I’ve felt compelled for some reason to address the issue that’s prompted so many tears and so much outrage in the past week. Of course I am speaking of the events that precipitated the gastronomical fall of Paula Deen.
Of course it wasn’t gastronomy, or anything remotely having to do with food, that has precipitated this crisis. That might be more understandable, from my perspective, since of all the Food Network chefs I’ve observed over the years Ms. Deen is probably the only one who has never prepared anything I would ever want to eat. If I’d turned up my nose at something my mother set on the table when I was a kid as often as I’ve turned the channel when Paula was preparing another deep-fat-fried wonder, I’d have died of hunger. (Actually, I don’t think I ever turned up my nose at anything my mom made for dinner.)
In other words, I’m not a fan of Paula Deen’s brand of southern cuisine, which critics have argued is more carnival midway cuisine than anything necessarily associated with the South. But the controversy does clearly emanate from the South, from deep-rooted Southern understandings and ethos, and Paula Deen is someone of prominence whose words were repeated in a public context and reported in the press.
We all probably know the word she is accused of using, but it’s not just the word that prompts this focus on her. The word, as with so many words we use, suggests a lack of regard for the dignity of others. The word conveys a judgment, and not a positive one, by its very use. It’s a word that is not part of any respectable person’s vocabulary. But Paula Deen used it. Regardless of how reprehensible the use of this racist word, as well as a clearly racist and ridiculous plan for a plantation-themed wedding reception — regardless of how ridiculous all of that might be, and regardless of how unappetizing I find nearly all of her food, I can’t bring myself to accept that any of this warrants this poor woman’s demise. Poor in the sense of dignity, not finances.
She is an actress, maybe a better actor than a chef. So when she goes on “Today” and weeps in front of Matt Lauer about how she wants the person who has never said or done anything offensive to cast the first stone – “I want to meet you.” — she seems a sympathetic figure. I realize it might all be an act, and yet I can’t help but sympathize since I can’t accept that all of us need to be destroyed because of our mistakes, maybe even our worst mistakes, and especially when she’s merely a TV personality who prepares dishes characterized by obscene amounts of whipped cream and sausage grease.
Paula Deen, in other words, is not the President of the United States. Bill Clinton anyone? She is not a minister or a school teacher or a judge, or anyone who would normally warrant a certain standard of propriety in abiding by the law and the norms of a civil society. She never presented herself as a model of moral virtue, only as someone who could gush over a butter-drenched, cream cheese-filled pastry dunked in a vat of Crisco and drizzled with chocolate, caramel and coconut. So how is it that her downfall is so easily accepted and resolved?
Paula Deen has apologized. I hope it was sincere, although I’ll not presume it was. Regardless, that seems sufficient for someone who is more like most of us than we’d really rather acknowledge. And most of us would not want to loose our job because of such a violation. Actually, as a Catholic priest, I am susceptible to immediate dismissal for allegation of certain improprieties and maybe that’s why I’m somewhat sympathetic to Paula Deen, and am willing to cut her some slack. Maybe that’s why I want another chance for the ultimate judgement and punishment — to turn the channel. TL