Paula Deen’s brand is at a crossroads.
Will customers keep buying all those spices, cookie mixes, cookware and kitchenware, Smithfield hams and diabetes medication from the celebuchef who was fired by Food Network after admitting she used the N-word and told racially charged jokes?
“I think we’ll know in the next week or so, when we see if her endorsement deals start to fall through,” said author Allen Salkin, who is just putting the finishing touches on a fall book, “From Scratch: Inside the Food Nework,” and who has interviewed Deen extensively.
“If Smithfield Hams makes an announcement that she’s no longer their sponsor, then we’ll realize this whole thing is crumbling down around her,” he said. “But if you look on Twitter, you look across the Web, there are many people rushing to her defense while others are blasting her to pieces.”
Robert J. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, agreed that the next few days will be crucial.
But he said the Deen brand ultimately may suffer less because of what she said and more for lack of an attention-grabbing platform such as Food Network.
“Regardless of whether she is able to get people to forgive her, she is no longer going to have Food Network,” Thompson said. “That made her a constant presence, a constant in the face of the culture. Let’s face it, that was all brand advertising. So when that goes away, you really pull an important element out from under the Paula Deen empire.”
He added: “If she goes out of the public eye, she loses all of that.”
If you know anything about the Queen of Southern Cooking, though, you know this: Don’t count her out.
Deen’s life has been a messy mix of hurdles, much of it laid out in her memoir, “It Ain’t All About the Cookin.’”
It’s a not-so-pretty self-portrait of growing up in the South and her struggles with financial hardships, a failed marriage to a verbally abusive alcoholic, and trying to raise her children when she sometimes could barely get out of bed herself because of depression and a crippling case of agoraphobia.
The memoir also delves into Deen’s life growing up in Georgia, where bathrooms were routinely marked “White Only” and “Colored.”
In the memoir, Deen remembers being 10 years old or so when she was with a young black girl whose hands were covered with blisters -- most likely from physical labor. Deen impulsively used a bolo bat to hit the girl’s hands and bust the blisters. Deen said the girl’s mother slapped or spanked her, and a sobbing Deen went running to find her own mother. When it was all over, the black woman was sent to jail.
“I know I sure had it comin’,” Deen said of the physical punishment meted out by the woman. “All this time it’s bothered me. It was me who deserved to be sittin’ in that jail for breaking a little black girl’s blisters in 1957.”
In another instance, Deen recalled five black students being integrated into her high school. They largely kept to themselves. Deen said she believes she was polite to them, but wishes she had been friendlier: “If I could do it all over, I’d have dragged them all into cheerleadin’, I’d have shared my lunches with them, I’d have held them to my heart. I didn’t do one of those things.”
It’s this backdrop, this upbringing that Deen has pointed to as influencing some of the things she has said and done that have come under scrutiny recently. Deen has insisted through it all that despite some of her language choices, she believes she treats all people fairly.
If her personal history is any indication, Deen has shown she’s willing -- and capable -- of doing the hard work needed to win over fans. Or, in this case, win them back.
Deen was in her early 20s when she found herself broke and suffering from panic attacks. With $200 cash from her husband -- all he allotted her out of her own income tax return check -- she started the Bag Lady, a lunch delivery service she ran out of her kitchen.
In just over a decade, she would make her way onto the Food Network and become one of the most beloved celebuchefs in network history.
“Hers is a true pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of story,” Salkin said. “She is a true American success story.”
The only question now is what the next chapter in that story will say.