Thursday, May 31, 2012

Paula Deen is Trying to Kill Me

Juust let thaat cook ova' sum' buttah. 

Izzzn't thaaat juust wuunderful?!?

One of my friends has a theory about Paula Deen that occurred while watching her show. A few years ago my friend -a Southern woman- was sitting there in front of the TV with her sister watching Paula Deen on a lazy weekend. As she watched this silver-haired Southern grandma prepare a hamburger she saw something go terribly wrong. What she saw required confirmation from her nearby sister.

Did Paula Deen just take the grease from fried pork and put it in a skillet to fry some burgers?

Yes, she did.

That's funny cause I thought ground chuck and most beef has more than enough fat in it.

It does. That is true.

Did Paula Deen just take the refried grease from the pig and now beef and use it to fry something else in there?

She did.

Is Paula Deen trying to kill me?

Yes, I believe so. 

As she watched several more episodes, that became their mantra. It was a phrase that made them sit up and pay attention whenever Paula winked while adding another layer of grease to her pork chops, giggled while scooping another teensy vat of sugar to her sauces, or uttered a sassy Southern aphorism over a floating glob of butter sinking into the desserts.

Paula Deen is trying to kill me.

I love Paula Deen's cooking shows. The classics episodes, the home cooking, the special guests or road trip specials. I love it all and her family too. I watch them mostly at the gym. When I'm on the bike or elliptical machine, I can't tolerate the local news, judge shows, or talk shows where people are screaming at each other. Food I can handle. There is no (overt) violence, no politics, blood feuds or scandal to cooking shows. Food is something we can all agree and unite around. We like food. Humans love thinking about new and fascinating ways to prepare it. I'd be willing to bet that food has stopped wars, brought families back together, nourished souls to enlightenment. No matter what country you're in, what religion you practice, when you see someone preparing food on a TV screen you stop and think:

Do I want that in my mouth?

It is a very simple question that only requires a gut-level reaction. Either you want what's being cooked in your mouth or you don't. And just because you don't want it in your face hole doesn't mean, it can't still be appreciated. My grandmother was a Food Network junkie. Mema knew all the chefs, watched the shows, gave a running dialogue with the preparation. The only issue was that toward the end of her life Mema didn't really like to eat. She had to be reminded, prodded and cajoled into eating just one balanced meal and a snack once a day. Her response was usually the same 'I'm just not that hungry.' One afternoon as I noticed that the Food Network had been on during my entire visit. Mema was eyeballing the sizzling pans and smoke with quiet reverence.

How often do you watch the Food Network?

All the time.

Doesn't it make you hungry?

No. Not at all. 

You're telling me that you don't want to eat that stuff. 

No, baby. I just like to look. 

And truly she did. Mema could sit there for hours watching smoked ribs, towering cakes, bubbling sauces and forget to eat even a sandwich. When reminded of her body's need of nourishment, she would reluctantly shove something in her mouth, usually whatever food was around and easiest to prepare. Mema had no concern for taste any more. It just didn't register in her concerns. What did register were the colors and sounds of cooking. That had become her nourishment. Mema's owl eyes did all the eating for the stomach. I thought that was the most ridiculous thing until I found myself eyeballing Paula Deen's show.

As a vegetarian I watch the Food Network shows with keen interests. My emotions are usually a mixture of horror, amazement, and spiritual awe. It's like watching daredevils climb dangerous mountains, handle deadly animals, or run through dancing flames. When Bobby Flay goes around the country to nations diners and BBQ joints and shoves piles of bubbling pork into his mouth, I don't feel the slightest bit of envy. I think 'wow, look at all that hot pork that just went into that guys' mouth!?! What's going to go in there next?' When the Barefoot Contessa informs the audience in her patented low-key voice 'I hope Robert likes this' as she scoops out pan seared chicken I think 'Robert is a lucky man!' Not because of the sizzling chicken, but just because someone is cooking and thinking about him. It is comforting and nice. And the Food Network's queen of comfort and niceness is Paula Deen.

Paula Deen is like comfort food that has come to life. She's warm, sweet, carb-heavy, vitamin-deficient, sugary nonsense, with a hint of spice. She's a walking Southern danish, an animated pork chop. You know she's not good for you but she just smiles, winks, laughs. She's the sly, funny food devil that sits on your shoulder.

My eyes and ears devour her comforting meals as completely impossible to actually eat by but still emotionally assuring. Perhaps it is the bubbly voice and her cartoonish Southern accent when she giggles 'thaaat raaigght, ssssuggaaah' or the shoulder wiggle move as she taste a deadly dessert and sings 'oooohhhweee, hunney!' Paula Deen could probably run for governor (southern state of course) and win just on her laughter and home cooked meals. She's a food minstrel who squeals with girlish delight, hums a tune, clowns on camera, sasses America to take off its shoes and unbuckle their belts, while promising to serve them after the commercial break.

A few days ago I was on the elliptical machine when Paula Deen came on my TV. Great, some comforting sights and sounds to get me through this workout. Deen had a guest: Carol Fay Ellison from the Loveless Cafe in Nashville. Two Southern women cooking soul food. This was going to be great. I hunkered down into my workout, prepared to go well past my scheduled time on the elliptical just to catch the entire episode.

Carol Fay and Paula Deen laughed and cooked up a storm. Ham that glistened with peach glaze, corn relish, and something called a "Southern Buttermilk Biscuit and Blue Cheese Bread Pudding." The latter recipe filled me with a mix of spiritual awe and dietary horror. I had nothing but the deepest respect for anyone undertaking such a harrowing concoction as combining blue cheese and biscuits into a dessert.

Carol Fay and Paula were like twin spirits as they sang, strutted, and cooked for America. At the end of the episode they piled their plates with the notorious biscuits and blue cheese dessert. My eyes grew to the size of saucers as I thought 'this is the moment.' This is finally the period when Paula Deen is going to break character and reveal her secret plot to kill us. As she lifted that fork of bubbling mess to her mouth I expected the famed chef to look at the camera and then burst out laughing in a snarky New York accent 'just kidding America. What, you think I'm fucking nuts enough to eat this?' Fuggetaboutit!'

But they ate the dessert. And then they ate another piece just to prove that my eyes didn't deceive me. I stared on as my legs pumped up and down on the elliptical machine. Wow, they just ate that. A rush of adrenaline flooded my body. I felt more alive just by being so close to death. I giggled maniacally and then self-consciously looking around to make sure no one heard my Dr. Evil chortle.

Yes, I want to see you eat more. Eat the whole thing, right now!!! Do it!! Sadly that was all the time they had. At the end of the show they flashed a picture of Carol Fay Ellison and it said 'In Loving Memory.'

I sobered up very quickly. My smile faded as I processed that. I went home and looked up her name. Carol Fay was only 48. On TV, she was sweating and looked morbidly obese while cooking. Paula just affectionately patted her friend's brow with a napkin and asked what the next step was in their plan.

The Food Network wisely followed that classic Paula Deen show with a new episode where she was cooking vegetable lasagna and lots of light, healthy food. The TV executives weren't stupid. They knew what we had just witnessed and quickly countered with an episode of Paula Deen surrounded by fruits and green vegetables while talking about healthy eating.  Nice try!!!

But still she was as delightful and charming as ever. Around vegetables, Paula is a bit more sober and responsible. There isn't any dancing or singing. But then she mentioned dessert. And the little smirk and glint returned to her eyes.  I imagined myself in Paula's kitchen as she prodded me with blue cheese and biscuit pudding.

'Oh Paula, I can't stay mad at you! Even though you are trying to kill me.'

'That's right sugah! Now how 'bout we add some more butta to thaat steak?'

'Paula, that is a terrible idea. But you are so cute.'

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