The Real Problem with Paula Deen

Why was Paula Deen allowed to be the authority on Southern cooking for over a decade?

“This is a book about black aesthetics without black people,” Lauren Michele Jackson writes in the introduction to White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue… And Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, out November 12. As Jackson illustrates in nine essays, the phenomenon touches all facets of American popular culture: “The Pop Star” considers how Christina Aguilera adopted black aesthetics to reinvent her image, while “The Cover Girl” examines the link between Kim Kardashian’s proximity to blackness and her rise to mainstream popularity.

“The Chef” interrogates cultural appropriation in food. In this excerpt from the chapter, Jackson takes on the Paula Deen story: her rise peddling recipes from an uncredited black chef, a lawsuit that led to admission that Deen had used the N-word, and why her racism wasn’t the cause of her ultimate downfall. — Monica Burton


AmericaAmerica loves Paula Deen.

Her story starts with overcoming. Paula had a “delicious childhood,” per her memoir, growing up in Albany, Georgia. By young adulthood, however, her life felt dire. “The tragedies began,” she writes. “And with them, I began to die.” By twenty-three Deen lost both her parents to repeated health problems, and she was left with “a sour marriage” (to an abusive alcoholic), two young children, her sixteen-year-old younger brother, and a creeping anxiety of the outside world. “I started waking up many mornings and wondering if this was the day I’d die,” said Paula. “And these thoughts just went on and on for twenty years, more or less.”

In the decades spent mostly confined to her home due to severe agoraphobia, she perfected recipes passed down from her grandmomma Paul: turtle soup, fried chicken, and fried peach pies; dishes seasoned with herbs, fatback, peppers, and hog jowls. Too poor for therapy and unsupported by her faith, it wasn’t until her divorce in her forties that Paula returned to the world, selling bagged lunches filled with ham and chicken salad sandwiches and banana pudding to workers in downtown Savannah. She opened a small restaurant, then another, bigger restaurant. She published a cookbook with Random House in 1998; it was featured by QVC and sold seventy thousand copies in one day. Within five years she would make appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and host her own show, Paula’s Home Cooking, on the Food Network. Within another five years she would boast of having two restaurants, a magazine, several television shows, numerous cookbooks, her own line of cookstuffs, and a minor role in the 2005 film Elizabethtown.

The book cover for White Negroes by Lauren Michele Jackson
Pre-order White Negroes now at Amazon or Powell’s.

Paula became the face of Southern cuisine, though the better qualifier for her dishes is more like “comfort food.” Baked macaroni and cheese, creamy mashed potatoes, cheesy grits, fried chicken, mayo-forward slaws, peach cobbler à la mode, peanut butter balls, a burger sandwiched between two doughnuts — her recipes don’t summon a particularly vivid sense of any region that calls itself Southern. They do evoke a cadre of emotions that non-Southerners like to pin on the South: warmth, simplicity, nostalgia, and, again, comfort. It’s the kind of food ordained to precede a nap, that fitness fanatics avoid like the plague or maybe reserve for the ill-fated “cheat day.” Butter, lots of it, mayonnaise by the tub, fat-soaked vegetables, cheddar oozing everywhere, liberal salt and pepper, but spices on the sparse side. Paula’s critics call her a “convenience cook,” a label shared with the Food Network talent Rachael Ray, denoting cooks who are more personality than chef. If true, convenience, like comfort, is still a virtue to the Southern nonchef. Cutting cheesecake slices to be covered in chocolate, rolled into wonton wrappers, deep-fried, and doused with powdered sugar, Paula permits viewers to start with something from the frozen food section or “You can make your own,” she says offhand with no further instructions on how that might be done. Her “Symphony Brownies” begin with prepackaged brownie mix; the “special” twist is a layer of Hershey’s chocolate bars inside the batter. No harried parent or broke college student or first-time dinner host will encounter a fatiguing list of ingredients when they turn to one of Paula’s recipes. Paula’s recipe for fried chicken only requires three seasonings: salt, black pepper, and garlic powder.

Then there is the woman herself. She’s straight from a Disney picture — and not Song of the South, but something more Renaissance era, when stereotypes were still fun and racism much less obvious, even if the back of your mind knew it was there. She’s the grandmother urbane Yankees try to forget and feel tremendously guilty about, for which they must find an appropriate surrogate. She’s not perfect or polished; she licks her thumb and covers imperfections with fudge and confectioner’s sugar. She’ll gasp upon seeing a gooey trail of melted cheese and treat a burger with a fried egg on top like a Travel Channel–worthy adventure — and she likes that burger medium well. She’s stout like people say they like their cooks (even if female chefs — celebrity or otherwise — rarely escape size-based scrutiny). She’s safe in the way America desexualizes women of her age and size, and yet she gets to be forever girlish. In short, she’s white Mammy, plumping America one fried delicacy at a time.

In March 2012, Lisa Jackson, the white former manager of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood & Oyster House, in Savannah, Georgia, filed a lawsuit against the owners, Deen and her brother (Bubba Deen) on the grounds of racism and sexual harassment. Jackson claimed that black employees were held to a higher standard of performance and required to use bathrooms and entrances separate from white employees. She also alleged that Bubba often made racist remarks and sexual comments and forced her to look at pornography with him in addition to putting his hands on other employees. Paula was accused of enabling her brother’s behavior. Worse, the suit describes Paula’s involvement in Bubba’s 2007 wedding as an out-and-out desire to fully recreate an Old South fantasy, with Negro tap dancers and all. In May 2013, Paula gave a videotaped deposition and in June 2013, National Enquirer claimed it had the footage. Within twenty-four hours the transcript of that deposition showed up online. Paula denied the discrimination allegations against her and her brother, but what she did reveal was almost as bad. She admitted to expressing her hope that her brother would experience a genuine Southern plantation wedding reminiscent of an antebellum or postbellum era when black people waited on white people. She admitted to living in a household where jokes involving the N-word are told to her “constantly.” When asked if she had ever used the N-word herself, Paula responded, “Yes, of course.”

It was the N-word heard around the world — again — and she hadn’t even said it on camera. That latter detail offered just the wiggle room needed to turn Paula into the subject of debate. The suit was dismissed without award in August 2013, but Food Network, Walmart, Target, Sears, Kmart, Home Depot, Walgreens, and several other companies had already cut ties with Paula over a month earlier. Other former employees came forward with allegations against Paula and Bubba — including one who said they were repeatedly called “my little monkey” — but the loss of Paula’s bread and butter was all that was needed to martyr her. While the nation had one dry eye trained on the trial and acquittal of the man who killed a young black teen in cold blood, its other eye teared up for Paula, who released not one but two videos apologizing “to everybody. For the wrong that I’ve done.” CNN solicited fellow Georgia native Jimmy Carter to weigh in, who felt perhaps the hammer was brought down too harshly. Sales of Paula’s most recent cookbook soared, jumping from the 1,500s to the number one spot in Amazon sales.

Paula did not go gently into that good night, and to those ignorant of the scandal it might look like she was having her best years ever. She raised at least $75 million for her company Paula Deen Ventures from a private investment firm. She bought the rights to her Food Network shows and began streaming them on the Paula Deen Network, her own subscription streaming platform. She appeared on Matt Lauer’s Today show with her sons Jamie and Bobby to tout her new enterprise — and also sorta reflect on the fallout from the deposition. She appeared on Steve Harvey, again with Jamie and Bobby in tow, to do the same. She joined ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and made it to week six, when she was eliminated for a dry recreation of Madonna’s mesmerizing “Vogue” performance at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards. She opened a cookware store. She went on a twenty-city Paula Deen Live! tour. She reissued her own out-of-print cookbooks. She opened new restaurants under the Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen franchise, promising “a family-style dining experience born from the classic recipes of the Queen of Southern Cuisine herself.” She launched a clothing line with a creative name — Paula Deen’s Closet. Jamie and Bobby got their own Food Network show called Southern Fried Road Trip.

It’s amazing what America finds room to forgive and what it has no room for. N-word-gate was not Paula’s first controversy. In 2012, she had visited the Today show to announce that she had been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes and had been knowingly living with it for three years. She also announced, in nearly the same breath, her partnership with Nova Nordisk, a Danish pharmaceutical company that sells the diabetes drug Victoza. The bald-faced doubled-up announcement confirmed everything her eagle-eyed critics knew to be true. Months prior to her announcement, the late Anthony Bourdain said, in an interview with TV Guide, “The worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f—ing bad for you.”* He added, “Plus, her food sucks.” Hounded for a follow-up quote after rumors of Paula’s impending diabetes news came to light, Bourdain had his own question: “How long has she known?”

People felt hoodwinked. There seemed to be something profoundly wrong with using a platform to push buttery, sugary, mayo-laden meals while treating a condition with causal relation in popular culture, if not quite in medicine, to those ingredients. It didn’t make the most sense — bacon-wrapped fried mac and cheese doesn’t develop a complex nutrient profile if the person cooking it doesn’t have diabetes. But people thought Paula had been irresponsible and was now trying to profit from the antidote to her “bad” behavior. She’d eventually put out a new New York Times bestseller, Paula Deen Cuts the Fat. Bobby Deen got his own spin-off brand, debuting his show the same year called Not My Mama’s Meals, remaking “classic” Paula recipes with less fat and calories. The jig was too transparent.

Americans felt more affronted and returned more cruelty when they decided the woman had gotten ill from her own supply than when they discovered she was probably racist. Making us fat was unforgivable, but the N-word was a gray area. I believe Ms. Deen could have walked right up to the camera and flipped the bird with a hearty “Fuck you, nigger!” and still be forgiven by white America and Steve Harvey. Her easy journey back into our good graces says as much.

The problem with Paula actually has little to do with whether or not she’s racist. It’s not so much a matter of the aftermath, but of how a woman like Paula got to be Paula in the first place. Why was Paula Deen, whose coherent Southern-isms boil down to an accent, a tan, and a countrified kitchen, allowed to be the singular word on Southern cooking for over a decade? There are absolutely country people — which includes the North- and Southwest, Midwest, and East and West Coasts — like Paula who cook with Fritos and Bisquick and make do with packaged staples in trying to stretch a dollar in an unforgiving economy. But that’s not why people loved Paula. Deen amassed an empire because she represented the version of Southern culture American morality wanted to live with. The recipes not attributed to her innate Southern instincts have been vaguely passed down by some ur-Southern relative, neatly side-stepping any reasonable query into when a black person factors into that inheritance — and in the South, it is a matter of when, not if.

In Paula’s case we needn’t search for long. Dora Charles, a Savannah-based black chef descended from Lowcountry sharecroppers, was the unsung backbone of Paula’s enterprises. She opened Paula and Bubba’s Lady & Sons alongside the pair, though not as co-owner, but by developing recipes and training cooks on a wage of less than ten dollars an hour, she told the New York Times in 2013. This did not change when Paula made it to television. “It’s just time that everybody knows that Paula Deen don’t treat me the way they think she treat me,” she said, adding more support to circulating claims that Paula’s N-word use wasn’t a one-time far-off affair but part of her everyday speech. Before things took off, Paula made Charles a promise: “Stick with me, Dora, and I promise you one day if I get rich you’ll get rich.” But once the riches came, Paula wasn’t sharing. Not until 2015 would Charles have the opportunity to publish her own book with a major publisher after decades of hustling in Paula’s shadow.

Paula, still wealthy, now moves mostly in the background, letting major distributors, syndication, and royalties do the work. Since the height of her visibility, a craft revolution has changed the public’s relationship to the things people put in their mouths, or at least their ideas about their relationship to the things they put in their mouths. People now want small-batch beer and ancient-grain bread, artisanal ice cream and old-school butchers and mayonnaise made from non-GMO oils and eggs laid by free-roaming chickens. Those who can afford to wave away the processed and mass-produced have done so in search of something authentic. This includes a more rigorous interest in genuine Southern cooking in the most varied sense: regional BBQ, Lowcountry boils, backwoods moonshine, freshwater fish fry. But if America has learned anything from its love affair with Paula, that wisdom remains to be seen. The who’s who lists of heritage cooking are largely white. Even the resurgence of barbecue, possibly the blackest cooking technique within US borders, jushed and priced up to befit artisanal obsessions, is being led by mostly white pitmasters. Zagat’s “12 Pitmasters You Need to Know Around the U.S.” mentions only two black pitmasters, Ed Mitchell and Rodney Scott. Mitchell and Scott, each extraordinary, are customarily the lone black folks on such lists. (A 2015 Fox News compilation of “America’s most influential BBQ pitmasters and personalities” managed to avoid black people altogether.)

Instead of reckoning with Southern food’s past (and present), white Americans fuss over the small, monied group of restaurateurs who may brand themselves hands-on archivists; it is another form of fetishism, another way for liberal white Americans to have the South they want (pleasant, rich, storied, flavorful) without the black and brown people who remind them of how the South came to be the South.

Excerpted from White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue…And Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson (Beacon Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Natalie Nelson is an illustrator and collage artist based in Atlanta.