Many of the very dishes Southern foodways ambassador Paula Deen fetishizes – fried chicken, fried okra, biscuits – have slave roots, remnants of an African culinary culture co-opted by an entire region, and defined and marketed to the world as “Southern cooking.”
But if Southern cuisine is a racially integrated export, some of its purveyors still struggle with the region’s legacy, as revelations about Ms. Deen’s use of the word “nigger” showed this week. The now former Food Network star and Savannah, Ga., restaurateur said in a May deposition related to a harassment lawsuit involving her brother, Bubba Hiers, that “of course” she had used the word, but not in a “mean way.”
In part because Deen has been embraced by liberals like Oprah Winfrey and Kathy Griffin, and has been an avid Obama supporter, the N-word quotes shocked many of her fans and confirmed for many Northerners that behind that genteel facade and Sun Belt shine, the South hasn’t really changed.
As Chicago Now columnist John Chatz wrote, “To many of us, the South still stands for slavery and the Civil War. This may be wrong and it may be simple, but people like Paula Deen help keep these opinions alive.”
In the end, the woman who has done a ton to put Southern culture on a pedestal to be admired and chowed down on, may now be responsible for raising deeper questions about whether the marketing of Southern culture and cuisine comes with a side of bigotry.
“One reason why Deen has been so successful in creating her empire is precisely because she has taken an intrinsically problematic image of America – one constructed … when the South defined itself in political and cultural opposition to the North – and covered it over with a thin dusting of Old Bay,” writes Marcus Hunter on the Flavorwire blog. “She was able to present southern charm as something that has transcended the racial tensions that characterize so much of the region’s history. Well, until now.”
To be sure, the South’s culinary heritage interweaves both black and white culture in a way that Southerners like Deen understand innately, in their own way. Whites may make private N-word jokes, as she admits in the deposition, but they also, as she told the New York Times a couple of years ago, share a special affinity for blacks.
"I feel like the South is almost less prejudiced because black folks played such an integral part in our lives," Deen said. "They were like our family."
It’s not a crazy point.
"For decades and decades, the South's legacy has been the basic trope that permitted white Americans [to excuse] themselves from all racial guilt and project it to the American South,” University of North Carolina professor Larry Griffin, author of “The South as an American Problem,” told the Monitor in 2010.
And in the deposition itself, she claims that her view of the N-word has changed over time. She also related one time she used it. When asked in what context, she replied, “It was probably when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head.”
“What did you say?”
“Well, I don’t remember, but the gun was dancing all around my temple. I didn’t feel favorable towards him.”
She said she used the word when retelling the story to her husband. She said she’s used the word since then, “but it’s been a very long time.”
But in the deposition in a harassment lawsuit involving her brother, allegations were raised that the word frequently flies in the restaurant’s kitchen. In her deposition, Deen defended an episode from 2007 when she imagined a plantation-style wedding reception with an all-black wait staff.
On Friday, Deen made several apologies, including one that explained that she “was born 60 years ago when America’s South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants, and Americans rode different parts of the bus. This is not today.”
In a later video clip, she went farther: “I want to apologize to everybody for the wrong that I’ve done. I want to learn and grow from this … inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable.”
The statements weren’t enough to appease the Food Network, which said Friday it will not renew its contract with Deen. The swift condemnation may hurt her long-time restaurant businesses, too, although many Americans have also rallied in her defense.
But what really irked a lot of Americans about Deen’s comments is a long-held suspicion about Southern culture and its food: that it’s all honey and biscuits on top, but ultimately debilitating and unhealthy below the crust. That may not be the whole truth, but to say it’s not part of the truth would be disingenuous, especially given the controversy cooked up by arguably the South’s greatest culinary ambassador.
“Deen made a pile of money off a certain idea of old-school southern culture,” writes James Poniewozik, in Time. “In return, she had an obligation to that culture … not to embody its worst, most shameful history and attitudes. Instead … she singlehandedly affirmed people’s worst suspicions of people who talk and eat like her. She made it that much harder to say that Confederate bean soup is just a recipe.”