A Good Paula Deen is Hard to Find

 “I was always conflicted about being from the South” says Andrew Beck Grace at the beginning of Eating Alabama, a documentary about attempting to eat local which I watched while I was in Alabama. This particular line rankled some of my relatives, “Why would you be conflicted about being from the South” one said, mere hours after he had said “I can feel my IQ dropping” as we crossed the border between Florida and Alabama (something that doesn’t make sense on any level considering the state of Florida).

Indeed, I feel like I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time myself not to make such cracks about the places and people of the South, a habit I picked up not in the North, but while young in the South, which I spent over half my life so far. Missed in the controversy about Paula Deen, was that some of the off-color jokes she admits telling were about “rednecks”, a term that some people have applied to Deen herself and one that speaks to an ambivalence that isn’t always introspective.

And sometimes it is brilliantly so, such as Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, a story I find myself reading often. A story that despite being short, I would struggle to write about all the meaning in it without filing a novel. Part of O’Connor’s brilliance was that she could do that in so few words.

The children in the story express their disdain for their home place early on:

"Let's go through Georgia fast so we won't have to look at it much," John Wesley said.

"If I were a little boy," said the grandmother, "I wouldn't talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills."

"Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground," John Wesley said, "and Georgia is a lousy state too."

"You said it," June Star said.

Interestingly, nearly all the food in the story is modern industrial food- white bread, canned apricots, Coca-Cola. To me these emphasize that the story takes place in that very Southern-between place, of embracing modernity in its commodity capitalism form existing side by side with a profound consciousness of the past, often with two few questions asked.

Paula Deen fantasized about an “old fashioned” plantation wedding, the grandmother in a Good Man is Hard to Find fantasizes about visiting a beautiful old “Gone with the wind” plantation, a fantasy that ultimately leads the family to their doom.

Some people have pointed out correctly that if we harangued everyone who told jokes like Deen’s, we’d have few people left. But the fact that she said those things didn’t cause her downfall, it was the fact that unsurprisingly it was part of a hostile and miserable culture in the workspaces she and her family ran.

Admittedly I had been critical of Deen for far longer than this recent incident, who not only represented the transmogrified processed food that has unfortunately come to dominate Southern tables, but actively promoted the corporations behind it. For example, she was a spokesperson for Smithfield, a now Chinese-owned pork factory-farming conglomerate. The fastest way to kill a small town is to put one of their hog farms there.

But there has been considerable backlash against the downfall of Deen, which also isn’t surprising to me. Regardless of anything, her food represents a type of opulence which is OK among the kind of people for whom “elitist” (or even worse “elitist Yankee”) is a slur. Regardless of their income, I have been told by many that a place like Whole Foods is for “those people.” And Paula’s food is for people like them. It represents ease, choice, modernity, comfort, and plenty.

The Southern food which is almost impossible to avoid these days at ritzy restaurants in big cities is the food that many people once had to eat when they had few choices. Food made from scratch, from local ingredients that were once widely available, is now largely for rich college-educated city folk both symbolically and in reality. And like it or not, regardless of my roots, I'm "those people" now, and there isn't really going back on that, though I'm not always sure it's a good thing. There are things I've experienced that are amazing, but there are things I'll never understand in the way I would have if I had "stayed home," but it was a choice made for me when I was 15. 

And probably some of that backlash is right. It seems like crocodile tears for some of these companies that once sponsored her to care so much about the matter. But in the end, the structures that made her decided she was no longer useful and spit her out. It is in the end OK for corporations (Cracker Barrel survived far more egregious accusations for example) to espouse such ideas, but not for their cogs. This is a time when a corporation can be redeemed, but not a person. Smithfield probably ran the numbers and calculated it was no more profitable to continue to stand behind her than it is to allow sows to give birth to their piglets outside a farrowing crate so small it doesn’t allow them to even turn around.

In A Good Man is Hard to Find, a character called The Misfit consumes the family. I won’t quote the story directly and spoil the ending, but instead I’ll refer to Alex Link’s excellent essay (sadly behind a paywall):

In place of the sentimentalized, commodified estate, the story gives us a commodified South that comes to life to consume the family in its tum. It swallows the family with a "satisfied insuck of breath" ( 129) with the help of the Misfit, the embodiment of Lefebvre's residual "incommunicable." As both a terrifying figure out of the tabloids and a perfect southern gentleman out of nostalgic fantasies like Gone with the Wind, the Misfit embodies the Romantic gloss that interposes itself between subjects and the South, as well as the means of transcending that interposition.

And Paula Deen, despite her willing promotion of that system, was just as much a product of it as anyone else. I remember making her recipes in my college dorm cooking club. We had a miserable cramped dorm kitchen. They were easy and they tasted good (don’t let people tell you things like that don’t, maybe they don’t have any fancy complexity, but my mouth still waters reading about them sometimes). Sometimes at the end of the day, looking at the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, I miss the times when I ate that way.

Cooking has become seen as an empowering act allowing you to take charge of your health and the food system. I want to believe that too, but if I, a young person without any children, find it hard to fit into my life, I don’t have much hope for it at least if things stay they way they are. When I learned to cook from scratch I lived in Sweden, where I maybe went to class a few hours a day, and that’s if I was feeling studious. It’s just the realities of the American economy that part-time work is untenable for a large majority of people (try finding health insurance and having a part-time job) and a 9-5 job often creeps onto other hours, consuming your life with after hours and commutes. Plus it’s hard for me to decide to spend hours in the kitchen when it means sacrificing social and intellectual pursuits. 

Also whatever she was, at least Deen was not of the watered down politically-correct version of Southern cooking that has haunted the "those people" media outlets like PBS. You know, like collard greens cooked with olive oil and soy sauce, because butter and ham hocks are soooo bad for you sort of thing. 

In Eating Alabama, you can see how time-consuming and somewhat socially isolating their eat only local project is. They spend an inordinate amount of time seeking out wheat and processing it themselves rather than questioning whether or not it belongs in Alabama any more than the fire ants or kudzu do. The amount of time they spend on it (as well as soybeans) only would make it more affordable than just eating even a fairly expensive alternative if you were seriously underemployed and your time was worth nothing. Plus, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in heritage grains advanced by chefs like Sean Brock and entrepreneurs like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills. Alabama has its own McEwen & Sons organic cornmeal and grits. I don’t know if I’m related to them, but I a can vouch for their quality.

Though I didn’t spend very long in Alabama this time, I thought the selection of local quality food available was pretty impressive, but you can’t look to move there and just find exact local equivalents to foods you already eat like the couple in Eating Alabama seemed to do. Given the climate and geography, if you want to eat local easily you’ll find yourself eating more seafood and less of things like dairy, which coming from the Midwest where it’s not easy to find things like good shrimp I was more than happy to do.

Local gulf shrimp boil, local pecans, a game cookbook my grandmother had, boiled peanuts

Of course it’s hard not to have the oil spill in the back of your mind, that put a bit of worry onto the region’s oceanic bounty, but is only one of the shadows on the food system there. The relentless sprawl that has already rendered my hometown unrecognizable from my memories. The weight of cotton on the soil, the pesticides used to grow it showing up in foods such as rice grown in the region. And sometimes it seems like like nature itself has it out for the place, ravaging New Orleans, one of the few places I’d say is really proud of its old foodways to the point where it has resisted change better than most.

But the televisions networks that made Deen a star are unlikely to feature this food or its cooks. The Food Network for one exists to sell things at scale. If you wanted to make Paula Deen’s recipes in the far North of Wisconsin, you could. There was nothing in them you couldn’t get at a big grocery store or Walmart. To contrast, I can’t make a good crawfish boil in Illinois. The crawfish available here aren’t even close to being the same. Same with Edna Lewis' incredible cookbooks.

Just like there was no reason for the networks to keep her on when she became a liability to what they wanted to promote, there is no reason for them to promote foods and people that aren’t any good at promoting those things in the first place.