Paula Deen has become the talk of the country, just not for a reason she would ever want. I’ve written twice about her in the past few days, first about her deposition and the surrounding media coverage and then once the Food Network refused to renew her contract. Since then, Smithfield has severed ties with the celebrity chef, and QVC is evaluating its relationship with Deen.
But what do Deen’s fellow Southerners think of her? The question provoked a few discussions, and the verdict is decidedly mixed. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, David Gregory asked Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed about the controversy. (I can only imagine the discussion in the meeting. Let’s ask Kasim Reed. He’s from Georgia. And he’s black!) Reid said,
“I think it is very unfortunate. What she has basically said is she used language from her childhood growing up in the past, but we all have to change,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told “Meet the Press,” according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
“So I think folks are going to be hearing what she has to say over the next few weeks. I think she has apologized once, and she is going to continue to do that. It is very unfortunate and totally unacceptable,” Reed said.
The feeling couldn’t have been more different outside The Lady and Sons, Deen’s restaurant in Savannah, GA, where supporters (and regular patrons) lined up Saturday well in advance of opening.
Most of the diners in line on Saturday morning were white and more than ready to defend one of their favorite cooking stars. But at the very front was Nicole T. Green, 36, an African-American who said she had made a detour from a vacation in New Orleans specifically to show up in support of Ms. Deen.
“I get it, believe me,” Ms. Green said. “But what’s hard for people to understand is that she didn’t mean it as racist. It sounds bad, but that’s not what’s in her heart. She’s just from another time.”
In the line Saturday, some pointed out that some African-Americans regularly used the word Ms. Deen had admitted to saying.
“I don’t understand why some people can use it and others can’t,” said Rebecca Beckerwerth, 55, a North Carolina native who lives in Arizona and had made reservations at the restaurant Friday.
“You still hear people talk that way if people think they are in a group of like-minded people,” said Richard Hattaway, 56, who lives just outside Savannah.
He said his grandfather used the word often and without rancor in referring to African-Americans. But Mr. Hattaway’s own parents forbade its use. It is an evolution common to many white families in the South, he said.
“She obviously didn’t get it but I think they are kind of blowing this up,” Mr. Hattaway said.
He was particularly bothered by a commentator on a national news program who suggested that Ms. Deen should have atoned for the pain of slavery, given credit to African-Americans who helped influence some of the country food that made her famous and offered a stronger statement against racism.
“She’s a cook,” Mr. Hattaway said. “She’s not a Harvard graduate.”