Paula Deen is where sass meets crass, where the homespun and folksy curdle into something with a sour aftertaste. Her manner may be as sugary as her cooking, her smile as big as the hams she hawked for Smithfield. But she doesnt pause when she should. Doesnt question herself when she must.
Theres a dearth of reflection, a deficit of introspection, and thats not just a generational thing and not just a regional thing, as some of her fans and other observers have begun to assert, unprepared to surrender their image of Paula the Southern Eccentric to the reality of Paula the Deep-Fried Boor.
Its a judgment thing. A sensitivity thing. Its what happens when your shtick proves as golden as hers and your world is larded with handlers who only say yes and fans who only say more. You dont think anybody could possibly see anything untoward in you. So you stop looking for, adjusting to, and correcting the untoward impulses that are in every last one of us.
A fresh illustration of this traveled through cyberspace Monday, a video that shows Deen at The New York Times in October, being interviewed onstage by my colleague Kim Severson. The subject of race comes up.
I feel like the South is almost less prejudiced, Deen says, because black folks played such an integral part in our lives. They were like our family.
That statement alone is awkward shes referring to servants, presumably but she doesnt stop there. Motioning to the inky backdrop behind her and Severson, she notes that her beloved driver, bodyguard and assistant, Hollis Johnson, is as black as that board.
Come out here, Hollis, she adds, looking offstage and directing the audiences attention there. We cant see you standing against that dark board.
Thats a lot of apparent focus on skin color, in a vein so breezy it really does make you wonder, especially given what that creepy deposition brought to light last week. She admitted having used the n-word, more than once. She admitted finding beauty in a plantation-style wedding with an all-black wait staff. From her butter to her banter, shes a Confederate caricature, and a reminder of a past thats still too present.
Just how far have we trekked on our long road toward a more colorblind, equitable society? Just how hurtfully do we still stumble? Such questions are prominent this week, with the Supreme Court sidestepping an affirmative-action decision and testimony in the Trayvon Martin case set to begin. Were once again taking stock.
And its this backdrop thats relevant to Deens firing by the Food Network and, Monday, by Smithfield Foods. In a world of pervasive insult and elusive consensus, she provided a discrete opportunity for a line to be drawn. She served up a teachable moment on a platter.
Theres almost always a larger context like that when someone falls as spectacularly as Deen has fallen, and theres almost always a prelude: a first strike.
Hers was in early 2012. Thats when she lost the benefit of the doubt, not racially but in terms of her character, by revealing that she had been diagnosed three years earlier with Type 2 diabetes, which is abetted by the calorie bombs on which her empire thrived.
This disclosure was timed not to benefit her fans, who were continuing to follow her fatty counsel, but to benefit her: One of her sons had a new healthy-cooking show that needed promoting, and she herself was stepping out as a spokeswoman a paid spokeswoman for a diabetes drug.
Whats more, the triumphant cynicism of this situation seemed lost on her. She beamed as always. Was saucy as ever. You knew then that she had levitated to some altitude where she felt above reproach. And its through the lens of that knowledge that many Americans responded to her deposition and questioned what was in her heart.
Others have urged clemency, noting that shes 66 years old and has lived her life far south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Please. All of her adult years postdate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and shes a citizen of the world, traveling wide and far to peddle her wares. If she can leave Georgia for the sake of commerce, she can leave Georgia in the realm of consciousness.
Beyond which, people can change, growing past wrongful ways in the name of whats right. We pass new laws. We adopt new language. Thats the recipe for progress: putting justice ahead of habit, principle over precedent.
Its not one thats been mastered by Deen, whose worst ingredient isnt corn syrup or Crisco but willful obtuseness.
The New York Times