Whether you love her, hate her or have never heard of her, celebrity cook Paula Deen's departure from her public kitchen after admitting to using the N-word has prompted a new round of examining the entire South, a region some say has been portrayed unfairly in the national media response.
Like Andy Griffith's “Mayberry” and the bumpkins on “Hee Haw,” Deen's slang and folksy “big stick of 'budder ' ” talk may have done more to fuel old stereotypes than to give an accurate depiction of the region, some say.
“There are people for whom most of what they know of places they've never been comes from television,” Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said Tuesday.
“She was a parody and the longer she was on, she was a self-parody, but one she was cultivating,” he added.
Deen was let go by the Food Network last week after admitting in court documents to previously using the N-word, and planning a plantation-style wedding that would have included African-American servers.
The fallout has led to a new defense of the South, including from “foodies” such as “Top Chef” reality TV participant and Kentucky chef Edward Lee, who published his thoughts about Deen earlier this week on Facebook. His message: Don't hastily condemn an entire region because of one person.
“But leaving Mrs. Deen's foibles aside, what I was most dismayed about this week were the provocations by a number of outspoken people who over-simplified this vast swath of symbolic land called 'The South,' ” Lee said.
“Racist rants, dumb jokes about Southern culture and, at times, a particularly mean-spirited skewering (sorry for the pun) of Mrs. Deen herself. To say things like, 'that's just the way it's always been' is not only inaccurate, but far worse, it is lazy.”
He added, “the South that I live and travel in is one that is buoyed by diversity, acceptance, generosity and love; the people and kitchens of the American South have enriched my life with culture and respect.”
Others have pointed to the fact that the Southern cooking scene and changing population is much more vibrant than the lard and sugar recipes Deen featured so often, as the spread of Asian, Hispanic, Caribbean and Indian foods join the diet.
Still, Deen does have her staunch supporters. In the days since the Food Network announced it would not renew her contract, various pro-Deen Facebook page efforts have popped up, calling for network boycotts.
Meanwhile, some of Charleston's minority kitchen chefs said they don't plan to dwell too much on Deen and what she said, though they liked what Deen did in her prime.
“We talked about it for a few minutes, then we forgot about it,” said Debra Worthy, a cook at Charleston's Martha Lou's Kitchen, a soul food restaurant on Morrison Drive. “For me, I let it go. God said 'love everybody.' ”
Others said Deen stopped being a face of the modern South a long time ago as the pressures of staying at the top piled up.
“When Paula Deen launched her show on the Food channel it quickly became a ratings force, eclipsing Emeril Lagasse,” said David Shields, McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina, and chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.
“There was something about a Southern matriarch who was aggressively social, whose love of food was right-out-there visible, whose take on food was not too rule-bound,” he said.
But as time went on and the pressures of staying at the top piled up, the sugary sweetness began to wear thin, Shields added.
“That she employs old stereotypes of denigration to those who work with her, I'm afraid, is something that happens hereabouts at times,” Shields added. “It is something that civility precluded matriarchs of previous generations from doing.”
Thompson added that for those who can differentiate, it might be the state of Georgia that could be the big loser in the discussion, not the entire South. He tied Deen in with TV child star Honey Boo-Boo, (who also is from the Peach State) as two examples that could rival MTV's “Jersey Shore” for promoting stereotypes not endorsed by a chamber of commerce.
Elsewhere around Charleston there were differing views. Rhawn Denniston, 43, from Iowa City, said outside of Husk restaurant that he didn't know who Paula Deen was until this happened.
Denniston said he was surprised that Deen, someone who is not new to the limelight, would make a blunder like this.
“It seemed remarkable to me, in this day and age, to not learn from those that have come before her to mind their P's and Q's when in the spotlight,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gene Goodale of Mount Pleasant stopped outside Martha Lou's Kitchen and said the story likely went deeper than what was reported.
“I still support her,” Goodale said. “There's probably more to it than we know now.”
Nicholas Watson contributed to this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.