Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Paula Deen Is Not Your Mom

Paula Deen, food entertainer, has recently revealed her relationship to Victroza, a diabetes drug

“Honey, I’m your cook, not your doctor. You have to be responsible for yourself.”---Paula Deen

“Let your medicine be your food and your food be your medicine.” ---Hippocrates

Caveat emptor---let the buyer beware---is Paula Deen’s warning regarding her portrayal of Southern cuisine.

Deen’s food entertainment empire began with her restaurant in the city of Savannah, Georgia, where she lives, and has grown to include TV shows, cookbooks, endorsements, and product lines. Fans of celebrity chefs like Deen are encouraged to consider the similarities between cooking at home and cooking for a living. But home cooks have different concerns from restaurant chefs. A home cook’s main or only job isn’t making dinner, but home cooks feel responsible for the health of the people they cook for, not just their enjoyment of the meal.

If you are lucky, there is at least one person in the world who cares about your health enough to cook for you accordingly. Make no mistake: Paula Deen is not that person. She is not your cook, not your doctor, and unless your name is Jamie or Bobby Deen, she’s not your mom. She is an entertainer, and her media empire now extends to speaking on behalf of Victroza, a drug she takes to manage her diabetic condition.

Paula Deen has recently admitted that she has insulin resistance, or type 2 diabetes. In The Washington Post, Jane Black describes Deen’s condition as “eminently avoidable” and “usually brought on by a combination of unhealthy eating, excess weight, high blood pressure and a couch-potato lifestyle.” A more nuanced explanation is available courtesy of Dr. Stephan Guyanet, a science blogger who breaks out the following factors causing insulin resistance in a series on his website: excess energy, or calories in the diet over those expended, inflammation, your brain, micronutrient status and the macronutrient composition of your diet.

Paula Deen’s image as a Southern cook is distinct from how she conducts her private life. As she has said repeatedly, the food she cooks as part of her public persona is for entertainment purposes. We can judge whether the food she prepares on TV is the basis of a healthy diet---and many have criticized her offerings---but we can’t say what part bacon and butter had in causing Deen’s medical condition.

If you cook from a Southern tradition, you probably don’t cook exactly like Paula Deen, either. There are regional and class differences among home cooks, as well as a range of personal tastes. Compare Deen’s food to the French-inspired Southern menu of Frank Stitt’s restaurant in Birmingham, or for a different kind of French influence on Southern food, the spice and humor of the late, great Cajun Cook, Justin Wilson. There are clear African influences in Southern food, from collards and sweet potatoes, so like African yams, to the pit barbecue. While the exported images of Southern food may more often fit the mold of Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles than of The Pink Teacup, there are cuisines that are recognizably Southern that are less energy dense, have less vegetable fat, fewer processed ingredients, and more vegetables, than is imagined by people whose image of Southern cuisine is based entirely on media, rather than on personal experience in the homes of Southern cooks.

Tamar Adler, in her essay on Paula Deen and balance in the diet, celebrates another home cook whose approach to “normal” Southern home cooking is of a sort I recognize from my years in rural Florida, with green beans and plenty of pork. She writes about Edna Lewis who, in her country cookbook, described hearty breakfasts followed by lunches of greens.

Rural Southerners learned to cook what flourished in the South, to feed people who did hard physical labor under grueling conditions. These cuisines survived for generations because they met the needs of the people eating it. It tastes good, can be prepared from available ingredients and time, and sustains health. Some of it was dense fare, but part of a home cook’s responsibility is to serve an array of good, fresh foods in proportions that can be eaten in good health by all members of the family: sedentary, active, young, and old. While our idea of what is “real” may translate to what has survived most unchanged by time, all of these cuisines, including Deen’s, are authentic Southern cuisine. The challenge is in discerning what of the new should be embraced, and what of the old discarded, if anything.

We all used to eat traditional diets, but today, our culture changes so quickly, and people move away from where they grew up, so the foods we used to eat are no longer available, and in addition to that, our needs have changed. Most of us do less physical work, and contend with more environmental stress and pollution, than our forebears. Modern people are always having to find new ways to feed ourselves, based on what is available in our changed environments. One way we do that is by looking around at what other people are eating.

Cooking programs like Deen’s are a part of that landscape, but like other marketing images, they mislead us into consuming much more food than is healthy, and into eating foods that are highly rewarding--hyperpalatable foods full of sugar, salt, and fat--rather than the natural range of flavors we were designed to discern and enjoy.

Deen is not a good example of Southern cooking, or of comfort food, or of home cooking, because she doesn’t demonstrate how to make healthy meals that are inexpensive and simple to prepare. She doesn’t use local ingredients except incidentally, or traditional methods or equipment. The food she prepares and sells is all-American, based on nationally available commercial products, and soothing (read: numbing) in its hyperpalatable way, but not healthy.

While we may hope to learn something from them, the expectations we bring to cooking shows may poorly match what is provided. Entertainment cooking programs don’t teach you how to choose or prepare ingredients for cooking, and the cost of ingredients, waste, seasonal availability, and geography are not considerations. The show’s producers compress the perceived prep and cooking time to fit the show. They may take advantage of your ignorance as a viewer, and misrepresent a regional cuisine with which you are unfamiliar.

Here in western Massachusetts in January, the “Winter Warmers” episode of Paula’s Home Cooking sounded most appealing as an introduction to her program. Paula cooks from a home that, in exterior shots on the show, has a palm tree waving from the front yard and green grass growing; in other words, nothing like the view from my window, of bare tree branches and snow on the ground: land that could use a “warmer.” In this episode, she makes a seafood gratin, a fried veal cutlet over spinach, and an apple cookie bar dessert. She never mentions where any of her ingredients come from: the shrimp and scallops, the spinach, the apples, and everything else, must all just come from a Savannah supermarket, indistinguishable from a supermarket in Akron or Phoenix, and where these ingredients are always available, year-round.

The meal, while fairly rich, is also very expensive to produce, but not inventive in its use of unusual or expensive ingredients. Her ingredients are alternately inordinately expensive, or cheap and nutritionally weak. In the gratin, she covers flavorful, expensive scallops and shrimp with a cheese sauce. Even conventionally raised veal is very expensive and can be hard to find, but she fries that up in butter cracker crumbs. These might taste good, but Deen’s dishes are examples of gilding the lily, not hearty country fare. This isn’t what people in the South eat in their kitchens after climbing off a tractor: this is what Brooklyn hipsters wearing ironic John Deere caps eat in comfort food diners.  

The ingredients are all prepped in advance: the shrimp are peeled and deveined, the apples peeled, cored, and sliced. This isn’t unusual, but it is a missed opportunity, if the cooking show star has some basic skills to demonstrate. Martin Yan has made a long career of cutting up chickens at lightning speed and mincing onions faster than the eye can follow, with his signature cleaver. When Deen finally handles a raw ingredient, her onion chopping is crude and she reams a lemon, seeds and all, right into her finished dish.

Deen’s meal ends with the production of a dessert bar made of cheap, energy dense, commercial products, including at least one--Philadelphia Cream Cheese--that Deen is paid to promote. The dishes in this episode appear to be easy to produce, and look like they would taste good, but not amazing, and not good enough to compensate for their poor nutrient value, the cost of the ingredients, or the time it would take to prepare. While the end of the “Cajun Cook” always left me feeling a little hungry for Wilson’s dinner---and he ended every show seated at dinner with a glass of wine---imagining eating Deen’s “Winter Warmers” makes me feel queasy. My body tells me that eating whole meals like this every day would make me very sick, indeed.

Even if a strong causal link could be made between Gooey Butter Cake Bars and type 2 diabetes, Deen’s body is not a matter of public health, and her choices regarding diet, exercise, and medication are none of our business. Dr. Hyman warns that Victroza could be the next Avandia: a popular diabetes drug that caused heart attacks. Victroza is not only potentially dangerous, but is also an expensive drug, too, as Nestle points out. Yet while Deen promotes her medication of choice, she also tries to play the class card by saying that we can’t all afford to eat prime rib. Of course, Deen can afford to eat whatever she wants, but that was never the point.

Carol Plotkin writes in "Paula Deen and the Fallacy of Moderation", “To say ‘all things in moderation’ to me seems like an excuse to maintain the status quo, which arguably is average.” If the average diet is an unhealthy one, leading to an epidemic of lifestyle-related diseases, there’s no reason any of us should emulate what we see on TV. Deen and similar food entertainers are not, or should not be, a goal toward which home cooks strive.

There are class reasons why the average experience for most people in the South is to be overweight and to develop type 2 diabetes. Not Southern cooking, but stress, food deserts, and poverty, are to blame for the poor health of people living in the American Southeast. Tamar Adler says we risk demonizing butter, bacon, comfort food, or Southern cuisine when we rush to demonize Paula Deen. Deen’s cooking “is not a good representation of comfort food,” Adler writes. “It confuses too much for a good, delicious, soulful amount.” The line of Paula Deen desserts available at Walmart is not an oasis of Southern hospitality; it’s one of the mirages of the food desert.