If you had to draw a line between instructional food media made for "entertainment" and those meant as actual advice, I would have to take the side of producing the latter. I'm making that clear now so there's no confusion down the line. I don't think I'm alone, either. But now Paula Deen, in admitting her diagnosis of Type-2 diabetes three years ago, has defended her cooking shows and recipes in part by calling them "entertainment" on NBC's Today show. Perhaps it's less amusing to us now.
Deen told Al Roker yesterday that although people might be watching her television shows two to three times a day, "That's only 30 days out of 365, and that's for entertainment," she said. This came one day after her official announcement of the diagnosis, in which Deen joined forces with the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk to hoist a campaign called, "Diabetes in a New Light." With a plastered smile and characteristic drawl, Deen pledges to cut back on sweet tea and enjoy more walks with her husband as part of her treatment for the disease (presumably along with the medication) in the campaign video. She also recommends, "Some simple things you can do every day, like staying active and managing stress, and just pure taking care of yourself." It wasn't a stark contrast to her everyday message of just pure butter, butter, and more butter, and that is exactly what you're supposed to extract in order to gloss the whole thing over.
Let alone that, for three whole years while her disease was known to her, Deen continued to beat this drum, while other food stars such as Jamie Oliver were creating shows based on healthy food education, and Rachael Ray was storming the White House demanding healthier school lunch. Let alone that Deen even used her celebrity muscle and particular brand of heavy Southern fare to launch a culinary academy for children in Georgia, or was encouraging "everybody out there that will listen" to buy deep-fryers for their homes as late as last April. Let alone that Type-2 diabetes is associated with more than 200,000 deaths in 2007 alone and afflicts more than 25 million Americans, including a frightening number of children. It's just entertainment, and you're only watching it two to three times a day, right?
I have nothing against Deen's on-screen swagger and motherly witticisms, and am glad that her voice is heard. But this isn't rocket science. Any good mother would encourage preventive measures over reactionary vices, and flimsy statements about sweet tea aside -- when Magic Johnson announced he had HIV, he didn't laud the medications he would have to use as a result. He began teaching kids everywhere about safe sex!
You could say Deen stuck to her "fat act" because she's become a victim of corporate entities puppeting her for their causes, as others have speculated. You could buy her pardon plea on the Today show, claiming she has "always encouraged moderation." But I'm not excusing the star from responsibility; she's authored thirteen cookbooks, and troves of recipes online and as demonstrated on TV. She knew the very real influence she had on American kitchens, and did not miss a beat to spread it on thickly.
I see a great missed opportunity for healthy food initiatives, organizations, and the general public in Deen's failure to publicly recognize the errs of her gluttonous ways and perhaps partner with them instead. But that doesn't mean it has to be everyone's. It means we need more standing up in -- okay, a reactionary -- unison, and demanding good food in television and best-selling cookbooks as well as on the shelves. And don't tell me it's just "entertainment." To be sure, there are plenty of satirical shows and blogs out there that I don't believe anyone confuses for genuine cooking instruction. Food Party, the IFC Channel show with a set straight out of PeeWee's Playhouse, follows a similar food-comedy tradition as the retired British series, Posh Nosh. This is Why You're Fat, the blog (and book) showcasing user-generated gluttonous foods may be a blunt antithesis to Deen's message, and its creators took a huge beating from the media for it.
So maybe some people are watching her shows for pure entertainment. The fact that many people probably don't attempt her cooking is an odd concession in itself, if Deen's own diagnosis is any proof that she's not one of them. Perhaps it's telling of a food media focused on personality over purpose -- the recipes presented. Fortunately, there's a lot of entertaining food media with an honest and passionate perspective on food that's okay to take literally. In addition to the aforementioned stars, I'm talking about folks like Lucinda Scala Quinn, who champions home cooking for family on the Hallmark Channel's Mad Hungry, or journalists like Mark Bittman, who's dedicated columns, videos and books to healthy recipes. There's cookbook authors like Alice Waters and Bryant Terry, promoting fresh and fair food for all, and blogs and online cooking shows like Kitchen Caravan, illuminating the everyday eating of the like-minded. You can try this food at home. It's ours -- straight from the heart, and with every good intention.
I'm just saying, y'all.
Follow Cathy Erway on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cathyerway