When I reflect on the culinary heritage of the South, it's not Paula Deen who comes to mind, but Edna Lewis, a woman raised in Freetown, Virginia, a farming community founded by freed slaves. During the Depression, Miss Lewis (as she was called) moved off the farm to find work in the city, eventually landing in New York. In the late 1940s she became the co-owner and chef of midtown's Café Nicholson, which catered to the literati. Miss Lewis cooked with an eye toward the seasons and a finger marking the pages of Escoffier. In the 2005 documentary Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie she reminisces about how Truman Capote, a fellow southerner, would beg for biscuits. Instead Miss Lewis served steak with béarnaise sauce, roast chicken with herbs, and chocolate soufflé that she rushed hot from the oven to the table. In her later life Miss Lewis mentored Scott Peacock, a white chef 50 years her junior who hailed from a tiny town in Alabama. In 2003, they co-authored a cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking, and in a bittersweet finale, he cared for her during her declining years. Pundits dubbed them "the odd couple of southern cooking." I was so inspired by their story I imagined it in fictional form.
Compare how Paula Deen speaks of her bodyguard Hollis Johnson, an African-American man whom she says she loves "like a son" to how Scott Peacock speaks of Miss Lewis. The parallel is inexact -- Mr. Johnson works for Ms. Deen while Edna Lewis was Scott Peacock's mentor -- still, it's illuminating. In the now infamous video of her 2012 interview with Times reporter Kim Severson, Ms. Deen summons Mr. Johnson onto the stage, joking that he will be invisible against the studio's black backdrop. "We can't see you standing in front of that dark board!" she says. When Scott Peacock speaks of Edna Lewis in Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie, he is reverent, quietly explaining that Miss Lewis gave him the courage to embrace his true self (he alludes to his struggle coming out as gay) and to accept his southern heritage, complicated though it is. Ms. Deen's approach to her southern heritage is to sugarcoat to the point of nausea. In the Times video she goes so far as to refer to the chattel slaves on her great-grandfather's farm as "workers," as if they had any choice in the matter.
Ms. Deen is now in the middle of a very public decline. The most likely consequence of her downfall is that nothing will change about the way Americans think or talk about race. Instead, she will be vilified by the many who are justly outraged by her comments and valorized by those who conflate the condemnation of her attitudes as a condemnation of their entire culture. The convenient lie, that racism lives within the core of a few bad apples that need only be chucked to rid us of the rot, will be reinforced.
While the South does not have a monopoly on racism, many white southerners are unapologetically bigoted. But they do not represent the entire region, certainly not the burgeoning immigrant communities, nor the legions of black southerners who are every bit as rooted in the South as Ms. Deen is and who surely must grit their teeth when they hear whites describe the overall southern population as a defeated people who lost the war. (In a 2012 Garden & Gun interview, Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, who is biracial, retorts, "Actually, my South didn't lose the war. We won.") And then there are a growing number of white southerners who are willing to question their own assumptions about race as they recognize that the struggle for civil rights is not a "black issue" but a human one. Paula Deen is not one of those southerners. But I'm pretty sure Scott Peacock is.
If we really want to turn this public scandal into an opportunity for growth, we should take the spotlight off Ms. Deen. Turn away from the tearful confessionals and the exclusive interviews. Everyone in life must clean up his or her own acre, and in Deen, you are witnessing someone who has yet to clean up hers. So stop watching. Instead, pick up Edna Lewis's seminal cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, which chronicles a year in Freetown, where both small and big moments are observed, from the excitement of new chicks being born in the spring to the profundity of Emancipation Day, which begins with the community gathering in church so that elders can speak of their days in bondage, and ends with a feast fit for the celebration of freedom.
There are better southern cooks more deserving of our attention. Look toward them.
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