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.”
WTOC, a Savannah-based news station, interviewed other patrons at The Lady and Sons.
Paula Deen’s fans are standing behind her and urging forgiveness after the Food Network decided not to renew her contract in the wake of her admission that she used racial slurs.
“I’m able to forgive her because we do it in our own culture, and you guys do it in your own culture,” Atlanta resident Sophia Starnes said after having dinner at The Lady and Sons. “You have words that you use for each other, and that’s why I don’t take it so personal because I know that’s not who I am.”
Starnes says she comes to the Lady and Sons every time she visits Savannah and doesn’t plan to stop. Friends who joined her for dinner echoed the support.
“Was it right, no,” China Smith said. “I mean, she could have used another term. But hey, it was a mistake that she made.”
Tourists thronged the restaurant, as they do every night and say they’re deeply disappointed to learn that Deen has lost her show.
“She made a mistake and she said that, and I think maybe we ought to take that for what it’s worth,” Dean Gibbs, of Spartanburg, S.C., said before dinner at The Lady and Sons.
Starnes acknowledged the seriousness of the epithet but said, “I think this is a learning lesson for her as well as for the people who do forgive her.”
In Columbus, on the other side of the largest state east of the Mississippi, residents had mixed reactions to the controversy:
News Leader 9 met with Constance Surratt, a senior sales associate in The Book House. The local bookstore employee said many customers purchased Paula Deen’s cooking books frequently; and Surratt still believes that the Southern chef’s cookbooks will continue to sell fairly well.
Other residents of Columbus had different opinions. Latasha Carrigan, a Columbus State University student, said she is still a big fan of Paula Deen. She used to watch her shows to learn more about cooking. However, Carrigan said that she would have a hard time purchasing Paula Deen’s cooking books anymore.
“Even though I love her, I probably will not look into her recipe books anymore,” Latasha Carrigan said. “I don’t know if I can support her as much as I did before. There are consequences for what you do. I mean, I know it happened 20 something years ago, and I know I’ve forgiven her as well. But it’s hard to look at her the same way.”
Another resident, Janta Marshall, said she supports Paula Deen, regardless of the racial slurs she made years ago. Marshall works as the food nutrition manager for Columbus High School, and she says it is easy to lose patience and self-control in a stressful environment.
“I have been in the food and beverage industry for 25 years. I do not think that many people understand the level of stress the workers from this business receive. The stress causes you to say things you do not really mean, and I do not think Paula Deen is a racist for saying the N-Word,” Marshall added. “I mean, I cannot tolerate the fact that she made racial slurs. I think that’s quite disrespectful, and I don’t appreciate what she said. But she’s just a person, and I think the media has blown this way out of proportion. Paula Deen did a great job on the Food Network, and she should get it back.”
At the company I work for in a small town just outside of Atlanta, there’s not a Yankee in sight. I talked about Deen with my coworkers, and they agreed that her use of the N-word is beyond the pale but thought her sponsors jumped the gun in sacking her so soon.
“The sponsors have made more of it than they needed to,” said Kayti Ridley, one of our technicians, “but racism will be a problem as long as some people teach their kids to hate.”
Even Deen’s former publicist got in on the action. Nancy Sanchez said, “I know her heart and her heart is a good one. I know that she is very giving. I know that she loves.”
Here in the South — at least here in Georgia — it appears that an attitude of support for Paula Deen prevails, even in the midst of disapproval of her actions. The consensus is pretty much the same: her fans in the South love her, even though she has disappointed them. Here’s hoping she finds a little comfort in the affection of her fans.