Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Confessions of a Reformed Deen Disciple

I am a first generation Southerner, which means I didn't learn Southern cooking from my mom. I learned a bit from my mother-in-law (particularly how to make a perfect biscuit and how to do astonishing things with a green tomato), but most of what I know about Southern cooking I learned from Paula Deen.

I own copies of Lady & Sons and Lady & Sons Too that are tattered from study and use. Back in my pre-vegan days, I went bibbedy with delight when my brother-in-law arranged for me to have dinner at Lady & Sons when I was visiting Savannah. I "improved" upon Paula's hashbrown casserole recipe by adding more cheese.

When I told my husband - a Georgia boy - about Paula Deen hiding her diabetes and continuing to promote her traditional Southern fare for three years, he wasn't in the slightest bit surprised. "I know a woman," he reminded me, "whose entire day was spent in her kitchen, every day of the week. When she finished cooking breakfast, she'd start lunch. That was her world." His point was that food is more than food in many Southern households, and more than just tradition; it's an identity.

Paula Deen, who famously conquered agoraphobia to provide for her children with her cooking, must have a great deal of her identity tied up in the food she cooks. I'm not saying there weren't mercenary reasons for her to hold off on this announcement; her deal with a pharmaceutical company surely indicates there were. I'm just saying that there may be more to it than that.

Working for a nonprofit that supports people diagnosed with a chronic illness, I've seen time and time again that the "stages of grief" apply. Putting myself in Paula's shoes, I'd have been resistant to the idea of changing my diet. I'd have been embarrassed that I'd done this to myself. I'd probably have gone through a period of denial. But then there's that extra little bit of complexity when your cultural identity is tied into your food and you're forced to change the way you eat.

I remember the angst, the absolute suffering I felt upon going vegetarian, when I realized I was going to have to learn to cook my collard greens without a giant hamhock. When I pondered whether my black-eyed peas could possibly taste right without my secret ingredient - bacon. The confusion when I considered making biscuits without sausage gravy... I'm sure it's not easy for anyone to give up the foods they're used to eating, but this wasn't about the deprivation. (I didn't cook them all that often anyway, since I too believed 'moderation' was the best thing for my health when it came to meat and dairy.) It was a question of whether I would be able to express my Southernness without these things.

Ask any Southerner living away from the South what they miss, and you're not likely to hear about the view. They're going to tell you about the cornbread, the sweet tea, the tastes of home. When I go north (because you have to go north to get South from here) to Jacksonville, Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, any place in the South, the first thing I do is stake out the best Southern restaurant in town and find out what's on the menu. The love of these foods is a primary means of participating in Southern culture. Would I be excluded from the culture without them?

Happily, my commitment to veganism overcame these concerns. Even more happily, I've learned to veganize the foods that help define me as Southern. I still make a mean biscuit and my black-eyed peas still melt in your mouth. Just recently, I thought up a way to veganize Paula's hashbrown casserole that I'm itchin' to try. So I know it can be done.

Do I think that Paula Deen's decision to hide her condition and continue to peddle unhealthy foods for profit was ethical? No way. But human beings are more than just ethics engines, and sometimes right and wrong get muddled by personal hang-ups. My point is rather than being angry at her, I'm spending my energy hoping she'll learn - as I did - that Southern food doesn't have to make you, as Anthony Bourdain called her, "the most dangerous woman in America." Southern food can be healthy too.


  1. I understand about the grieving process, and agree she needed to deal with it. The identity issue, yes, that too. I'm an immigrant so double the quota for me.

    What bugs me is that she only came out about her diabetes because of a pharmaceutical endorsement deal. (OK, OK, as far as I know, it's only because of the endorsement deal.)

    "Oh, I'm getting paid, so now's a good time to tell y'all! I got the type 2 diabeetus an' my doctor, God bless 'im, he gave me this lovely new drug to try out!"

    Too soon, Paula, darlin'! We needed a little time to absorb that news, too. Fire your PR person!

    Hopefully she'll regain my trust with something that's not as lardy/buttery/sugary as her usual fare (not that I ever wanted to make any of it, even for me it's all too much) and... oh, you were saying about vegan biscuits, darlin'?

  2. It certainly does seem to be the only reason she came forward now, and that does make it distasteful. Of course, if she'd had a more savvy PR approach, as you described, that'd make it no less mercenary. We'd just be better fooled.

    My issue is not with the way she came out - for all I care, she could've kept her health information private forever, I think we all have that right. My issue is with the fact that after learning first-hand how destructive her food could be, she didn't change what she was selling to the public for three years. NOW she's coming out with lighter recipes, when there's money in it for her to do so. That's the ethical problem I was talking about.

  3. That was a very kind and empathetic response. It is often hard for those of us who have managed to make a big lifestyle change to not be indignant and self-righteous about others who are where we used to be.
    best wishes

  4. Thank you for the kind words, Emily, and for sharing the link. I do understand the anger over the topic, I just don't know that it's productive.

  5. Thought-provoking and brilliantly written, as usual! One note: The Kubler-Ross stages are stages in response to one's own impending death, not of grief. The idea spilled from one to the other and though Kubler-Ross tried to get it straightened out, the mis-application has persisted. For example, one of the stages in dying is denial. You don't generally see grieving people denying the loss. (No, uncle didn't really die.) For further clarification on this, see The Grief Recovery Handbook. I don't mean to take away from the points you were making, just making a definitional distinction :-)

    1. I'm aware, but most psychologists I work with agree that the paradigm (or something similar) holds in cases of grief over chronic illness, because one is confronting one's own mortality even if the illness is non-fatal. That's what I was referring to.

  6. This is a great post Kasey.
    "But human beings are more than just ethics engines, and sometimes right and wrong get muddled by personal hang-ups." I love that! So right on.
    I can relate to your love of southern cooking in that I'm the daughter of southerners. My parents are from Georgia and Alabama. And we're Black, so there's the added dimension of "soulfood", which probably isn't that much different. :-)

    1. Very true. Southern food and soul food do seem to have a lot of overlap, and both are very tied to culture. I read your post on the Paula Deen issue earlier, and I really appreciated the compassion you showed. I understand why people are villainizing her, but I just can't help but pity her.