Oh Paula, how the mighty rise--and fall. Paula Deen rose to the peak of the mountain, developing a multi-million dollar "brand" with a foundation rooted in multiple shows on the Food Network showcasing her "aw shucks, y'all, butter is better," form of scripted Southern hospitality. A line of cookbooks, cookware, restaurants and crates of Gooey Buttercakes sold in Walmart would follow.
The world of the celebrity "Chef," (more appropriately titled "Food Personality"), would at first glance seem to be the last province of media attention. I mean really, how can cooks be as popular as the Kardashians? Certainly, recognizable cooks on PBS, people like Hubert Keller, Lydia Bastianich and their cousin from the BBC, Rick Stein, would never allow personal foibles to overwhelm their public personna--they are, by definition, experienced, talented, creative and passionate teachers. They most likely live with the regret of having once said something they would now take back, yet they seem to understand, (without much effort), that it is the food and the cooking that matters the most in the end. They haven't allowed themselves to get caught up in the trendy celebrity culture of the day--a cuture that builds one into an indestructible icon only to feast upon their sudden and irreparable downfall.
Now we have poor Paula Deen, the "Food Personality," the woman who overcame personal phobias and broken relationships to rise up to become the next Rachel Ray. From what we see, Paula surrounded herself with a bumbling gaggle of media representatives, fawning personal assistants and nervous network executives worried more about how the public perception could damage the brand rather than seeing the proof was in making a good butterscotch pudding. All we wanted was Paula's butterscotch pudding. But this charming woman from Savannah, Georgia, the Grandmother with the sassy laugh and pronounced Southern drawl, fell in a flurry of criticism stoked by the modern machinations of the media storm in which she flourished. It started a few years back when she was diagnosed with diabetes, yet her appetite for feeding the "brand," (making cheeseburgers sandwiched between donuts), was more important than being truthful to her congregation. Shilling for a drug company seemed to be Paula's answer for quieting the criticism of a public outraged that she was pushing fat-laden foods on people suffering from diabetes. "Eat what you want, a shot a day will fix that" was what we were told. You could hear the voice of Jimmy Swaggert singing from the choir-"Forgive me Lord, for I have sinned," and platters of fried chicken were passed around as repentance for all.
When you get through the tangled web this situation has become--the sudden cancellation of a confessional in front of Matt Lauer on the Today show, the stunning dismissal from Food Network hours later and the attorneys bum-rushing the doors to the courthouse--you are left with a sense of sadness. At the heart and soul of this beloved Southern woman in her 60's seemed to be a deep-seated cultural ignorance of the most devisive issue in American history. By her own admission, she had a fluid use of one of the most abhorrent words ever spoken, yet her ignorance that her behavior was nothing more than a joke was just as striking as the words she uttered in a court deposition. It seemed as if she thought the characters portrayed by Hattie McDaniel 70 years ago were still relevant today and tragically, the promise and joy Paula Deen brought to so many by cooking comfortable food suddenly ended.