Saturday, June 22, 2013

Paula Deen and the N-word: A plate of bigotry with that fried chicken?

Paula Deen, the woman who has put Southern culture on a pedestal, may be responsible for raising deeper questions about whether the marketing of Southern cuisine comes with a side of bigotry.

By Patrik Jonsson,?Staff writer / June 22, 2013

This 2006 photo originally released by the Food Network shows celebrity chef Paula Dean. It was revealed that Deen admitted during questioning in a lawsuit that she had slurred blacks in the past.

Food Network/AP


Many of the very dishes Southern foodways ambassador Paula Deen fetishizes ? fried chicken, fried okra, biscuits ? have slave roots, remnants of an African culinary culture co-opted by an entire region, and defined and marketed to the world as ?Southern cooking.?

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But if Southern cuisine is a racially integrated export, some of its purveyors still struggle with the region?s legacy, as revelations about Ms. Deen?s use of the word ?nigger? showed this week. The now former Food Network star and Savannah, Ga., restaurateur said in a May deposition related to a harassment lawsuit involving her brother, Bubba Hiers, that ?of course? she had used the word, but not in a ?mean way.?

In part because Deen has been embraced by liberals like Oprah Winfrey and Kathy Griffin, and has been an avid Obama supporter, the N-word quotes shocked many of her fans and confirmed for many Northerners that behind that genteel facade and Sun Belt shine, the South hasn?t really changed.

As Chicago Now columnist John Chatz wrote, ?To many of us, the South still stands for slavery and the Civil War. This may be wrong and it may be simple, but people like Paula Deen help keep these opinions alive.?

In the end, the woman who has done a ton to put Southern culture on a pedestal to be admired and chowed down on, may now be responsible for raising deeper questions about whether the marketing of Southern culture and cuisine comes with a side of bigotry.

?One reason why Deen has been so successful in creating her empire is precisely because she has taken an intrinsically problematic image of America ? one constructed ? when the South defined itself in political and cultural opposition to the North ? and covered it over with a thin dusting of Old Bay,? writes Marcus Hunter on the Flavorwire blog. ?She was able to present southern charm as something that has transcended the racial tensions that characterize so much of the region?s history. Well, until now.?

To be sure, the South?s culinary heritage interweaves both black and white culture in a way that Southerners like Deen understand innately, in their own way. Whites may make private N-word jokes, as she admits in the deposition, but they also, as she told the New York Times a couple of years ago, share a special affinity for blacks.

"I feel like the South is almost less prejudiced because black folks played such an integral part in our lives," Deen said. "They were like our family."

It?s not a crazy point.


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