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Paula Deen's real crime is first-degree buffoonery

By Kathleen Purvis
kpurvis@charlotteobserver.com
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

What is Paula Deen really guilty of?

She is certainly guilty of being racially tone-deaf. Using the excuse that she’s from a particular region or generation doesn’t fly, whether it’s a wedding with a “plantation” theme or Irish jokes in Boston. Would you hold a fake Mafia party for your Italian friends?

How about a giant case of hubris? That’s the mistaken belief that you are bigger than anything thrown at you.

Deen suffered from that one, for sure. Watching the train wreck Friday, as multiple video apologies and her career went up in flames, one of my co-workers puzzled over why she agreed to get on the witness stand. Published testimony is no place for nuance. If you’ve got too much to lose, an out-of-court settlement is a bargain.

She’s certainly guilty of not understanding how much good will she lost in the diabetes bait-and-switch. If you’ve made a career out of being the Queen of Bad Diet Choices, waiting until you sign with a pharmaceutical company before you go public with diabetes is not going to play well.

After all that, though, the crime that saddened me has been watching her commit first-degree buffoonery.

From the Kardashian sisters to those unreal housewives, it’s a disease of the modern age. It goes like this: Someone agrees to give you unlimited amounts of money. And in exchange, you hand over your dignity.

Would you do it? You have to agree to make a mockery of your heritage, whether you’re Snooki from Jersey or Paula from Georgia. You have to take anything you do well, like simple cooking, and push it past simple until you hit simpleton.

Just a few years after Deen hit the big time, my husband and I had lunch at her restaurant, the Lady & Sons in Savannah. We laughed at how familiar the food was. It was the same thing you’d eat on any Sunday at my Aunt Rosalie’s house in South Georgia, just without the love.

I wasn’t a big fan of Deen’s, but I understood her original appeal: It was food for people who either missed their Aunt Rosalie or never had one in the first place. They wanted a taste of the love.

But the longer Deen was on TV, the further she had to push her persona. TV is like that. You start with a little, but you have to offer a lot. So cooking that’s a little heavy on butter becomes deep-fried butter. A warm Southern drawl lurches into parody. A willingness to wink and flirt takes on the diamond edge of desperation.

Just before Deen’s story melted down completely last week, I got a news release about a new show on the Travel Channel, “Best Daym Takeout.” It apparently features a man who drives around the country and eats takeout food.

In the news release, Daym Patterson is described this way: “It’s not just his 6-foot-5, 390-pound frame that’s big and over the top.”

A 390-pound man is going to be paid to go around the country and eat takeout?

That’s not entertainment. That’s enabling.

Whether Paula Deen makes a comeback or not, she might be able to warn him: The price is higher than he knows.

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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