Paula Deen: The South gets over-simplified, says chef Edward Lee


I had vowed that I would not write another word about the whole sorry Paula Deen mess. There has been more than enough said already. But then I read a Facebook post by Edward Lee, and he made me realize something that had really been bothering me through the whole ugly episode.

You may remember Lee from “Top Chef” Season 9 — the Texas one. You missed that? Mazel tov! But in his Facebook post, Lee, who lives and cooks in Louisville, Ky., very eloquently sums up what I’ve hated about so much of what has been written about l’affaire Deen.

After making it clear that he’s not in any way excusing what Deen said (and, of course, neither am I), Lee writes: “… what I was most dismayed about this week were the provocations by a number of outspoken people who over-simplified this vast swath of symbolic land called ‘The South.’ Racist rants, dumb jokes about Southern culture and, at times, a particularly mean-spirited skewering (sorry for the pun) of Mrs. Deen herself. To say things like, ‘that’s just the way it’s always been’ is not only inaccurate, but far worse, it is lazy.


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“The South that I live and travel in is one that is buoyed by diversity, acceptance, generosity and love — the people and kitchens of the American South have enriched my life with culture and respect. Does the antediluvian stain of racism exist here too? Of course it does. Just like any place where Old World values collide with progressive change, where tradition is asked to bend to modern society. So basically any place in America. But the South that I choose to live in does not happen by chance, or by wishful thinking. It happens because people choose to participate. They choose to gather and question and communicate and include and shake hands. It takes work to build a community.”

Amen, brother Lee (who, if the photo wasn’t clear enough, is anything but the stereotypical Southerner — he is pretty definitely not a descendant of the General). As someone who was raised for a good part of my life in the South (Montgomery, Ala., 1963-68; Virginia 1970-73), some of the comments that have been made about Deen and her fans have been way beyond “dismaying.”

Certain words are forbidden in decent society not because they contain any power in and of themselves — saying them doesn’t summon some demon from the depths — but because they unfairly condemn an entire group of people simply by virtue of what they look like.

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Now, let’s consider some of the more than 100 comments that followed my colleague Rene Lynch’s Sunday morning blog post about Paula Deen’s future (unfortunately, although our commenting protocol requires signing in, it still allows anonymity; and, by the way, this is not exclusive to our blog -- my Facebook feed was, if anything, worse):


“Racism is absolutely ingrained in Southerners,” posted billpeet, presumably the same guy who had already posted, “since most conservatives are already old, fat, wheelchair-bound, with diabetes, they’ll especially appreciate her recipes.”

“Is it such a surprise that old white women from the South are racist?” posted Just Add Water.

“Southern Comfort= Racism,” posted the ironically named mikegoodness.

Pot, meet kettle.

Or, as Lee much more eloquently puts it: “Every so often, scandals like these erupt in entertainment, fashion, politics, wherever people and cultures meet. It reminds us of the work that still needs to be done. But the first step is simply to want it. I didn’t hear a lot of that this week. To me, it’s just as easy to build bridges as it is to tear them down. It starts with a choice.”

By the way, Lee’s got a new cookbook out, “Smoke & Pickles.” I’ve got a review copy on my desk, but I’m going to order another just to help a brother out.


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