As an honorary Southerner and longtime resident of the pimento cheese and sweet tea nation, there’s a culture around food here that I’ve never found anywhere else. I love Southern food and the strong opinions on it. Carolina or Memphis BBQ – Biscuits 101 – How much gravy is too much gravy?
The tricky question here, though, is where this good Soul Food comes from, and many times the answer isn’t a pretty picture.
Southern food, as we know it, was started by slaves working in white people’s kitchens. It was written on the backs of a large, black community that took simple ingredients and created rich, rib-sticking food. Influences and ingenuity by talented African American cooks made what we know today as Soul Food. These techniques and recipes were passed down by these families as well as poor, white families. It’s very easy to romanticize Southern food today far removed from the context. But, make no mistake, the origins are not romantic – no matter how magical a good piece of fried chicken can be.
So, with these beginnings in mind, the PR nightmare of Paula Deen – the baroness of butter – takes an odd turn. It’s hard to justify using the word “nigger” in everyday conversation. It’s a word that boils over with memory. It’s a word you can’t get away with, not as a regular person, and especially not as a white, southern cook like Paula Deen.
Paula Deen has done a lot to bring Southern food to the public and, needless to say, she’s made a shit ton of money off of it. And good for her. I’ve bought a cookbook of hers before. I’ve watched her show(s). But in her recent deposition in a civil case where, when asked if she’s ever used the n-word before, her response was, “Yes, of course.” she put a really nasty spin on a tricky situation.
Have most white people born in the South pre-1960 said “nigger” before? My guess is probably. But to say “Yes, of course” is both incredibly obvious and a little insensitive. I don’t think I’ve ever devoted any of my personal time wondering just how racist Paula Deen is because I’ve never really cared. But when you openly and without reservation admit to the casual use of a word, and you’ve made millions cooking the cuisine made by people that were the subject of that word, it’s a pretty dumb move.
I love Southern cooking and the humble beginnings of it. But it’s sordid. It’s beautiful and growing. And I don’t personally think that Paula Deen is a distasteful person or a raging bigot. But seriously, Paula? You know better. We all do.