Paula Deen has been the “Two and a Half Men” of celebrity chefs for me—both are beloved by millions of Americans, none of whom are my friends, and produce things that are not-very-good-for (and possibly harmful to) the country.
Or so I thought.
I don’t remember how I came to this assumption about Paula Deen, because all I knew about her is that she uses lots of butter. I figured, eh, Americans don’t care about nutrition and have bad taste in food. But I knew there had to be more to the story, which is why I was excited to see her at the 92Y this week.
The bottom line is: I have a new hero, y’all.
What I missed about Paula Deen (besides everything) is that she isn’t just peddling recipes and Smithfield ham, she’s selling hope and home and faith. Her story is an inspiration to anyone who has ever felt too old, too worn down, too burdened, not smart enough, not educated enough, not-whatever-enough to get ahead.
Her trajectory from single mom to celebrity chef is epic and apparently every fan knows these facts: She got married at 18, and was an orphan by age 23. The death of her parents triggered a battle with crippling agoraphobia that lasted for twenty years. It was so severe that she wouldn’t leave her house for months. She didn’t even know there was a name for her disease—or that other people had it—until she saw a Phil Donahue special.
After a divorce in her early 40s, she was a single mom of two boys, with almost no work experience. The only thing she could do was cook, and so she started her catering business called The Bag Lady with $200 and a list of family recipes. This did so well that she landed a TV show in her early 50s.
If I’d just stopped at her Wikipedia page, I’d be impressed with this lady.
But in person, Paula Deen is so much more than a talking hard-luck story. The woman can work a room! I go to lots of talks at the 92Y, but I’ve never seen a crowd so wonderfully manipulated by the guest.
When she talked about losing her Daddy, the auditorium was so still I could hear people’s breathing. Minutes later, she had us laughing at how she was proud to be named Maxim’s Hottest Female Chef, even though the magazine didn’t run a picture of her but instead used a photo of butter.
Her stories are punctuated with huge smiles to the audience. She laughs at her own jokes, and often adds lines like, “I’m kiddin!”—even when the crowd is laughing with her because she’s obviously kiddin’ —as if she’s afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings. This is how I imagine Southern manners to play out—it’s all my positive stereotypes in action. She stretches words like “spin” and “Yeh-esss” into two syllables.
“Do you pinch yourself?” the moderator, Gail Saltz, asked last night.
“I’m black and blue under this outfit, Gay-ul!”
When she talks about her past, and how she couldn’t afford health insurance, or when she and her husband were “asked to leave our homes four or five times,” she frames this as the backbone of her success. “That’s the kind of crap that keeps you on your toes.”
I was charmed and inspired by this woman, and I remembered reading a Frank Bruni piece from a few months ago called “Unsavory Cultural Elitism.” Basically, Tony Bourdain slammed Paula Deen, and Bruni made it part of a bigger article about how the cultural clash in the food world mirrors the Red State/Blue State divide. Bruni writes:
“When Deen fries a chicken, many of us balk. When the Manhattan chefs David Chang or Andrew Carmellini do, we grovel for reservations and swoon over the homey exhilaration of it all. Her strips of bacon, skirting pancakes, represent heedless gluttony. Chang’s dominoes of pork belly, swaddled in an Asian bun, signify high art.”
At the time I thought it was a strange use of Bruni’s new platform as a columnist, but now that I’ve seen Paula Deen in person, I think it’s quite a brilliant summation of the liberal smugness I so often embody.
Paula Deen isn’t trying to wow you with "foo foo prissy food" (as she calls it), she’s trying to make you feel loved and nurtured.
"What I do, when I feed you, and I look at you," she said, pausing for dramatic effect, "I get immediate gratification from the look on your face."
Exactly. What a refreshingly unpretentious way to approach food: it can bring us together and make us happy.
I love it.
(Does this mean I need to see “Two And a Half Men”?!!)