I was talking about this last night with Kate, who’s always my voice of food-related reason. I told her I was tempted to blog about it. She made a face. “Really? Are you sure you want to go there?”
I wasn’t sure. At all.
But I’ve had some time to stew about it, and I realized that, yeah, I do want to go there. Because I think there are some very good reasons to be concerned and indignant about Paula Deen’s announcement. Just not the reasons a lot of people are giving.
The news that a woman who has made millions off of “Butter, y’all!” has a diet-related lifestyle disease is not exactly a surprise. The fact that she held off, for three years, only to announce her diagnosis in conjunction with an endorsement deal for an anti-diabetic medication, is deeply distasteful and has drawn some rightful ire. But I’ve also been astonished by how much the news has been met with a kind of malevolent glee. She had it coming, the articles seem to say. It was only a matter of time. Now she has to lie in the bed she’s made. Tee-hee-hee butter.
Frankly, I’m disgusted by that response. It’s taking the easy way out, by mocking the woman herself as an extension of her public persona: heavyset, gray-haired, folksy, a walking caricature of the American South. She’s a self-taught cook, not a chef, and her food is marketed as the traditional Southern grandmother’s offerings of love: rich and heavy, awash in butterfat, proudly and recognizably lower-class food. But the public persona is not the woman, and diabetes is not a sentence to be handed down in the court of public opinion.
As a young person living with insulin resistance, diabetes is my worst fear. It is not something I take lightly, nor is it something I want to see wished on anyone. Paula Deen is a human being, struggling with a human disease. We don’t know her personal dietary choices, or her genetic predisposition to metabolic illness, or whether the food that she markets had anything to do with her developing diabetes.
This is not just about Paula Deen. This is also about the marketing juggernaut that made her rich and famous. This is about Food Network. And I do have a big problem with how Food Network deals with health and food.
Like it or not, Food Network has become one of the most influential players in the national dialogue about cooking and eating. There is a lot of value in that; I make no secret of the fact that I learned most of the cooking technique I know from Food Network shows. But when you watch as much of the programming as I have, you see a theme emerge. In Food Network-world, food is either healthy or it’s good. It’s very rarely both.
When Food Network personalities–Paula Deen included–are talking about cooking food to please you and your family, there are no holds barred. Butter, pasta and red meat are common themes. Vegetables are gussied up in elaborate ways. The wagon is hitched to a troika of fat, salt and sugar. The language the presenters use is overwhelmingly that of comfort and indulgence; any kind of dietary restriction is blithely, even deliberately, laughed off. In this world, vegetarians are humorless spoilsports, and vegans don’t exist.
On the other hand, there are the “healthy food” episodes or shows. In a lot of cases, “healthy” means “using less fat.” This is about taking traditionally indulgent foods and slimming them down–swapping full-fat for low-fat, using chicken or fish instead of meat, substituting olive oil for butter, baking instead of frying. It’s a vision of eating that mirrors the low-fat, high-starch diet I grew up thinking was healthy. And it’s always talked about that way. Everything is healthy; it’s good for you; it’s got nutritional value. The presenters claim it tastes just as good as the unhealthy stuff–not better, not different, but just as good–and in any case it’s better for you. It’s especially unconvincing when, in the next episode, the same presenter has gone right back to the butter and sugar.
In Food Network-land, you eat healthy food because it’s good for you, not because it tastes good. You eat food that tastes good without worrying about its health ramifications. This is what Paula Deen, and almost all her compatriots, have staked their careers on. There is no such thing as delicious food that happens to be healthy.
And the only time there’s any indication of voluntarily choosing healthy food over delicious food, on a regular basis, is when a Food Network personality confronts a major health issue–like, say, diabetes.
It’s a tired trope, and it perpetuates an exhausting attitude, one that I’ve internalized and still struggle with: that eating healthy means being cut off from pleasure, having to settle for something less than. I hate that. Food should be a source of both joy and nourishment, not one or the other. It shouldn’t take a celebrity chef’s cynically-timed announcement that she has diabetes to bring those two elements into orbit with each other.
That’s what exercises me about this whole affair. Not Paula Deen, queen of butter, having to lie in the bed she made.