What Paula Deen could have brought to the table

Celebrity chef Paula Deen recently announced that she has Type 2 diabetes. While Deen has cut out glass after glass of sweet tea and taken up treadmill walking off camera, she plans few changes on the air.
Food Network
Celebrity chef Paula Deen recently announced that she has Type 2 diabetes. While Deen has cut out glass after glass of sweet tea and taken up treadmill walking off camera, she plans few changes on the air.
Posted Jan. 22, 2012, at 5:40 a.m.

It was easy to understand the harsh, almost gleeful coverage that followed Food Network star Paula Deen’s admission of what some viewers had long wondered: The self-crowned queen of Southern cooking, the doyenne of deep fried, has Type 2 diabetes. And, in an effort to “bring something to the table,” she had signed on as a paid spokeswoman for the diabetes drug Victoza, made by Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk.

The New York Post cheerfully reported that Deen was spotted polishing off a plate of tiramisu at a Manhattan restaurant the night before her announcement. Anthony Bourdain, himself a popular TV chef and a longtime critic of Deen, tweeted: “Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later.” The Vancouver Sun chimed in: “What do you give the chef who eats everything? Diabetes.”

The gloating was entertaining and, arguably, deserved. Deen — who believes everything is made better with a dollop of butter, and who concocts recipes such as a broccoli salad that includes sugar, mayonnaise, cheddar cheese and bacon — earned it. When asked at her coming-out whether fans should cut back on her “yummy, fattening” recipes, Deen told the “Today” show’s Al Roker: “Honey, I’m your cook, not your doctor. You have to be responsible for yourself.”

What was missed in the outrage, though, was the opportunity Deen’s admission offered for a serious, sensible debate about how we eat. More than 25 million Americans — more than 8 percent of the population — are believed to have diabetes. And most, like Deen, have Type 2, an eminently avoidable form that is usually brought on by a combination of unhealthy eating, excess weight, high blood pressure and a couch-potato lifestyle.

The fooderati may brand Deen a menace to a healthy society and a culinary joke. But there’s a reason that her shows are in constant rotation on the Food Network, her 14 cookbooks have sold 8 million copies and her magazine, “Cooking With Paula Deen,” has a circulation of more than 1 million: Americans relate to this sassy, nonjudgmental former single mom. And they like her food.

Until now, the national discussion about how to improve the way Americans eat has been less a conversation than a lecture. Coastal elites condemn cheap, processed foods and fast-food restaurants. “Real” Americans tune them out because they see the crusade as yet another “elite” obsession, out of reach and out of sync with their lives.

My husband and I saw this during six months of reporting on food and class in Huntington, W.Va. When we arrived in late 2010, we were, like many big-city folks, filled with ideas about what people need to do to eat better: Spend more money on food. Spend more time cooking. Support your local farmers market. But we quickly realized how unrealistic, and frankly absurd, such advice sounded in a place where budgets are tight, options are limited, and Wal-Mart and Applebee’s are not viewed as villains but as welcome additions to the community.

To the foodie establishment, Deen may seem an unlikely candidate to promote healthy eating. But she has the ear of people in Huntington and elsewhere, and an ability to reach Americans that the heroes of today’s food-reform movement — author Michael Pollan, chef Alice Waters, even first lady Michelle Obama — simply don’t.

The messenger matters as much as the message. When Warren Buffett advocates taxing the rich, the idea registers with a different audience than when it comes from a bunch of protesters camping out in tents. Similarly, Magic Johnson’s admission that he had contracted HIV helped society accept that AIDS wasn’t just a “gay disease.” In his stunning news conference on Nov. 7, 1991, Johnson, then 32, said he wanted young people to understand “that safe sex is the way to go,” adding: “Here I am, saying that it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson.”

It’s easy to see why Deen balked at her opportunity, of course. You don’t build a multimillion-dollar empire glorifying sugar and lard, as she has, and then turn around and tell people to skip the fried chicken and pie. Like many of her Food Network peers, she has lucrative endorsement contracts with big food companies — Smithfield pork and Philadelphia Cream Cheese — that might not appreciate a strident eat-less message.

But a dialogue about sensible eating doesn’t have to embrace an all-organic, all-from-scratch philosophy. And that wouldn’t have worked for her fans, anyway. Deen could have tossed in one healthy recipe per show as proof that she does, as she claims, “encourage moderation.” (Her son Bobby has cooked up his own show, “Not My Mama’s Meals,” with lighter versions of Deen’s favorites.) She could have stirred up a debate about portion sizes, which are arguably a greater contributor to obesity and diet-related disease than Twinkie pies, burgers sandwiched between doughnuts or any of Deen’s other jaw-dropping recipes. According to a 2004 study, portion sizes are responsible for American women consuming as many as 335 more calories per day than they did 30 years ago, and for men adding an extra 268.

Instead, Deen’s only concession was an offer to donate an unspecified percentage of her celebrity endorsement fee from Novo Nordisk to the American Diabetes Association. (And that came a day after the criticism boiled over.)

Deen has missed her chance to become the Magic Johnson of American food reform. But it’s not too late for someone like her to step up. Guy Fieri, can you hear me? How about a show called “Juice Bars, Health Food Joints and the Gym”?

Jane Black, formerly a food writer at The Washington Post, is currently at work on a book about food culture and class in Huntington, W.Va.

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