Friday, February 3, 2012

Is Paula Deen a monster in a morality play?

Posted By on Fri, Feb 3, 2012 at 2:00 PM

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Frank Bruni, op-ed columnist for the New York Times and its dining critic for five years, filed his opinion about the Paula Deen business several weeks back. (Sorry, this post got lost in my to-do list.)

Like most, Bruni commends Paula for making her disease known but also cringes because she timed the announcement to promote her son's new cooking show. The delay also gave her time to seal a deal as the public face of a new, expensive diabetes drug. Still, Bruni notes:

That’s a profound, unsettling act of withholding. But it’s mirrored by many smaller, less calculated, more innocent ones in the world of food celebrities and food celebrators, including those of us who have written orgiastic accounts of sumptuous dinners. Deen’s revelation jolted me in part because people in the business of peddling gastronomic bliss rarely draw such a bold connection between indulgence and its possible wages.

Boy howdy. In a world obsessed with food, it's a total bummer to hear a chef or critic talking about the awful effects of cooking and eating for cash. Meridith Ford Goldman, former AJC dining critic, was famous for her restraint, as John Kessler noted in a blog post a couple of years ago. He wrote then that health issues in part led him to quit the critic's job (which he resumed after Goldman's departure).

When I first started writing "Grazing," I also wrote a monthly dining column for another magazine, filed weekly reports on WGST Radio, judged a lot of cooking contests, and wrote offbeat dining tours for convention folks. I was in grad school, too, so my time was limited. My obsession with exercise didn't disappear, but I lifted a lot more forks than barbells. When I quit smoking, the needle on my scale went wacky.

I think every person in America should be required to get significantly overweight for a year or so. You'd be amazed at the difference in the way people react to you. At best you're treated like a merry soul. More often, your expanded size makes you conversely invisible. It's a usually unspoken ostracism. And it's a painful lesson in the value of compassion.

When you get back to your normal weight, you may lose pariah status. But, no matter how brief your period of heaviness was, you constantly hear, "You look like you've lost weight." You can hear this for years. It is a true fixation with Americans, who are at once fat-phobic and fat.

I despise her cooking and phony persona, but I think our reaction to Deen's disclosure is also laden with schadenfreude. We've turned her situation into a morality tale that transforms the jolly, fat mama into a devouring, diabetic Mother Kali. Nobody will ever look at her the same way again, but, honestly, isn't she holding up a mirror to the entire country?

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