Don't blame Paula Deen for TV food culture

Celebrity chef Paula Deen, whose show celebrates fatty cooking, recently announced that she has Type 2 diabetes.

Associated Press

Celebrity chef Paula Deen, whose show celebrates fatty cooking, recently announced that she has Type 2 diabetes.

I wish Paula Deen had gone public sooner with her diabetes diagnosis. She has known for three years that she has Type 2 diabetes but waited until last week to come clean.

But she didn't. Instead, she's gone on with her butter-dripping, deep-fried Food Network shows and publications with the same down-home excess that has won her lots of fans — and detractors. Food Network executives say they found out about Deen's diabetes about the same time we did. That speaks volumes, doesn't it?

I don't know Deen personally and have never interviewed her. I am not privy to her family health history or to her relationship with her colleagues at Food Network. I think she got bad advice on how to handle her announcement and is now catching the blame for every extra pound ever put on by an overeating American. She's likely not the only TV chef with a health problem that might be related to food; she's just the one we know about. I don't want to paint her as a victim because she bears responsibility, but I do think the issue is complicated.

Instead of retooling her shows, Deen, 65, has aligned herself with pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk to promote its diabetes education program. She takes medication made by the company and says she will donate part of the money she makes from the promotion deal to the American Diabetes Association. Still, Deen knows which side of her bread is buttered (some would say both) and that's evident if you've ever been to the gift shop at her Lady and Sons restaurant in Savannah, Ga. There's not a piece of merchandise that doesn't have her name or image on it.

While I don't know all the particulars of Deen's diagnosis and her decisionmaking process, I am certain of this: She knows that healthy-cooking food shows don't get prime pumping by the Food Network or other channels.

Take a gander at Food Network's long list of shows — some in perpetual reruns and some new — and you'll only see two that focus on healthy cooking, Healthy Appetite With Ellie Krieger and Hungry Girl with cookbook author Lisa Lillien. That's not to say that other shows don't use fresh ingredients and low-fat cooking techniques, but the health factor is veiled.

Deen's value to the Food Network is not as someone who has had a personal dietary epiphany. Her value is as someone who cooks with mayonnaise and makes no apologies.

Imagine if, all of the sudden, Guy Fieri dumped Diners, Drive-ins and Dives to begin visiting the wealth of vegan and gluten-free restaurants that have popped up around the country. Or if extreme-eater Adam Richman of the Travel Channel's Man v. Food stopped shoving mile-high burgers into his mouth in favor of nibbling low-fat desserts of reasonable portions. Excess is where they've made their fame and fortune, not just for themselves but for the people who put them on the air.

Speaking of excess, the Food Network debuts Fat Chefs at 10 p.m. Thursday. The six-week series focuses on terrifically overweight chefs desperate to slim down. It very much has a reality show vibe, which is in line with most of the network's nighttime programming. Rather than elicit change, those shows tend to make us feel better about ourselves. At least we're not that bad off.

All TV food celebrities have a schtick. Anthony Bourdain is the cool, mean guy. Jamie Oliver is the exuberant food cheerleader who wants us to celebrate ingredients. Rachael Ray is the girl next door who joins every club. Giada DeLaurentiis and Nigella Lawson are the sexy beasts. Ina Garten is the society gal who just happens to be a great cook. And Alton Brown is the nutty professor of the kitchen. We like them or hate them for their personalities and the type of food they cook. Truth is, we may not even ever try one of their recipes.

Deen's folksy Southern charm made her famous and rich. She has a good story — single mom raising two sons while nurturing a fledgling lunch catering business. She famously conquered panic attacks and agoraphobia. Many women are drawn to her because of her rags-to-riches story and the tight relationship she seems to have with her adult sons.

If she abandons those roots, who is she? I can only think of two TV food personalities who have done a 180 in their careers and changed their stories. Graham Kerr, the wine-swigging Galloping Gourmet of the 1960s and '70s, got sober and had some subsequent success with a healthy-cooking show. The cleaned-up Kerr never had the same fame as the tipsy one.

And chef Rocco DiSpirito, who had a colossal flameout with the NBC reality show The Restaurant, is back on the scene with a syndicated healthy-cooking column and a series of Now Eat This cookbooks. After the show was canceled and DiSpirito lost his chef gig at New York's Union Pacific, he gained a lot of weight. He's thinner than ever now, competing in triathlons and preaching an active lifestyle and moderate eating wherever he can. He seems to be doing okay, but he's by no means the "it" chef he was.

Can — or should — Paula Deen follow their leads? I don't know for sure but I think she owed it to the folks who line up at her restaurant, buy her magazine and cookbooks, use her pot holders and watch her TV shows to be honest. I wish she'd had more faith that they would have accepted her in this stage of her life, and could see the power of her influence and not just the power of moneymaking.

Unlike some other people, I don't blame her for the nation's obesity epidemic. That's another complicated issue. I also am not on the what-goes-around-comes-around bandwagon.

I am curious what you think about her and how she handled the situation. Drop me a line at Taste, Tampa Bay Times, 490 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 or send an email to jkeeler@tampabay.com. Please put PAULA DEEN in the subject line.

It's a conversation that will go on for a while.

Don't blame Paula Deen for TV food culture 01/24/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 11:13am]

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