Monday, July 29, 2013

Paula Deen drama: An update of 'Imitation of Life'?

Posted By on Mon, Jul 29, 2013 at 11:49 AM

Kim Severson of the New York Times published a great story about Paula Deen last week. The topic is the most recent accusations of racism and the astonishingly low salary Deen paid a black woman, Dora Charles, whom she called her "soul sister." Charles ran Deen's kitchens for 20 years, most of the time for under $10 an hour. The Times also features Severson's video interview with Charles.

The entire drama brings to (my) mind the 1934 movie, Imitation of Life (above), in which a white woman turns her black housekeeper's pancake recipe into a gold mine. The racism in the movie focuses on the housekeeper's daughter. But you can't see the film now without noting the underlying racism of the entire story, right down to the Jemima-esque restaurant logo. Basically, the film depicts the simultaneous exploitation and affection that has been part of the US's racial history. Can you say, "Mammy"?

Severson notes all of this in Deen's relationship with Charles:

The relationship between Mrs. Charles and Ms. Deen is a complex one, laced with history and deep affection, whose roots can be traced back to the antebellum South. Depending on whether Mrs. Charles or Ms. Deen tells the story, it illustrates lives of racial inequity or benevolence.

Read the article. The last two paragraphs provide the year's best culinary metaphor so far:

Mrs. Charles realizes that her time with Paula Deen is over, and that she will soon leave her kitchen. But the relationship will always be there.

"I still have to be her friend if I'm God's child," she said. "I might feed her with a long-handled spoon, but, yeah, I'm still her friend."

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