The Y'all of America
May 10, 2012 (Menafn - Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --Paula Deen.
Oh, Paula Deen. Why, Paula Deen? So many whys, Paula Deen! For instance, hey y'all, why, as everyone has been asking since January, why wait three years before announcing you have Type 2 diabetes? Why continue during that time to play spokeswoman for obscenely fatty cooking? Why tell folks, at exactly the time you tell them you have diabetes that, wow y'all, you landed this endorsement deal with diabetes drug manufacturer Novo Nordisk?
And why, when I take my seat at Paula Deen's new restaurant in Joliet and order off the menu instead of standing in the buffet line -- hey, y'all, this is America, and there is a choice -- why is it that I am kind of enjoying these shrimp and grits swimming with nuggets of Tasso ham?
Paula Deen's Kitchen opened last month in Harrah's casino in Joliet, and so No. 1, I went there to eat a meal, and No. 2, to meet Deen, who was in Joliet for the opening. Though there's a Paula Deen Buffet at the Horseshoe in southern Indiana, just this side of Louisville, Ky., -- two short hours from Evansville, "fattest city in America" according to a recent Gallup Poll -- Paula Deen's in Joliet came billed as the only Northern outpost of her modest Southern restaurant empire. (Modest, considering her celebrity, and that she only has six restaurants.)
Before talking with Deen, I ran into Melva Bradford and Pat Smith-Booze of Chicago. They stood outside the restaurant, a stone's throw from the casino floor. They were watching Deen through the window, admiring her and the restaurant, which is surprisingly warm and cute, with soft-colored painted shutters and chairs backed with tasteful, Laura Ashley-ish fabrics.
"It's so folksy, down to earth," Smith-Booze cooed, her forehead on the windowpane. "That she came here, didn't just slap her name on, is smart."
Does any of that diabetes thing bug you, though, I asked.
They stepped back from the window and fixed me with a look. "It takes people time to come to grips with things," Smith-Booze said. Bradford nodded: "Yeah, you need to learn to forgive people for their indiscretions."
With that ringing in my head, I met Paula Deen.
Q: Why Joliet?
A: I'm partners with Harrah's, and this is our fourth restaurant in that partnership, and this is where we felt like we need to be and, of course, I am all for it. This is our first restaurant outside of the South.
Q: Indiana, though.
A: That is the South to me. ... And it is near Louisville, which I find quite Southern. This was exciting for me. Our most frequent out-of-state visitors at the Lady & Sons (her Savannah, Ga., restaurant) are from Ohio and Indiana. Traveling into new territory is like being a virgin all over again!
Q: How involved are you?
A: I'm involved pretty well. But I don't have time to do it myself. I have a young man, Rance Jackson, who's been with me since 1996 and works with all the restaurants making sure the food is close to what we get in Savannah. Rance knows my palate, so I feel as long as his tongue is in the soup, I'm all right.
Meeting Paula Deen is like meeting someone wearing a Paula Deen costume. Many famous people look less airbrushed the closer you get. Deen, 65, looks like Paula Deen. Meaning, her tall pouffy head of silver hair stands out no matter how many assistants with clipboards surround her. When the entourage clears she smiles, and teeth whiter than fresh whalebone actively compete with her hair for attention. Also, she was flanked by a brother, Earl W. Hiers, who everyone calls, without irony, Bubba. She even says her catchphrase often -- "Hey, y'all!" She is friendly, jovial, so happy to give you Paula Deen As Seen on TV, you wonder if she's listening. During our conversation, after she suggested that the benefits of eating vegetables outweigh the method of preparing vegetables, I told her that my grandmother uses that logic to justify eating pizza.
Deen replied: "Ain't a damn thing wrong with pizza!"
Q: What are your cooking habits? Do you still cook?
A: I do as often as I can. I try to get the family together one Sunday of a month and cook what they expect their mother to cook, which could be anything, country-fried steak and gravy, a big pot of spaghetti, homemade pimento cheese sandwiches, grilled, served with cornbread. It varies a lot.
Q: Considering how often you've been in the news lately, ever think, "You know, I should cook healthier"?
A: I am! Because I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes I am working with Novo Nordisk and I am on their medicine. Victoza (the insulin drug manufacturer), I'm working with too. I am doing so well. But in order to get control of your diabetes, you have to manage your diet. I am still cooking like I always have, but I am using more moderation and doing more planning about what meals I am eating when. My plate looks different than it did a few months ago. I double up my green beans, and my potato serving is smaller now. I have rearranged the size of the foods. Instead of eating a whole piece of cake, now I only have two or three bites of cake.
Q: Of course, green beans can come served with a pool of butter.
A: I don't worry about that. The benefit of eating vegetables far outweighs a stick of butter. ... Look, I love pizza. I love fried chicken. I still eat 'em. I only have fried chicken once a month now instead of once a week. You make little changes. I gave up sweet tea because we drink a lot of it in the South, and I would start drinking at 11 a.m. and when I went to bed there would be a glass by my bed. I calculated I was consuming one cup of sugar a day drinking sweet tea. So, I do without sweet tea. Little changes can add up.
Q: Do those revelations translate at your restaurants, though? Or is it not your place to tell people how to eat?
A: We live in a free country. People can make their own choices. A Southern meal that represents my grandmother's cooking and the South, that's what I'm doing here -- if it were purely dietetic, people would not be knocking down my door. ... That's true here, or at any other restaurant. We offer decadent things, and it is up to you whether you want to eat it.
The gift shop at Paula Deen's Kitchen is a must-visit. But then, come on a weekend night and you will have no choice. You will wait for a table, you will wander the gift shop. It dominates a sizable chunk of the restaurant's 14,600 square feet. Cutting boards carved in the shape of hogs and chickens are nice; rooster-accented serving pitchers are genuinely crave-worthy. There are also T-shirts reading "Got Biscuits?" and "You Had Me at Deep Fried." But the showstoppers, the jaw-droppers (considering that diabetes), are the butter-themed trinkets, the souvenirs that, if Deen herself were not involved, might seem like sick jokes. There are T-shirts reading "Got Butter?" And key chains that resemble sticks of butter. And butter magnets. And also Christmas tree ornaments resembling sticks of butter.
Q: What's your favorite brand of butter?
A: How funny! I went to Paris, and the butter was so delicious. European-style butter is my favorite.
Q: Have you cut back on butter since being diagnosed?
A: A little bit. But if a recipe calls for butter, I use it.
You have a choice of two food adventures, one less satisfactory than the other. The mundane path -- the path my fellow diners were traveling -- was the 25 buffet. The fried chicken was crisp and warm, the meat glistening and flavorful; the hoecakes, a Southern cornmeal concoction indistinguishable here from a South American arepa, were a fine comfort addition. The crawfish (served as part of the salad bar, strangely) were edible. But the drab cheesy biscuits were far less inspired thanRed Lobster'sclassic Cheddar Bay favorites; and, well, amid several mountains of food, nothing else but the pudding stood out.
The smarter way to go is the menu, and here, though Deen's dishes are no more memorable than the food at any smart, Southern-inspired suburban restaurant, they were certainly no worse. But stick with what you assume Deen does well: Her shrimp and grits (24.99) was rich and just a touch spicy, its buttery pale center ringed with a reddish halo of pepper. The Savannah crabcakes (24.99) are plump and charred, livened up with dill. And definitely start with the "Shore is Good" Seafood Dip, served in a cast-iron skillet and cornered with toast points and, remarkably, full of a mellow, buttery crab that leaps out despite, you know, an overall butter-pocalypse.
Q: Were you surprised at the reaction to your diabetes announcement?
A: I was so surprised. Oprah had been to see me right before. She came in and stayed the night. And when I told her we (were) going to New York to make that announcement and that I doubted anybody would really care, she laughed. She said, "Oh, Paula Deen. Oh, yes, they will care." It did take me by surprise. What took me more by surprise was the hate.
Q: The genuine vitriol. ...
A: Well, I thought, "I didn't have to share (my diabetes diagnosis) with people."
Q: Why share it at all then?
A: Well, I understand one of the things people were angry about was that it took me three years to tell people. But I thought that was quick! Because it took me 20 years to tell people I was agoraphobic.
Q: I think the drug endorsement had a lot to do with that reaction too.
A: Yes, and they saw that as a problem. I saw it as the solution! I was immediately put on that medicine, and I am doing so much better. It was not a problem for me.
My waitress was a peach.
She had been on the job a couple of weeks and had already gotten her eyeballs rolling. Not in disdain so much as acceptance of how odd Paula Deen's Kitchen can seem. She had perspective. I asked if customers ever think Deen is cooking. She said no; they can see at the buffet who's cooking. But, she added, some assume Deen will come to the table. "They're surprised when they get me." As she said this, a shout came up from the buffet: "Get 'em while they're hot!" This is shouted every time a new batch of biscuits, hoecakes or fried chicken is ready. You hear this every 10 minutes. On my way out, the woman at the gift shop counter had already memorized the recorded announcements and was mouthing along with the dialogue in eerily perfect sync: "Hey y'all, I'm Paula Deen ..."
Q: Have you seen Kristen Wiig's impression of you on"Saturday Night Live"?
A: Oh, I love her! She makes me wet my britches! I thought it was so funny. I am the first one to laugh at myself. I am just thankful my god has blessed me with a sense of humor because it takes one to live in this world.
Q: Do people generally see you as a caricature?
A: Yes. But I don't too much care because I know what's in my heart.
Q: You embrace it.
A: I do. But what you see is what you get. See, I was not ready when my doctor told me (about the diabetes) a few years ago. I had nothing to offer anyone (then). There was no way I could come out and say, "Hey y'all, guess what? I'm Type 2 diabetic!" Since I was 42, I've been the problem solver in my family. There was no way I could announce it until I had answers, solutions. Plus, we all get paid for our work. Thank God, we live in America. Victoza, Novo Nordisk -- they hired me. I get paid for my work.
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