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.