This is the latest installment of Foodie Underground.
This weekend I received my first issue of Cooking with Paula Deen.
Yes, you read that correctly. Paula Deen.
I subscribed on a combination of a whim and a dare. "I could get it and make the recipes healthier," I told myself. Really I just wanted a look into the world of butter and big hair. Because that world is fascinating; fascinating as to why some of us are in love, and others are repulsed.
I have been on the side of repulsion. In my world carrots don't need to be served with butter and brown sugar, and cheesecake definitely doesn't need to be fried. However, there is respect to be gleaned from a woman that has built an empire, and has encouraged down home cooking in a time of microwave dinners. So I subscribed, in the hopes that maybe Paula Deen would provide some insight into why the food world has become so divisive.
I will gladly admit to my own level of pretentiousness: Rachael Ray gives me a handful of fried chicken recipes and I cringe, but Bon Appétit says the food is "trending" and I start to think about what gluten free type of batter I can come up with. Pick up a couple of food magazines and you'll quickly notice a difference in high brow vs. low brow ("A purple plastic basket? People just don't have any manners anymore. Baguettes in Paris? Did I tell you about the last time I was in Paris?"), but you'll also see that they're often promoting very similar foods. And yet we have very different reactions to them.
Put those same copies of Bon Appétit and Every Day with Rachael Ray next to each other and compare the two covers. They both feature a main food photo, they both have salivating headlines and yet you can instantly feel that they're made to cater to very different demographics. Is it just the fact that every photo in Bon Appétit looks like it has an Instagram filter on it that I love it? Why do I want to make the carrot-ginger drink in the magazine but when I see a Rachael's recipe for a very similar thing I shake my head and turn the page?
As it turns out, even Paula Deen loves mason jars but for some reason, they just look different. Hell, she can devote an entire spread to canning and we scoff, but put the less glossy pages of a local Edible Communities magazine in front of us that feature an urbanite wearing Wayfarer rims, canning foraged fruit and we fall in love.
Maybe healthy food has become pretentious because we made it so.
Granted I wouldn't make Paula's 7-layer Salad for the life of me, and god forbid I go near a concoction that involves strawberry jello, Neufchatel cheese and pretzels, but her Shrimp Cakes over Corn Grits with Lemon-Dill sauce sound almost like they came off of an award-winning food blog. Switch out grits for polenta and sprinkle with sea salt and you're almost in foodie recipe territory.
I drool over Bon Appétit. I don't drool over Cooking with Paula Deen. One feels like classy food porn, the other feels like a dimly lit Holiday Inn with a double bed. But in trying to identify the differences between the two, it has become clear that we all have presumptions about food, and if we want to eat better as a society, we better start trying to find some middle ground.
You can easily argue that we would all be better off if we committed to plant-based, locavore diets, but we have some other very serious obstacles to tackle before we get there. Strip away our addiction to sugar and processed foods and here is one of our main problems: we don't have time to cook, and in our effort to cut corners, many of us have forgotten what real food is. I may have spent a weekend afternoon tweaking a recipe for walnut cake, but I am fully aware that this is not normal behavior. Put fennel and sea salt and vanilla bean sugar aside for a second. The general population is pressed for time, and cooking isn't at the top of the priority list.
We can't even make time for breakfast anymore. So much so, that breakfast giant Kellog is investing in global snack brand Pringles, all just to stay competitive in the food market. Breakfasts have turned to "no syrup required" on-the-go affairs and dinner is a plastic tray of beef tamales heated up in the microwave. Does anyone remember what real food looked like?
As a country, we need a shift in mindset, and it's not just the hipster pickle operation that's going to do it. We need quick, easy, healthy and unpretentious. Food that is approachable. We need education that teaches us about what we eat; builds a connection to it. Where's the Five Minute Foodie Underground magazine? Somebody find me the funding and I'll launch it, because with kale, anything can be done.
Why do some of us drool over Saveur and keep our old Cooks Illustrated as if they were encyclopedias? Because the idea of food is exciting. Without teaching about real ingredients and how to put them together in simple ways, how can we expect to raise a generation that cares about what they eat?
As much as we might cringe at the food celebrities of cooking shows, we need public figures that will get us thinking about cooking and what we're eating, because we need a food re-education, even if that re-education is at a small level at first. Rome wasn't built in a day, and America won't switch out burgers for brussel sprouts in a week.
But we also need food leaders that aren't bound by industry ties and commercial interests.
As Deen says on her Pinterest page, "Cooking and family are the greatest gifts. Love and Best Dishes, y'all!" Although I question her industry ties and commercial interests - in the current issue of Cooking with Paula Deen she is the main face for Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Royal Caribbean, Victoza (a prescription diabetes drug) and Springer Mountain Farms chicken - I couldn't agree more.
I just don't want that best dish to be coated in a brown sugar glaze.