Paula Deen feuds with Anthony Bourdain: gourmet elitism?

Aficionado Anthony Bourdain attacked fellow-foodie Paula Deen. Deen fought back, and what she said just might reveal a lot about high food culture.

Paul Drinkwater/NBC
Paula Deen smiles during her appearance on 'The Tonight Show' with Jay Leno in 2010.

Though the celebrity chefs have never met, Anthony Bourdain took aim at Paula Deen in an interview for this week's TV Guide, calling her the "most dangerous person to America" and proud of the fact that her food is "bad for you." Deen's retort revealed a lot.

The Food Network hostess remarked that unlike Bourdain, she and her colleagues give "time and money to help the food-deprived, sick children and abandoned animals."

"You know, not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine," she said.

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It seemed like Deen was labeling Bourdain a member of an elitist group that has lost touch with the average consumer. In addition, it seemed like she was echoing an opinion that has floated around the proletariat kitchens of the world for centuries: that gourmet chefs think the more expensive a thing is, the better it will taste.

"It has always been crucial to the gourmet's pleasure that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford," writes B. R. Myers in the Atlantic, "For hundreds of years this meant consuming enormous quantities of meat."

But for hundreds of years there has also been beauty in simplicity, and this is what Deen emphasizes in the biography on her website. Her success in cooking, she says, is rooted in a 1989 "lunch-and-love-in-a-bag" operation; her path to stardom took her through "poverty, doubt, and agorophobia."

By contrast, Bourdain’s website focuses on his degrees and his contributions to the field of literature.

But just as Deen's love of the quaint shouldn’t make her a public enemy, so might there be some sense in Bourdain’s scathing comments. Bourdain has been writing on the safety and integrity (or lack thereof) surrounding food for years. In a piece for the New Yorker titled 'Don’t Eat Before Reading This’, he wrote he wasn’t surprised to "hear rumors of a study of the nation’s prison population which reportedly found that the leading civilian occupation among inmates before they were put behind bars was 'cook.'''

Though this comes off as a tad extreme, just like Deen’s remarks it hints at something more: many so-called "food elitists" are only trying to make healthy choices. "It’s better food," writes Joel Salatin in Flavor Magazine, "It tastes better. It handles better. And it’s safer: Anyone buying chemicalized, drug-infused food is engaging in risky behavior."

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