Stop Bashing Paula Deen

Paula Deen confirmed this morning what Deen watchers thought they already knew: The disturbingly tanned, faux-fur-haired Food Network show host has Type 2 diabetes. “I’m here today,” Deen told Today’s Al Roker, “to let the world know it’s not a death sentence.” For their part, Deen’s haters sounded as if they’d been hoping that an admission of disease would at least mean death to her career.

Chief hater Anthony Bourdain told Eater he took “no pleasure” in diabetes, but still accused Deen of being more than a little self-serving: Given that Deen has known about her diagnosis for three years—all the while pitching fat- and calorie-packed Gooey Butter Cake, Southern fried chicken, and Cheesy Mac—today's Type 2 confessional seemed timed to coincide with the launch of health-care company Novo Nordisk’s “Diabetes in a New Light” program, for which Deen is a paid spokesperson.

Even before this morning's announcement, Bourdain seemed triumphant. “When your signature dish is hamburger in between a doughnut, and you've been cheerfully selling this stuff knowing all along that you've got Type 2 Diabetes,” he told Eater’s Raphael Brion Monday, “it's in bad taste if nothing else.”

Yes, Mr. Bourdain, it’s tasteless to push a self-serving agenda—like saying, “Bitch, told you so” to the woman you once publicly labeled “the worst, most dangerous person to America.” Of course, Bourdain also called Alice Waters—the anti-Deen—suspiciously "Khmer Rouge” for issuing diktats about what Americans should properly be eating (“I'm a little uncomfortable with legislating good eating habits,” Bourdain told DCist). You begin to wonder if it’s perhaps assertive women, not recipes or political agendas, that actually make Bourdain "uncomfortable"?

But if Deen’s become rich showing Americans how to consume as much butterfat as possible, is that Deen’s fault? Last time I checked, cooking shows were entertainment—what social critics call “aspirational”—not the mandatory curriculum for home ec class. Obesity was a crisis in America long before Deen uttered her first “y’all” before a video camera. How many of Deen’s critics have also spoken out against the cream-enriched legacy of Julia Child, or James Beard—a man of epic girth who cooked with butter and fistfuls of cheese, and who served as the moon-faced pitchman for Omaha Steaks?

And what about Bourdain's own glorification of fat and cholesterol on No Reservations? Take Bourdain's 2008 visit to Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, which he called "a temple to all things fatty, porky, and duck-related," and "one of my favorite places in the world," an "ode to goodness and excess." Bourdain wades into Chef Martin Picard's foie gras poutine—part of a suite of fatty foie gras dishes—the way Deen wades through buttercream. Pure hypocrisy on Bourdain's part, or are the obligations for the host of a travel show different from those of a cooking show? How many culinary tourists has Bourdain led into an artery-clogging black hole?

Perhaps our notions of health and excess are rooted in class. Deen, we assume, speaks to a down-market audience that needs to be lectured about nutrition and willpower. Bourdain speaks to the well-heeled traveler for whom a foie gras hot dog is an occasional indulgence, not a moral failing. Right? Or is it somehow acceptable for men to engage in extreme eating, while women have an obligation to show restraint?

Of course, Deen is hardly the first mass-market gastronome to shill for food companies—in The Taste of America, John L. and Karen Hess blasted Child and Beard for their paid endorsements. If you hate Deen, fine: You hate Deen. You won’t find Paula’s Home Cooking in my DVR queue. But damn: To use her disease as a schadenfreude-edged justification for that hatred? Might as well just nail her in the face with a frozen ham.

Image source: Paula Deen cake by Flickr member bunchofpants under Creative Commons

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