically America’s poorest region. It still is, but today most Southerners have similar standards of living to the rest of the country. There was a time, however, when Southern people could not afford to waste anything. So pig fat was a convenient way to add calories, hence the expression “eat everything but the squeal”. Furthermore, the majority of them worked on a farm, which burns a lot of calories. Now, most work less vigorous jobs and have as much to eat as they want. But Paula Dean makes it non traditionally unhealthy. How are donuts Southern? The average Southerner eats nowhere near as many donuts as the average Yankee. I bet Mass has more Dunkin Donuts than 7-11s and McDonalds combined. Biscuits are our breakfast vice.

  11. maegan says

    Just because she say the “N” word don’t make her a bad person… gets said all the time. people just don’t make a deal about it..they just need to stop DIGGING UP BONES.

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