SAVANNAH — The Food Network said Friday it’s dumping Paula Deen, barely an hour after the celebrity cook posted a videotaped apology online begging forgiveness from fans and critics troubled by her admission to having used racial slurs in the past.
The 66-year-old Savannah kitchen celebrity has been swamped in controversy since court documents filed this week revealed Deen told an attorney questioning her under oath last month that she has used the N-word. “Yes, of course,” Deen said, though she added, “It’s been a very long time.”
In Charleston, fans and detractors alike of Deen were not surprised by her firing but that she ever got herself in such a mess at all, given her savvy in becoming a Southern icon.
“As a Southerner, it’s really disappointing that people still have those attitudes and are stupid enough to say them,” said Andrew Knowlton, restaurant and drinks editor of Bon Appetit magazine, who is in Charleston this weekend for various events.
Knowlton, a native of Georgia, said he was “all for getting people into the kitchen,” like Deen did. But he worries that Deen, as a spokesperson for Southern food, will “become the thing people think of about the South” and reinforce stereotypes.
Carlye Dougherty, owner of the cookbook store Heirloom Books on Broad Street, also was taken aback by Deen’s sudden fall from grace.
“I have to say, I did love Paula Deen, but who can defend that? I was surprised that she said it, not that she was fired.”
Nate Thurston, executive chef of Stars restaurant on King Street, who was serving food at an Heirloom book signing for Knowlton on Friday night, does not count himself among the Deen faithful. “I think she is outdated,” he said, “because people are eating healthier and she took it too far.”
But, “as far as the racial issue goes, it’s not a very smart move to make,” he said.
Browsing the books at Heirloom, Rebecca Tuten and Kathleen Brannon of Charleston said they had heard the news but didn’t know the details.
“I think it’s a little blown out. It’s because she’s a celebrity,” said Tuten.
“I think the Food Network is trying to cover their behinds,” added Brannon.
The news came as Deen worked to repair the damage to her image. She abruptly canceled a scheduled interview on NBC’s “Today” show Friday morning. Instead Deen opted for a direct appeal via online video — one that allowed her and her staff complete control of what she said and how she said it.
“Inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable,” Deen said in the 45-second video posted on YouTube. “I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way but I beg you, my children, my team, my fans, my partners — I beg for your forgiveness.”
The online video allowed Deen and her staff a direct appeal to viewers and complete control of what she said and how she said it. Deen adopted a solemn tone as she looked straight into the camera. Still, her recorded apology featured three obvious edits — with the picture quickly fading out between splices — during a statement just five sentences long.
“I want to apologize to everybody, uh, for the wrong that I’ve done,” Deen says as the video begins. “Uh, I want to learn and grow from this.”
Deen initially planned to give her first interview on the controversy Friday to the “Today” show, which promoted her scheduled appearance as a live exclusive. Instead, host Matt Lauer ended up telling viewers that Deen’s representatives pulled the plug because she was exhausted after her flight to New York.
Court records show Deen sat down for a deposition May 17 in a discrimination lawsuit filed last year by a former employee who managed Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, a Savannah restaurant owned by Deen and her brother, Bubba Hiers. The ex-employee, Lisa Jackson, says she was sexually harassed and worked in a hostile environment rife with innuendo and racial slurs.
The transcript of Deen’s questioned by an attorney for Jackson shows she was peppered with questions about her racial attitudes. At one point she’s asked if she thinks jokes using the N-word are “mean.” Deen says jokes often target minority groups and “I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”
Deen also acknowledges she briefly considered hiring all black waiters for her brother’s 2007 wedding, an idea inspired by the staff at a restaurant she had visited with her husband. She insisted she quickly dismissed the idea.
But she also insisted in her legal deposition that she and her brother have no tolerance for bigotry.
“Bubba and I, neither one of us, care what the color of your skin is” or what gender a person is, Deen said. “It’s what’s in your heart and in your head that matters to us.”
Post and Courier Features Editor Teresa Taylor contributed to this report.