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Paula Deen and Southern food: Critics say credit is past due

Critics say African American influence minimized

Kat Kinsman | 6/27/2013, 5:32 a.m.
Celebrity Chef Paula Deen CNN

— No matter how you slice it, Southern food is complicated. Some detractors dismiss the whole menu as an over-larded, gravy-drenched, carbed-up monolith; they clearly just haven't been invited to the right homes for supper.

At its core, Southern food is one of the most multilayered, globally-influenced and constantly evolving cuisines on the planet. It's inextricably and equally tied to the rhythms of the seasons and the lives of the people who cook it the way their grandmother did, and her grandmother before her, and so on.

No one cooks Southern food alone; there's always a ghost in the corner giving guidance. For millions of people, that's Paula Deen, a celebrity chef whose sugary, bubbly bonhomie has earned her the moniker "Queen of Southern Cooking" - as well as her share of critics.

Deen has come under fire in the past for promoting aggressively unhealthy recipes, then failing to disclose her diabetes diagnosis for three years before picking up a lucrative endorsement deal for a drug to treat it. Her more recent admission of a racial slur in the past and that she had once discussed putting on a "plantation-themed" wedding party - complete with waiters dressed in a manner reminiscent of slaves - has proven even more sickening to some.

Internet backlash was fierce and pointed, and at least four of Deen's major sources of revenue - the Food Network, Walmart, Caesars Entertainment and Smithfield Foods - have cut ties with her and condemned her words. Although many fans have gone out of their way to express support for her online and at her flagship restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, Deen apologized in online videos and in a teary appearance on the Today Show.

But some African-American food and culture scholars find it's what Deen didn't say that's the bitterest pill to swallow. They claim that she has profited off the culinary legacy of African Americans, a group she's repeatedly failed to credit in her cookbooks or on her television shows. Their contributions to American cuisine are often marginalized in the food world, despite having introduced rice cultivation techniques to the South, along with watermelon, okra, chile peppers and other foods that were already part of the African palate. Representatives for Deen weren't immediately available to comment on the issue.

In the wake of the controversy, pre-orders for Deen's cookbook are red-hot, but some feel frozen out.

"We're burned by this," says writer and image activist Michaela Angela Davis. "Why does she get all the money and fame around the food that our ancestors created and sweated over?"

Davis argues that minimizing the role of the African-American culture's contributions to Southern cooking isn't unique to Deen, but fallout from a cultural system that needed to dehumanize slaves to keep the status quo. "Completely divorcing us from our history, our cuisine, our languages - that's just all par for the course. You can't let people have pride and then have them be your slaves."

Culinary historian Michael Twitty agrees. "Our ancestors were not tertiary to the story of Southern food," he says. "Whenever our role is minimized to just being passive participants or just the 'help,' it becomes a strike against culinary justice."