For Butter or Worse: What’s So Comforting About Paula Deen?

Amy Rosen on the the First Lady of Comfort Food's disastrous fall from grace … and curious comeback
Paula Deen in butter by Laura Lynn Johnston

Paula Deen in butter by Laura Lynn Johnston.

You hear the slow, fluid drawl of the South everywhere you go in Savannah. It’s the kind of town where the undulating lineup for scoops at Leopold’s Ice Cream—with flavours like lemon custard and Tutti Frutti, unchanged since 1919—is actually pleasant to be in, worth the wait just for the friendly banter and easy warm sunshine. Savannah is also a place that lets you stroll around with red Solo cups full of alcohol, unfettered by such things as societal norms or actual laws, through parks lined with springtime trees hanging heavy with Spanish moss and graveyards boasting centuries-old crypts. This is a city based on good time, any time tourism. Especially the good times. And at its heart is celebrity chef Paula Deen and her restaurant, the Lady and Sons, the spiritual home of comfort food. I travelled to Savannah recently, less on a pilgrimage than in the hope that I might lift the covers off a dish or two in an attempt to understand both Deen’s appeal and the appeal of the food she serves.

For the uninitiated, Deen’s story in a (Georgia pecan) nutshell is that she became known over the course of many years, books and TV shows for recipes like old-fashioned meatloaf and key lime pie with a mile high meringue topper, serious comfort food. Deen came to represent an idealized version of the mother or grandmother we wish we had, laying down home-cooked meals every night including a show-stopping dessert, as if the 1950s had never ended. Her TV shows taught viewers that they too could make the delicious doable, like cola-basted ham and creamy potato salad. Deen also became notorious for simple, highly processed recipes such as her Twinkie Pie, which calls for one and a half boxes of Twinkies, packaged vanilla pudding and a tub of whipped topping. It was essentially the polar opposite of the Julia Child approach, using commercial products in a new fangled sort of scratch cookin’ allowing people to feed their families something resembling homemade food. These recipes made Paula Deen a household name.

But before fame, fortune and Twinkie Pie, Deen was a single mother raising two sons in Albany, Georgia. In her twenties she was hit by agoraphobia and supported the family through her catering business, The Bag Lady, where orders were hand-delivered by little Jamie and Bobby. By 1996 her catering business outgrew their home, and Paula outgrew her 20 year bout with agoraphobia. She opened up The Lady and Sons in downtown Savannah, a restaurant that sold Southern hospitality, and comfort food, to the culinary masses.

In 2002 Deen’s first cooking show premiered on the Food Network, then came an eponymous magazine, more TV shows and cookbooks, restaurants in Las Vegas and product deals. Her empire was growing in step with the waistlines of her patrons until June 20th, 2013, when fans were shocked to see an apparently darker side of their comfort-food heroine. Leaked court depositions (from a now-dismissed case) showed that Deen admitted to having used the N-word deep in her past. She was under oath and didn’t, couldn’t, deny it. The Food Network dropped her. Her empire began to crumble. Caesars Palace closed her four buffet restaurants. Walmart ended their relationship, as did Target, Home Depot, Smithfield ham products and, perhaps most tellingly, Novo Nordisk, makers of the diabetes drug Deen had been taking for type 2 diabetes.

One week after the leaked court deposition came to light, Deen had an emotional interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show. “I’m in shock,” said a weeping Deen. “The main reason I’m here today, Matt, is that it’s important for me to tell you and everyone out there what I believe and how I run my life. I believe that every one of God’s creatures on this earth was created equal. I am here today because I want people to know who I am…”

Lauer interrupted to press her on the business side of things and why he believed she was there, seeing as several of her partnerships had already severed ties.

“Would you have fired you?” he asked.

“Knowing me? No.”

He then asked point blank: “Are you a racist?”

“No. No, I’m not.”

“Okay, but you swore under oath that you used the most offensive word to describe an African American. How can you not be considered a racist?”

“The day I used that word, it was a world ago,” she calmly answered. “Thirty years ago. I had a gun at my head.”

Matt Lauer and Paula DeenThe cashier at the gift shop on the ground floor of the Lady and Sons was friendly though she was suffering from a bout of seasonal allergies, wiping her nose as she smiled and said, “Wisteria blossoms.” She then packed a paper bag with my new “Butter, Y’all” yellow ceramic butter dish and peach cobbler lip balm, before deftly upselling me on Paula Deen Special Seasonings House Seasoning. “It’s what she uses on everything,” she said.

Paula Deen cookbooks were stacked high on wooden tables beside healthier versions penned by her sonsBobby and Jamie, while bottles of signature chipotle raspberry sauce and pickled beets gleamed from country store style open shelving. Silicon spatulas, fake flowers, “Onions, Y’all” tea towels, endless aprons, and a crush of patrons displaying varying degrees of plumpness were picking over souvenirs like the first sweet corn of July. Just beyond the gift shop door, at the busy hostess stand, my friend Ilona and I were handed a plastic ticket at our pre-booked reservation time and told to take the elevator up to the third of three floors, each of which had its own banks of seating and southern buffets. The vibe was oddly calm and frantic, as if people knew they were in for something they were going to enjoy but worried it might all be gone before their turn came.

They didn’t need to worry.

After Ilona and I had tucked ourselves into a booth in the darker bar area in the back, Nick, our young, bespectacled waiter, approached to explain our good fortune. “You’re seated at the closest table to the buffet, right through that archway,” he said, pointing to the rear of the room. “Now let me set you ladies up with drinks, then I’ll come back to explain the menu.” Nick returned with two icy twenty-ounce glasses of unlimited tea topped with mint and lemon wedges. Behind him, a gaggle of women with bedazzled iPhones were taking selfies with the bartender. At the first sip of my tea, a wave of extreme sweetness hit my brain and I felt an immediate concern that my pupils might explode from the sugar rush. Nick ran down the menu. “Today we have baked chicken, fried chicken, fried white fish, ten sides, plus salad bar, hoecakes and cheese biscuits, and dessert. The buffet is the most popular item on the menu. It’s all you care to eat.” He briefly paused, possibly to gauge our interest, possibly to catch his breath. As polite Canadians we remained silent and stoic. He charged on. “But we also have à la carte options like our famous shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes.” Journalistic duty demanded that we order the buffet and we girded ourselves as we headed toward the archway. And through the looking glass.

“I believe that every one of God’s creatures on this earth was created equal. I am here today because I want people to know who I am…”

During the now-famous interview, Deen went on to tell Lauer that she had used the N-word decades ago when a robber held a gun to her head during a robbery at the bank where she was a teller. Of course, she remains a product of a time in the Deep South that many would rather forget, but does she remain unreconstructed? Deen was well into her twenties when calls for equality and an end to segregation had begun. Novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and movies such as The Help weren’t created out of thin air. She didn’t lie under oath, but she was naïve in failing to understand the hurt she would cause recalling a time she had used that word. Lauer (who was irritated that she’d cancelled the week before) pressed her on it, not unjustly.

“So there’s not another side of this personality we see on TV?” Lauer asked. “This warm, sweet, sugary, sassy girl of the South? There isn’t a side of you that’s intolerant?”

“No. No, no, no. What you see is what you get. I’m not an actress. I’m heartbroken. I’ve held friends in my arms while they’ve sobbed,” she said, sobbing herself. “And I tell them, if God got us to it he’ll get us through it.”

Once Paula realized the harm she had done, howignorant she had been about the weight of the N-word, she went on a cross-country apology tour, appearing on mass market TV shows, often with her grown sons by her side, holding their hands on her lap for support as she repented. She cried often. It was yet another in a seemingly endless line of modern American redemption stories.

Fans took to Twitter. Colleagues rallied around her. Lineups at The Lady and Sons grew stronger. In February 2014 the Wall Street Journal reported a recently formed new company, Paula Deen Ventures, had received an investment of between $75 million and $100 million from Najafi Cos., a private-equity company led by Jahm Najafi, owner of the Book-of-the-Month Club and BMG Music Service. The subscription-based Paula Deen Network launched for $9.99 a month in September. And by March of this year, her comeback was almost complete with deep hugs and two segments on the network hybrid talk/cooking show The Chew, where Deen flogged her new Candy Crush-style app, Paula Deen’s Recipe Quest. Deen excitedly talked about her soon-to-open new restaurant in Tennessee and prepared deep-fried chicken wings doused in a sauce of butter, peanut butter and jelly. The audience, her audience, ate it up.

But is the story complete? The First Lady of Comfort Food bottomed out and is on top again, but what does that say about her food? And about us?

“I love Paula, she’s a great person and from the heart,” Hugh Acheson, the James Beard award-winning chef and restaurateur and persnickety judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, told me after I had visited his restaurant in Savannah. “Here’s a single woman who fought against adversity and made a real impact on food in the area. But there’s a changing idea of Southern food and the misnomer of Southern food being this lard-enhanced stuff that’s going to kill you. To me that’s not Southern food, that’s just crappy food.”

It’s true that Paula Deen regularly brands less-than-high-quality recipes as Southern comfort, such as her chocolate cheese fudge recipe that calls for a cup of butter and two boxes of confectioner’s sugar…and a half-pound of Velveeta. But is the quality of the food even the point? She’s a big hugger, an even bigger laugher, and if you were to cast her as Mrs. Claus in a Hollywood movie, she wouldn’t need hair and makeup. Through her rags-to-riches story, her personality, and her ability to connect with people, she was able to rebound quickly.Her fandom was and is, literally, entirely comfortable with her. How much of that, I wondered, was due to the symbolism of the food she has created for those fans?

The pulse and flow around the buffet put me in mind of rush hour in Jakarta, but visually I had been expecting more from the buffet than what looked like an Indian lunch spread with a side serving of sad salad bar. Across from the steamy buffet, I spied a woman behind glass shaping biscuits and frying up cornmeal hoecakes. Back at the table and surveying my choices, the food looked even more prosaic. Some of the veggies were a greenish grey instead of emerald, and there were pieces of unappealingly pink ham hock tucked to and fro. There was no tantalizing aroma, no visual pops. Maybe it wasn’t hot enough? I shrugged, picked up my fork and took a few bites.

I was transported.

If tastes were colours, this was a double rainbow, almost inconceivably packed with flavour. It made my ears hot. A few bites in I could feel my pulse race in a good way. The chicken was crunchy and moist, oniony and garlicky. The cornbread casserole, a mix of cornmeal, creamed corn and cream cheese, was buttery, sweet and salty. The yams were rustic baked chunks lolling in a cinnamon sauce that was sweeter than a Georgia peach. Salty black-eyed peas were cooked near perfect, and the even saltier collared greens were even more satisfying. Grits were smooth and buttery; fish was crispy and flaky. I was halfway through, lips glistening and fingers slick, when I realized that I didn’t even really need a knife and fork. In fact, apart from the chicken, everything could be eaten with a spoon. Every piece of food I was lustily downing was soft, extremely tasty, but somehow almost didn’t even require chewing.

I stopped to take a breath and noticed Ilona smiling madly as she attempted to Instagram mac and cheese, the cheese strands stretching the full length of her arm from plate to fork. I laughed out loud, which made me notice that the restaurant was eerily quiet. There were perhaps 200 people on this floor alone, all of it covered in hardwood and high ceilings, yet nary a peep could be heard. It was the silence of intense concentration, as if we were all sitting in a gymnasium taking a final exam. Ilona noticed it, too, and found it genuinely disorienting. “Are there people behind me?” she said. “It feels like there’s a huge void behind me.”

“Just turn your head,” I said. She did and saw what I saw, which was a room full of people engaged in two relationships, though neither relationship appeared to be with the people at their tables. Nobody was coming up for air because they were engaged with the food and, therefore, with Paula. They were in the middle of a world where food meant the comfort they were experiencing in the moment and Paula was the person responsible for making them feel this way.

But just how comforting is this food? When I’m sick or heartbroken I don’t want to tuck into a pint of Häagen-Dazs or a plate of fried chicken. I can barely eat at all, often relying on applesauce and frozen peas to get me through the tough times (making me wonder what Paula was eating during her scandal). But I could understand how if I were a different person from a different town, I’d want Paula’s buttery cornbread casserole in my corner. Not that it’s all about trauma; comfort food is also about the familiar, especially in our swirlingly complex modern world. What is knowable? What can you truly rely on? Well, if you’re a person with a low tolerance for the splintered reality of modern times, perhaps the last thing you want is to see modern times on your plate. Perhaps all you want at the end of a day is something in front of you at dinner that you can put your faith in and that tells you the world makes sense. As I was looking back out to the giant quiet room full of people with their heads bent it occurred to me that The Lady and Sons was not an exam hall but a house of worship.

Nick burst into view, stopping by with our hot hoecakes and garlic buttered cheese biscuits. I tucked into them with something like greed. They were—I’m sorry—heavenly. But then something changed. A spurt of panic shot into my throat. My ears began to ring. Beads of cold sweat formed on my upper lip. The food was doing something bad to me. I looked at Ilona. She didn’t look too hot, either, even though she’d eaten her entire giant biscuit and was now picking at mine. She stopped when she noticed me examining her.

“Are you feeling OK?”

I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t speak. I was suddenly consumed by the thought that I might actually vomit on a table in a busy restaurant. Not just any restaurant, the busiest restaurant, the Church of Deen.

Good Lord, I thought, is this how it ends?

Our taxi dropped us off at a former ice factory in the emerging midtown area of Savannah, about 10 minutes removed from the touristy River Street district where people walk around drinking alcohol-laden frozen daiquiris from Wet Willie’s in SLUTS logo-ed cups (SouthernLadies Up to Something). There are varying forms of comfort, I realized, whether it be at the bottom of a deep-dish pie or the bottom of a fuchsia Call a Cab adult Slushee.

Inside the old ice factory we found a stunningly reimagined space, a scrubbed industrial setting full of exposed brick and whitewashed ductwork, grey and teal banquettes and white marble bistro tables. The Florence, Hugh Acheson’s high-end eatery, is cool without being cold. Soon after we took our seats, a white-haired Southern lady reached up to grab one of the chef’s cookbooks stacked high on the window casement behind my banquette. “Pardon my derriére,” she said, smiling through her delicately powdered face. The room was burbling lightly with two and four tops. The room felt chatty and happy and light. I felt at home with a house-bottled wine cooler and the breezy décor. There was a tinkling of background music so quiet we couldn’t tell if it was American jazz or ’80s pop. I realized I was breathing deeply and regularly.

A white-haired Southern lady grabbed one of the chef’s cookbooks behind my banquette. “Pardon my derriére,” she said, smiling through her powdered face.

“Southern food is still defining itself, and it’s a really exciting time to see that change,” Acheson told me when I spoke to him later. For a country like Canada that has long been snickered about because it had no identifiable food culture (save for a few better-known dishes out of Quebec), the main thing Acheson said he learned while cheffing the late Henri Burger in Hull (which had defined itself as a high-end classical pioneer of the field-to-table movement) and Buonanotte in Montreal, was that “these restaurants were getting the lamb delivered to the back door from a farmer friend.” The cheese was from a guy in Gatineau. Someone would bring in foraged mushrooms and garlic scapes. All of it coming through the back. These were restaurants with an authenticity and zeal. “So I took that authenticity and brought it down here to a place that had a lot of history, but the recipes came on the backs of slaves. It wasn’t pretty. And they were getting all their ingredients from giant distributors.”

Acheson changed that. He opened up his back doors to local providers, to the guy who makes stone- ground grits, the woman who grows 14 types of carrots. “We started buying from them when nobody else was. There’s a culinary heritage and history here based on low country food,” he explained. “We’re still figuring out what the real influence is. Figuring out the actual identity of the place.”

Or at least he is.

The identity of the Florence is seasonal Italian, from the spring bruschetta with its roly-poly fresh peas on ricotta, to the root vegetable salad composed on a piece of slate; all freshness, texture, raw, cooked, whipped, pickled, powdered. And colour, with natural sweetness and a feather touch with seasoning. My cavatelli pasta walked the high wire between challenging and familiar, the heat of Calabrese chili with the earthy chew of chicken hearts, a creamy cloak on the fresh pasta and a pleasing zing from lemon. Everybody finds comfort in different places, and this food was deeply comforting, in the way that something beautiful—food, in this case—can engage the mind and lift the spirit. Unlike some food that can literally weigh you down.

After I’d recovered from my calorific panic attack at the Lady and Sons, I drank a glass of water and ordered dessert. (I am a professional, if nothing else.) A friend from home had told me that I “had” to order Paula’s Gooey Cake, which waiter Nick described as a bottom layer of yellow cake mix topped with baked cream cheese, butter and sugar. It might just be the quintessentialPaula Deen dish. “I’ve got to warn you,” Nick said when I asked about it, “It’s reeeeaaaalllly sweet.” I ordered it. It came in a small plastic bowl, the type you’d normally see holding cafeteria Jell-O. The scent of hot butter meeting graham crumbs hovered over the table. The taste reminded me of the yummy bits stuck to the bottom of a warm cheesecake pan. It was also easily the most calorie-dense bite of food I have ever experienced, and I’ve done my fair share of eating. There was no false advertising; it was gooey. I muscled through a mouthful before waving the white flag.

Later that night, after we’d left The Florence, I got to thinking about the meaning of authenticity and its relationship to comfort when it comes to food. Paula Deen’s food is not fake. It is true to Southern culture in one sense, in that it’s home-style, hearty and decadent. Even Hugh Acheson told me about his first Georgian Thanksgiving at his future in-laws being crammed with absurdly rich casseroles: “After that, I didn’t go to the bathroom for a week,” he said, possibly over-sharing. But there is an honesty to Deen’s food. For worshippers who flock to The Lady and Sons, expectations will be met (and in the case of the Gooey Cake, exceeded). Deen is giving the people what they want: Something to believe in, which happens to come in the guise of food.

“People make mistakes,” Acheson told me,in reference to Deen’s scandal, “and I don’t think you can fake the sincerity that Paula has about her apologies. People truly believe in her. The cult of personality is real. She’s got it.” He’s not giving her a free pass on her transgressions, “but I will give her a free pass on the fact that I like Paula!” Bigotry can’t be condoned, he added, and, in a linkage that can’t be treated as equating one to the other and that perhaps he didn’t even exactly intend, but all of which seemed to me apropos in any case, he also added that perhaps it’s time to own up to what’s been wrongly celebrated about Southern food. Like, butter, y’all!

“Anyway,” said Acheson. “As long as Paula continues to make amends, I will be one of her biggest supporters.”

I was afraid to ask if he was referring to her past attitudes, or her food.

Amy Rosen is a writer and cookbook author who lives in Toronto. She claims it took her 72 hours to digest the meal she ate at Paula Deen’s restaurant.

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2 Responses to “For Butter or Worse: What’s So Comforting About Paula Deen?”

  1. Martha Chapman
    Wednesday, June 17th, 2015 at 3:02 PM #

    Funny, wry, insightful, rivetting. Thanks, Amy. Rush hour in Jakarta, indeed!!!

  2. Anne Bokma
    Friday, July 3rd, 2015 at 7:24 AM #

    What a great piece of writing!!

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