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Paula Deen Diabetes: Reactions to The Butter Queen's Announcement Largely Critical

The Huffington Post    
First Posted: 01/18/2012 9:59 am Updated: 01/19/2012 5:04 pm

After serious rumors starting swirling about Paula Deen's diabetes diagnosis, reactions were swift and of the "well, duh" variety. No one could have been that surprised that a woman who pushes butter- and sugar-heavy recipes for a living developed diabetes. Once Deen confirmed the rumors Tuesday morning, reactions seemed more critical than supportive.

It turns out that Deen knew about her diabetes since 2008, and decided to come forward with it only after signing an endorsement deal with drugmaker Novo Nordisk. That move didn't get her much sympathy, nor did her tepid reaction to certain questions on the "Today Show." "I'm your cook, not your doctor," she quipped, claiming she's always encouraged moderation. Her penchant for unhealthy food, evident on any episode of her show on Food Network, coupled with her endorsement deals of products like Smithfield ham and Philadelphia cream cheese, tells a different story. For many, her statement came off like a missed opportunity. Instead of owning up to the fact that she needs to make some changes, and encourage others to do the same, Deen shrugged off the notion that she should have done things differently.

"I am who I am," Deen told the Associated Press. "I think the South gets a bad rap sometimes, saying our food is very unhealthy, but frankly I don't think that's the case. I think it's like any other food, whether it be Italian, French, Cajun. They all can be very high in calories and that's where we have to practice portion control and moderation."

Paolo Lucchesi, the food columnist for Inside Scoop SF was frustrated "that there was not one modicum of regret or culpability for her entire persona and recipe encyclopedia, which is pretty much a butter-lubed bobsled ride to Diabetesville."

Anthony Bourdain tweeted, "Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later."

Julia Moskin of the New York Times reports, "Ms. Deen would not say what she thought had caused her illness. But she said she takes the drug she is promoting, Victoza."

Is this semi-vilification fair, though? Does Deen owe something to the general public? In the same Times piece, Moskin quotes chef Tom Valenti, a diabetic who believes that chefs have even less of an excuse to eat unhealthy food, since they have access to "fresh, raw ingredients." Moskin also interviews Michael Mignano, a diabetic chef who is featured on the first episode of Food Network's "Fat Chef." Mignano claims that many restaurant kitchens are using a large amount of butter. "The only difference is that Paula Deen does it on TV," he admits.

Now, as anyone could have guessed, there's backlash to to the backlash. Bret Thorn, senior food editor of Nations Restaurant News, tweeted, "It's sad to have diabetes. Stop making fun of Paula Deen. And stop tsking her, too. It's obnoxious." John Birdsall of Chow.com gets right to the point in his post titled "Stop Bashing Paula Deen." He writes:

But if Deen's become rich showing Americans how to consume as much butterfat as possible, is that Deen's fault? Last time I checked, cooking shows were entertainment -- what social critics call "aspirational" -- not the mandatory curriculum for home ec class. Obesity was a crisis in America long before Deen uttered her first "y'all" before a video camera. How many of Deen's critics have also spoken out against the cream-enriched legacy of Julia Child, or James Beard -- a man of epic girth who cooked with butter and fistfuls of cheese, and who served as the moon-faced pitchman for Omaha Steaks?

Today, Deen will appear on "The Chew." We'll update this post after watching, but if these preview clips say anything, it does at least remind us that Paula Deen is human, and diabetes is scary -- we'd like to think that those tears are real. She does speak about compensation in the second clip, and says that she will be donating some of the money she earns from the Novo Nordisk deal back to the American Diabetes Association.

Yes, perhaps Deen could have chosen a better time to announce her diagnosis than when an endorsement deal was signed, but there is still plenty of time for positive change. Let's just hope she rises to the occasion.

UPDATE, 11:55am: On The Atlantic, Daniel Snyder discusses a fascinating part of the Deen interview in which Deen says "No, people are not gonna quit eating. We quit eating, we're all outta here." This statement, argues Snyder, allows Paula to ignore the very large middle ground between "abject gluttony and starving yourself."

Also, over at Eatocracy, chef Hugh Acheson shares Deen's reaction to when he once asked her the question, "Do you think that Southern food has had a start and a finish or do you think it's something that continues to evolve?" Deen's response, after needing clarification, was "What's wrong with just butter and salt in grits?"

UPDATE #2, 12:47pm: In Paula Deen's hometown of Savannah, Ga., 11.8% of residents have type-2 diabetes (the national average is 8.3%). Bud Apple, a Savannah resident who has had diabetes for two decades, was interviewed by The Savannah Morning News. He was concerned that Deen would "ruin" her restaurant, The Lady and Sons, by serving low-fat, healthier fare. Apple joked to the reporter, "I'm gonna go in and get me some more diabetes."

UPDATE #3, 4:55pm: Deen's appearance on "The Chew" was full of tears, pickles and cake...

UPDATE #4, 1/19/12: There have been so many articles about the Deen debacle, a lot of them rather redundant, but we did want to highlight Tom Philpott's piece over at Mother Jones. He writes about the dubious diabetes drug that Deen is hawking.

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