With Paula Deen’s recent PR “situation” (call it an exposé, 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 through 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 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 bread 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.
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 are 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 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.