|Paula represents all that is homey, buttery and sweet|
in Southern cuisine. She is a true confection and even
preaches moderation. My one criticism is that she is often
too reliant upon cake mixes and canned soup in her recipes.
This is like killing the messenger. Food has become a spectator sport in the United States and Food Network (and everything Martha Stewart) has helped fuel why we all love to watch food shows or read about food or photograph and blog about food. No wonder we are a nation of extremes in eating and food obsessives: denial, binge-eating, obesity and anorexia (or fitness anorexics) abound, there is gluten and lactose intolerance and diabetes is rampant. It's not because of the food but because of what's in the food (or that has been taken from the food). Since the middle of the last century, we've stripped our food down and filled or modified it with preservatives and chemicals and now we're reaping the consequences. Choice is also involved, too, but at the basis of this issue is our gradual departure from, and slow return to, whole and real food in the American diet. As a culture we also love to hate fat people: we applaud when someone loses the weight and then, just as easily, we turn on them for embracing their new bodies and being "all that." Or, just forever fat.
I come from a hale and hearty clan of German and Victorian era English-Americans from industrial Ohio on one side and mainline WASPs, via Boston and New York, on the other. Genetically, and in other ways, I am very much my father's daughter: clinically obese, stubby little elfin hands and feet, rather short and short-waisted. Could I be healthier? Yes. I'm sure I could fight my genetics kicking and screaming for hours each day by running or lifting weights. But in my life so far I've mostly chosen not to (and it's no surprise that I was never more fit before I owned a car and lived in Boston in fifth-floor walkups and still ate whatever I wanted, in moderation). I've never been athletic and I've always found comfort in food and in cooking or preparing it for my family and yes, even eating it. Unapologetically. I'm working on the "move more" part but I also realize, especially when looking at family photos, that I yam what I yam.
My father died in his mid-60s of complications that were surely triggered from decades of untreated sleep apnea. Most of my other relatives on his side lived into their 80s, 90s and beyond. Some died of cancer, from smoking, or from other reasons, but none related to their heftier genetic predispositions. Their hearts were strong! My father never had diabetes, despite his size, or high cholesterol or blood sugar or major heart trouble. In fact, I never heard of diabetes in my family. I am exactly the same as I approach fifty.
Meanwhile, my mother's side of the family is small and wiry. My maternal grandfather died at 63: he and my grandmother moved from suburban New York in post-war 1946 to live on a New England farm, raise their children and their own vegetables and farm-raised food. He was lean and fit, as were his six offspring. But he had a lifelong heart and cholesterol problem (I used to enable him when I learned to make chocolate chip cookies: he'd drive me uptown for the supplies on the down low!). My mother has inherited this, too, and had a massive heart attack in her late-50s. Now through exercise, diet and medication she is monitoring this disease. And yet in my family I've always been pointed towards as what you don't want to be: the poster child of the fat girl. Even as a teenager I was told, "Cathy, if you only lost 15-20 pounds..." Then what? If only I only had fifteen pounds to lose now!
Here in Kentucky we've befriended many in our local Old Order Mennonite community who still render their own lard, drink whole milk and make butter regularly from their own farms, make their own baked goods, and eat more than we do most of the time (large breakfasts and even larger noon dinners). They bake a lot of "treats" and don't eat fast food (perhaps an occasional special treat while shopping). They also grow most of their own produce and meat. So it is no surprise to me that they don't have a lot of obesity, or cancer or diabetes in their community. American farm families have traditionally been healthier when they eat their own food and often work it off, too, during the course of a day. Our big problem today in terms of health is inactivity and poor food choices. Not fat. It's just important to remember that not everyone gets fat, or diabetes, because they sit around all day, feasting on junk food, Coke and greasy main dishes (I am testament to that: we eat real food in our house and raise our own meat, eggs and some produce–or buy it locally). And we all know people who are thin and eat nothing but awful food.
Virginia Willis, an Atlanta-based chef and food writer, said it so beautifully in today's article on the subject in The New York Times:
"No one vilifies Michelin chefs for putting sticks of butter in their food," Ms. Willis said. "But when a Southern woman does it, that's tacky." (however) "Paula's food often reflects modern cooking and convenience foods more than Southern tradition...she feels like she cooks for 'real people' and for better or worse, that is how many people in this country chose to eat."
So the point of all of this is that we should not be quick to judge people based on their size or their diets or where they hail from in food world. There are plenty of healthy looking people out there who probably have all sorts of diseases based on their genetics and lifestyle choices (or addictions from alcoholism or smoking). I doubt Paula Deen eats fried chicken and three-layer frosted cakes 24/7 and lately, it would seem, that Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman blogger who now has her own Food Network show, is putting Paula to shame with all of her fatty, over-buttered recipes. (Do you think she really cooks for all of those ranch hands every day without additional staff?) Where is the outcry there? And no one is saying that Ina Garten should cut back on the rich foods in her kitchen or that Giada should maybe eat more. (And neither should they: Ina is a Food Goddess in my estimation and, like Paula, another self-made cook who started in the trenches of restaurants and catering.)
Food Network has become a circus and has only fed our food snobbery and elitist mindsets about the food foibles of American cuisine. If you want to read about the lusciousness of real food, without the guilt, anything by M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, or Laurie Colwin, Alice Waters or Elizabeth David will fit the bill. They embraced, or still embrace, real food. Whole food. Good food–and usually without benefit of a sexy photo. [Further back there are the delightful Mrs. Appleyard books, the Blueberry Hill cookbooks by Elsie Masterston, and, of course, my particular favorites: those few books by Mary Mason Campbell, whom I hail in my book, The Pantry. And then there is the incomparable Della Lutes who wrote the best-selling classics The Country Kitchen, Home Grown and other books and domestic-related articles during, and before, the Great Depression.]
There's room for everyone in food world and I hope that this isn't just another excuse to beat on Southern cuisine from both coasts. Paula Deen has worked hard for her fame and fortune, starting from her own kitchen as an agoraphobic single mother peddling sandwiches. Let's cut her some slack and support her quest for better health as we all try to make our own lifestyle tweaks (or not). And if she has some fried chicken on occasion, so be it. Butter and lard and sugar are not the problem with the American diet: chemicals and preservatives and high fructose corn syrup have created the food crisis we are having now. And fast food super-sizing, no doubt. It's always about moderation in all things.
But well-intentioned home cooks who might happen to become food celebrities, who are just keeping it real in their kitchens and sharing the love, even if it involves a bit of fat and sugar on occasion? They will never be the problem with the American diet.
You come back when you're ready!