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In Defense of Southern-fried Paula Deen

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Celebrity chef Paula Deen lustily massages salt into "a mighty fat hog," as the dogs circle the cooking island. For the yams, "I'm only using half a stick of butter," she drawls before breaking into high laughter. Deen's popular Food Network show does Southern cooking with no brakes on the pork fat, butter, sugar or other dietarily incorrect ingredients.

Deen is plenty of woman in a land of plenty, and it has come as little surprise that she has Type 2 diabetes, a disease tied to high-fat diets. What has jarred some observers is that she's also become a spokeswoman for a diabetes drug -- with no apparent show of repentance for, or change in, cooking style. Selling both unhealthy eating habits and drugs to deal with their consequences would seem to be working both sides of the street, would it not?

Perhaps, but so what? Here's the barbecue rub: Nothing on Deen's menu consumed now and then, and in reasonable portions, would hurt most otherwise careful eaters. After all, Deen's Southern-fried chicken using four eggs for the coating (and browned in "heart-healthy" peanut oil) employs considerably less "bad" fat than does Julia Child's French chicken fricassee. For a dish serving four, Madame Child throws in five tablespoons of butter, two egg yolks and half a cup of heavy cream.

Like Julia Child, Paula Deen honors a cooking heritage nurtured by the land. When it comes to vegetables -- and Deen does do vegetables -- the picks are turnip, mustard and collard greens growing in the local Georgia soil. And she adopts no dainty indirection about where the meat comes from, referring to the "big old ham" as "him," not "it." Deen would seem a hero to the locavore and slow-cooking (though not vegan) movements: The first prizes local ingredients, and the second, traditional foods.

Neither Child nor Deen has apologized for the fats and sugars in their traditional cooking. Which leaves their health-conscious fans where?

The answer is, on their own. And on their own is where they should be. The health crises of obesity and related diseases stem from more than occasional servings of pecan pie under ice cream. It has to do with portion size and lack of exercise. It has to do with the decline of the family dinner hour, which teaches children eating discipline, puts their meals on a schedule and keeps them away from Burger King.

As for Deen's diabetes medicine pitch, the only bad message would be that a pill takes care of a dietary problem. A pill cannot cure diabetes, an awful disease that can lead to heart ailments, blindness, kidney damage and infected feet. It only helps manage it.

Having come from near-poverty, Deen may find it hard to pass up a dollar. Her son Bobby Deen now has a cooking show called "Not My Mama's Meals," which lightens up Paula's dishes. Are the Deens now working three sides of the street?

Having built up a restaurant and cooking-show empire from nothing, Paula Deen has shown herself a gutsy, inventive woman. Let's see what she does in that ad.

Meanwhile, many staunch fans may not need alternative versions of her grillades and grits that go easy on the bacon grease. We know perfectly well how to make a light salad. As grownups, we are ultimately in charge of what we eat.

COPYRIGHT 2012 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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