It’s probably safe to say that few of her viewers were surprised when down-home cooking doyenne Paula Deen announced that she had Type 2 diabetes. How could they be? Deen’s recipes were so gruesomely unhealthy, so prodigal in their use of butter and cream and sugar and all the things we are supposed to avoid that her show has, for several years now, had an almost libertine glee to it. Deen damned the torpedos, shrugged off cholesterol and generally embraced her role as the Hunter S. Thompson of the Velveeta set. Now that she has diabetes, her critics are crowing, as she surely knew they would. But Paula Deen may have the last laugh after all.
The Food Network star, who has earned a prodigious income over the past few years both from her show and a whole portfolio of related projects, admits that she has known of her ailment for nearly three years. And now, she says, she’s going to start addressing it — as the paid spokesperson for the manufacturer of a diabetes drug. Many observers don’t know whether to be horrified or high-five the old gal. But that is very much the spirit of her career to date.
After all, it’s Deen’s very doggedness and her absolute inability to bend to contemporary mores, that has made her what she is. Deen knew that, and her enormous success over the course of her 15-year career was based on her personal elan and a freewheeling indifference to health concerns that, in today’s climate, seemed in some weird way heroic. She was the Huey Newton of country cooking. The woman just didn’t care; she was going to deep fry some Twinkies, and that was the end of it. The result, just like our mothers told us, has been predictable. “Paula Deen was going to have some kind of health problem,” says chef Franklin Becker, the author of a well-known cookbook for diabetics. “It might not have been diabetes, but it would have been something. If you cook that way, if you eat that way, you’re going to get issues.” Becker, who has the same ailment as Deen, says he “completely identifies” with the way she likes to cook, as he felt the same before his diagnosis. But not everybody feels so sympathetic towards her right now.
The truth is that Deen has some real questions to answer to, and she hasn’t done a very good job so far. Al Roker, speaking for tortured dieters everywhere, asked her on the Today show how she could go on promoting the very habits that she knew had made her sick. She answered with some folksy claptrap about how she might offer her “friends” a meaningful lesson but didn’t have one yet. The eyes even of her admirers had to roll on that one. (She told USA Today that she would reveal it “in God’s time.”) It’s not as if Deen has anything especially helpful to say so far: in her official admission of her disease on her website, the only change she can come up with is that she has “cut back” on drinking cold sweet tea. (“For a southern girl, that’s a big deal!”) Meanwhile, the money is still flowing in, as her son has started his own empire doing Paula lite recipes on the Cooking Channel, while his mom now has two revenue streams: one from her many books and videos and the other from her new status as America’s First Lady of Diabetes.
No doubt, Deen has made some enemies. You can’t create a recipe for Krispy Kreme bread pudding without infuriating a few healthy-eating scolds. But they may turn out to be her best friends. Their manifest glee at her ailment and the smug sense of vindication many seem to take from it will no doubt make people like her even more. But then, we are a strange and conflicted country when it comes to food. We love our tacos, hate our scales and live in a state of perpetual shame. Deen, after cooking all the wrong things so well and for so long, now doesn’t seem to feel any shame at all. And there’s something in us, I suspect, that can’t help but like her for it, even though we know we shouldn’t.