Paula Deen and what she means for feminist foodies

    Paula Deen's Pumpkin Gooey Butter Cake, 637 calories per serving. Photo licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

    The Food Network makes me nostalgic. The warm, fuzzy feeling that comes with watching celebrity chefs shred, fry and knead things you will never eat (and probably never make in your own kitchen) for hours on end. It’s soothing to me, this world where the dinner you cook for your family and what to do with the leftovers is of the utmost importance. Extra points if your cocktails, tablescape, apron and kitchen curtains are color-coordinated. But is there something vaguely anti-feminist about it?

    Maybe a little. Even so, a few hours of mindless domesticity apart from your day job, when you can sit back, throw your feet on the coffee table and think about exactly how you would prepare that rack of lamb for a dinner party of six seems downright rewarding.

    Food and feminism have been on my mind recently, in part thanks to a recent conversation I had with my aunt. Comfortably ensconced in my aunt’s sofa, we were shooting the breeze about Meryl Streep and her recent turn as Margaret Thatcher on the big screen. Eager to see the film before Awards Season gets rolling, my aunt remarked that she never saw Julie & Julia – a film that wasn’t great, but come on, it’s Meryl Streep. Anyhow, we got into it, arguing the relative childishness of Julie Powell’s personal journey.

    “The idea that a woman needs to find herself by cooking her way through Julia Child’s book seems vaguely ridiculous to me,” my aunt remarked. Being an avid reader of the blogosphere and Pinterest, my interest was sparked. I'm bombarded with photo upon gorgeous photo of desserts, vegetarian chilis and soufflés, accompanied by paragraphs of self-indulgent blog speak about cooking and DIYing and such. Rarely do I question it, usually looking lifelessly into my computer screen for some sort of procrastination. But perhaps it is a question begging to be asked: Does a young woman’s interest in planning, preparing and even photographing food constitute a small loss for de facto feminists everywhere?

    Cue the reason for this article: Paula Deen, champion of butter, mayonnaise and what has come to be known as “Southern cuisine,” revealed Tuesday that she has Type 2, adult onset diabetes. Now what does this have to do with feminism, you ask? The problem lies in the reveal. The diagnosis itself is, quite frankly, not that interesting (or surprising). What’s surprising is that Deen received the diagnosis three years ago, all the while broadcasting recipes like this. But now, after three years of “personal discovery” and what one hopes are some pretty drastic lifestyle changes, Deen is ready to rebrand herself, her family and her show in a newer, healthier light.

    “I told you so” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

    In the past, Deen has been the target of criticism for her gustatory excesses, but she and her fans have chosen to frame her cooking style as a response to disconnect between the tastes and budgetary constraints of ordinary people and the exotic, expensive tastes of the culinary elite. When Anthony Bourdain criticized Deen last year for posing a danger to the American public, Deen responded in the New York Post, saying, “You know, not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills.”

    What's at stake here is accountability. No matter what you say about women and cooking and feminism and domesticity, Paula Deen is--she must be--a role model for women. And as a role model, she has a certain amount of responsibility to her viewers, and this responsibility should have been painfully obvious the minute Deen received her diagnosis. Instead, she continued her show under the illusion that overly indulgent and fattening foods at every meal comes without consequence when the order of the day should have been to elevate the discourse in her show to something a bit more rigorous.

    But this title and place in the public’s heart comes with a certain responsibility. What got you to your place in life becomes less important than what you can do there. At a certain point one needs to realize that people are listening to them, and that they should give them something socially responsible to listen to. In the process of deciding what to do in the face of diabetes, Deen jeopardized her own life and those of many others.

    Paula Deen has done an incredible thing: she has pulled herself out of not-so-hot circumstances and in the process, created a veritable media empire, with cookbooks, droves of followers, a wildly popular restaurant, and, of course, the keystone of it all, her show. And women in the business of food, whether they have a blog, a restaurant or a television show, are exactly that: in business. Many, including Deen, are completely self-made, independent women, that used cooking to establish themselves as a new brand of America’s Sweethearts. It makes them feminist icons by default. And that is something we can hardly ignore.


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