Mitchell: Don’t worry, Paula, you’ll be back someday

July 4, 2013

Instead of watching cartoons, our daughter, Emily, found and introduced me to the Food Network. On Saturday nights, she, Max, and I watched her favorite shows: “How to Boil Water” (a man learned to cook!), and “Ready, Set, Cook,” where two chefs were given random ingredients to prepare a dish in 30 minutes, and the best dish won.

Paula Deen appeared as a guest chef on that show, and I remember thinking she was cute and had a good television presence. When her show debuted in 2002, I loved watching it. She was fun, unassuming, and a natural in front of the camera — and she cooked the food I grew up eating!

Over the years, though, I watched her on-screen personality evolve. She became less genuine and more “over the top” — almost a Southern caricature. I cringed each time she threw out a “y’all.” But others loved her; each time we ate dinner at the Sapphire in Savannah, we saw long lines of people outside The Lady & Sons, waiting for the all-you-can-eat buffet lunch or dinner, or to order fried chicken, fried okra, and the like from a separate menu.

I stopped watching her show a while ago, a little before I believe she lost all credibility: She announced that she had developed diabetes three years before, but exposed her condition only when she signed a high-dollar spokesperson contract for a diabetes drug manufacturer. She misled the public for those three years, continuing to cook her signature butter-laden dishes, but privately changing her eating habits. To me, that is disingenuous at best, and a big, fat lie at worst.

Now, the Food Network will not renew her contract. The drug manufacturer and other businesses have dropped their sponsorships. According to most news sources, the reason is that in a deposition regarding allegations that she supports a hostile work environment at her and her brother’s restaurants, Paula Deen admitted to using the “n” word a long time ago.

She said that she had used that word when telling her husband about a man who held a gun to her head when she was a bank teller. She testified that “of course” she had used the word on other occasions. I thought the businesses’ reactions were harsh, so I read her deposition, all 149 pages of it (, because a deposition is her sworn testimony, and not simply allegations of wrongdoing.

Her deposition revealed, and a trial will expose to the public, not a charming, humble Southerner who made it big by cooking good food, but a woman who uses coarse language and tells dirty jokes, tolerates the distribution of pornography at work, and turns a blind eye to her brother making employees uncomfortable. She testified that most jokes target groups of people, such as “gays or straights, black people (and) redneck(s).” She said she wanted to host a Southern plantation wedding, such as one during the Civil War era, complete with only African American waiters, agreeing that waiters during that time were slaves. She seemed clueless that she was viewing “black people” as the serving class.

Last, she answered too many questions with, “I don’t know” or “I can’t remember” or “I’m not in the restaurant much anymore.”

These kinds of answers are suspicious at best, or (you have heard this before) big, fat lies at worst. My impression was cemented when, during an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s “The Today Show,” Ms. Deen said that she had used “the ‘n’ word” only once in her life, contradicting her testimony that she had “of course” used that word other times.

Because the deposition painted a picture of someone totally different from her on-screen personality, I think Paula Deen’s sponsors figured that the public would lose all interest in the “real” Paula Deen, regardless of her Southern accent, and decided to cut their losses. The public’s consciousness has been raised so that long-ago language can be forgiven, but making people uncomfortable at work and holding on to offensive views of race issues probably cannot. But don’t worry, Paula. The public quickly forgets these kinds of things.

I’ll bet her career will be resurrected in a couple of years.