For more than a decade, Paula Deen has represented the South and Southern cooking to a nation that soaked up her butter shtick like a bowl of stone-ground grits. Or so it seemed.
From a high-profile Food Network platform to her Savannah, Ga., restaurant, she built an empire based on a rags-to-riches story that not only made her wealthy but launched cooking shows for her sons and other business ventures for relatives.
But now that Deen's perch is crumbling because of the revelation of racially insensitive remarks, Southern foodways experts are taking exception with the way she portrayed the region. They are also offended with the notion that using the N-word was acceptable among "Southern white women of a certain age."
"It wasn't okay in every home," said cookbook author Nathalie Dupree, 73. "Only ignorant people used that word. I cannot speak for how an African-American feels, but I can speak for a white Southern woman, and I resent being tarnished with the same brush."
Dupree, whose 10th cookbook, Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, was recently honored by the James Beard Foundation, is the first woman since Julia Child to film more than 100 cooking shows for PBS. She has been a restaurant chef and owner and a cooking school operator.
"I've never been a fan of the food she cooked," she said. "I just felt it was excessive. I felt she was encouraged to tread close to the edge of ridiculing Southerners and Southern food."
A career in tailspin
Deen's sentence-punctuating "y'all" and her more-butter mantra has taken a hit after it was reported last week that she admitted to using the N-word in the past and to considering a plantation-themed wedding where African-Americans would be servers. The revelation came from a May deposition as part of a harassment lawsuit filed against Deen and others by a former employee. The news was swiftly followed by her decision to cancel a Today Show interview with Matt Lauer and several clumsy apology videos released on the Internet. She is scheduled to be on Today this morning.
The Food Network, which Deen, 66, has been on for 11 years, opted not to renew her contract expiring at the end of this month. Smithfield Foods dropped her as a spokeswoman. QVC is assessing its relationship with her.
It has been just a year and a half since Deen weathered the controversy about her Type 2 diabetes diagnosis. She was criticized in early 2012 for not letting viewers — or the Food Network — know, while she continued to promote food high in calories, fat and carbohydrates on her shows.
Deen is not the first celebrity whose career has been derailed by insensitive remarks. In the 1980s, sports broadcaster Howard Cosell and Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis were sent packing after inappropriate comments about black athletes. Radio shock jock Don Imus went over the line in 2007 with comments about a women's college basketball team and was booted from his job, which he later got back. That same year, actor Isaiah Washington got tossed from Grey's Anatomy for a gay slur.
But the difference between them and Deen is that her comments were made in the past and were not broadcast. So why is something that happened long ago getting such a reaction?
Partially, it's the way she answered the questions in the deposition, said Florida novelist and cookbook author Janis Owens (American Ghost, The Cracker Kitchen). When asked if she'd ever used the N-word, Deen replied, "Yes, of course." That two-word qualifier, Owens said, spoke volumes.
"The problem is she did not seem repentant enough. There was an arrogance without the sense that it's the wrong thing," Owens, 52, said. "She hasn't quite had that aha moment."
Remembering the past
Owens grew up in the small Panhandle town of Marianna and said she was raised in a "very divided, racist family." She knows what effect intolerance can have. American Ghost is based on a 1930s lynching in her hometown.
"If I knew (Deen) well enough, I'd tell her to come visit me in Florida, and I'd show her how vicious and commonplace racism is and how it was such a deadly poison in a part of the country she and I both love," Owens said.
Deen's carelessness with her words has come to haunt her and hurt the region she represents, said Susan Puckett, 56, a Mississippi native and former longtime food editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her book Eat Drink Delta about the foods of the Mississippi Delta region was published last year.
"As a Southerner, I am proud of how far we have come in atoning for past injustices but am also aware of how far we have to go. I share many of my fellow Southerners' frustration at constantly being singled out for our race-relations shortcomings when equally egregious examples are ignored elsewhere," she said.
But as a celebrity, Deen should have known better, Puckett said.
"The quickly scripted apology that came only after it became apparent that her fortune was on the line further eroded her credibility, much like her admission of being a diabetic the day she revealed herself as a company spokesperson for a pharmaceutical company," she said.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.