Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The political aesthetics of Paula Deen, Anthony Bourdain, and local eating

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, 25% of all Americans suffer from one of these chronic conditions:
  • Diabetes.
  • Heart disease.
  • Asthma.
  • Hypertension.
  • Mood disorders.
Treating these conditions accounts for just under half of the money spent on health care in the U.S Since health-care costs are swallowing an increasingly larger percentage of our GDP, I'd say this is a public, national issue.

Every one of these conditions is related to food and exercise. For example, only 20-30% of high blood pressure cases are related to genetic predispositions. The rest come from sedentary lifestyles and diets high in processed sugars, sodium, and animal fats.

Paul Deen, a popular celebrity cook, has just announced that she suffers from Type II diabetes. One of my friends was excoriated on Facebook yesterday for criticizing Deen's cooking, and Bryan's written a blog post about Deen's announcement.

Deen is famous for promoting recipes which use copious amounts of butter, salt, sugar, and other ingredients that can lead to some of the BIG Five health conditions. I'm sure following her recipes is healthier than eating at McDonald's every night, but still, she catches a lot of grief for promoting comfort and taste over health.

There's another aspect to this story that transcends the "eat veggies / lean meats" vs. "enjoy your bacon and pie" debate. It's ideological. Paula Deen's brand exemplifies and perpetuates conservative values: she's southern, domestically feminine, explicitly spiritual, and visually traditional. If ideology is externalized in food, then folks who denigrate her cooking sound, to her supporters, as if they're condemning the political and familial culture she represents. Which many of them are. Her brand of plasticized "y'alls!" makes her unwatchable, in my opinion. Plus, I'm always alarmed by ardent calls for a return to more "traditional" cultural motifs, since the concomitant political analogues to those cultural mores are often racism and sexism.

I thought about that a lot when I heard about Deen's diabetes announcement. A few months ago, she and fellow food personality Anthony Bourdain exchanged some testy remarks about the health of her food. Bourdain markets himself as worldly, urbane, cosmopolitan, and multicultural--a polar opposite of Deen's down-home regionalism. It was hard not to hear overtones of sexism and urban condescension in his criticism of Deen's food. When they got into their spat, internet commentary on the story was vitriolic, displaying a level of hatred usually reserved for arguments about monetary or religion.

The pro-Deen camp tends to associate diet and health as personal choices, which they certainly are. Yet those private choices can lead to a public obesity crisis, one which afflicts all of us with higher insurance premiums and increased health-care costs.

Bourdain's aesthetic encourages a global view, one based on travel and immersion within exotic cultures. It reminds me of the sublimity that Romantic poet and writer Thomas De Quincey experiences as he struggles to "eat" the spatial and temporal immensities of China and India. Deen, on the other hand, is much more like Mary Robinson in outlook: insular, local, artisanal. She's down-home.

My dissertation project tries to show the ways in which the contemporary locavore diet is both global and local--and Romantic in its aesthetics. Locavores argue that eating food grown locally and in-season is a more environmentally responsible way to live. It's a radical "f-you!" to Big Ag and industrialized food processing, systems which depend on huge expenditures of fossil fuels and polluting chemicals. Big Ag, locovores claim, also leads to the displacement of family farmers and results in mono-cultural food desserts.  And local eating is also theoretically healthier, since local and artisanal food eliminates processed sugars and trans fats.

But isn't eating regionally what Paul Deen preaches? Isn't Bourdain's global aesthetic explicitly anti-locavore?

I'm trying to deconstruct these kinds of binaries, and I'm hoping to show that returning to small-scale, local, diversified food production and distribution is actually a radical populist endeavor, not a reactionary elitist one. (Rescuing Wordsworth from claims of conservatism is part of the fight, as well) Localism isn't conservative--it's anti-corporate. And Bourdain's cosmopolitanism, at its heart, advocates regional eating, as well--but it encourages actually traveling to the region rather than engaging in cultural imperialism by bringing the region back home with you.

Deen argued yesterday that her cooking shows are entertainment, not self-help. She claims she always preached moderation: make my butter cookies, y'all,  but eat just a few of them, not the whole cotton-pickin' box! She escapes culpability for contributing to our national obesity epidemic by resorting to the tried-and-true conservative defense of personal accountability: I'm not to blame--I didn't make y'all eat all that bacon! Yet she's also exploiting her diabetes by signing a lucrative endorsement deal for a drug she uses to treat her disease. Not many of her fat-swilling fans will be able to follow suit.

I'm reading Milton this week, always an anti-climactic affair; one knows that Eve is going to eat the apple and f*ck it up for the rest of us. Yet her reasons for doing so are newly relevant to me in the aftermath of the Deen announcement. In Paradise Lost, God knows that Adam and Eve are going to fall from grace by eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. God makes man "free to fall." Deen's right: no one put a gun to our collective heads and said "Eat this butter!" Conservatives lambast the First Lady for trying to encourage a healthier alternative, but she's also not putting a gun to anybody's head and forcing them to eat their veggies.

Our choices make us who we are, but for a cultural critic like me, ideology is externalized in food. Taken collectively, our private food choices have public consequences, and some of them are pretty damn scary. Paula Deen is free to promulgate whatever kind of food and culture she wants--but a few good folks should be able to critique that message without being called food fascists. Or bitches.


  1. This coming from a guy who dropped 3000 calories on a three hour ride . To try to tie this back to politics is not only bullshit, it's also hypocritical.

  2. Shim, I hope you understand that "political" in this sense doesn't mean Republican or Democratic. And "conservative" isn't about small government, lower taxes, or strong foreign policy. I'm talking about conservatism as an adherence to "traditional" values and a resistance to cultural changes. Instead of calling bullshit on something, maybe you might engage with the ideas?

    Second, one's own eating habits don't disqualify them from offering a critique. I can't tell if your comment is your good-natured snarkiness or an example of you being a jerk.

  3. Good natured snarky jerkiness! Now I'm going to go eat some fried lasagna covered in gorgonzola cheese as is my God given right.