LIZ WILLIAMS is the director and president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Besides her work with SoFAB, she is a lawyer who writes about the legal aspects of food, reflecting culture, policy and economics.
At first I thought that we had heard enough about Paula Deen and the announcement about her health. But I have decided to weigh in – so to speak – because not enough people have really discussed the core of the issue. Paula Deen is us. Her popularity is based on the fact that she cooks the way most of America wants to eat. Nothing is too rich or too sweet. She has never said that her food is healthy; she just tells us that her food tastes good. And for most people, having food that tastes good is just what they are looking for.
We have recently seen the rise of two types of food personalities. One is the food snob and the other is the health fundamentalist. The food snob is the person who worships in the temples of the great fine dining restaurants or who finds ethnic cuisine in small obscure restaurants hidden in old gas stations and strip malls. These are people who wouldn’t deign to eat at a fast food restaurant or at a more pedestrian Mom and Pop place. They are looking for either the epitome of sophistication and “newness” or absolute and impeccable authenticity.
The health fundamentalist is suffused with religious fervor, and proselytizes on behalf of a healthy lifestyle including healthy eating. And like other religious fundamentalists health fundamentalists seek to impose their beliefs on others through legislation. They scold and emphasize the punishment of eternal ill health for those who succumb to the temptations of the flesh. They do not entice one to join them in order to enjoy good health, but only warn of the evils of fat, sugar and indulgence. Those who do not join are condemned.
Hardee’s once produced a massive sandwich with lots of cheese and sauce and sold it in commercials by having attractive young men defiantly order it . They openly enjoyed being radicals and daring the wrath and punishment of the gods of health. They were guiltless hedonists in search of a full belly of inexpensive food that they thought tasted good. Fat, calories and moderation be damned. This is Paula Deen. But she is not a commercial for a product. She is real, and she is us.
Paula Deen is not like Jamie Oliver who espouses healthy eating, tries to harangue children into eating the way he wants without trying to understand their motivations and culture, and then produces a cookbook with extremely rich and calorie-laden dishes that appeal to the very impulses that he criticizes in children and the cafeteria workers who are feeding them. Deen doesn’t moralize. She represents those people who came through lean times and who are happy that today they can afford to eat enough of the foods that they like.
Nor does she claim that her food is sophisticated and new. Her food has roots in tradition. She uses packaged foods that might be found at a home – our homes. She even has a little devilish grin when she breaks rules and uses forbidden foods. We might feel sheepish, but she is the bad girl that we all want to be.
So Paula Deen has Type 2 diabetes. She has been criticized for not revealing this information. Whose business is it? Yes, many celebrities are lauded for revealing health issues, like Michael J. Fox. But celebrities do not owe us a look into their private lives. And so upon deciding to reveal this information, why is she wrong to make lemonade out of the lemon? She has become a spokeswoman for the drug that she is taking. We make her a celebrity, but we criticize her for doing what celebrities do. Along the way she may help save lives or at least improve lives without lectures and sermons. People may simply recognize that she is human, like us. She has health problems, like us. She enjoys cooking and eating over-the-top food, like us. And she is not ashamed or embarrassed that she is like us.
That is why Paula Deen is popular. People can identify with her. She is not a snob. She is not a finger-wagging fundamentalist. All of the righteous talk about her cooking, about her decision to first withhold and then make her illness public, about her decision to represent a drug comes from the elite cognoscenti. Her fans are either blithely unaware of or ignore those who turn their nose at Paula Deen. Don’t you want to eat what tastes good, keep your life private, eat whatever you want without guilt, make hay out of your misfortunes? I know that I do. Leave her alone. Paula Deen is me. She is us.