Sunday, May 20, 2007

Paula Deen: Your Roommate's Mother

May 20

At some point a couple of years ago I, along with a few million other cooks who watch the FoodTV Network, became endeared to a classic Southern character named Paula Deen. She is one of those larger-than-life ladies who might be living next door if you live in the South; a lovely face, a wonderful laugh, and a way with food that makes your mouth water. She is what they call a natural; she talks to that camera as if she were addressing a personal friend, and at the end of her show you just feel kinda good.

Not that I would make all the things she cooks. I'm on a diet, for one thing, and all that butter, cream cheese and heavy cream can't be good for any of us, including Paula and her devoted husband. I worry about them a little.

I love the way she looks. She has a beautiful, happy face, and the body of a woman who likes to eat what she cooks.

Another little problem I have with her cooking style is the many shortcuts she takes. My mouth waters at her many variations of what she calls "Gooey Butter Cake," a cake mix recipe with added butter and sweet ingredients. I haven't made it because if I want to bake a cake, I want to make it from scratch -- it's no more difficult, and much more rewarding, to my mind. To each his own, and I'm sure I'm in the minority here.

But she can cook okra and tomatoes with the best of them, and I don't begrudge her the frozen okra even though there might be fresh out there. At least she's showing us how to do it. She keeps extra bacon grease in the freezer; I hadn't done that for years until she reminded me of it. (My mother used to make bacon for breakfast every morning and wouldn't have dreamed of throwing out the grease. She had vats of it all around the kitchen.)

I loved the coverage of Paula's wedding, and her coverage of her son Jamie's. I like it when her boys help out in the kitchen and when she shares New Orleans recipes she got from her husband's brother ("Father Hank").

But I cannot accept her new show "Paula's Party." Here, I think the network is misusing Paula. They assumed her talent for people would carry over, I guess, as they assume Emeril's has (I hate his show, but love his food). But her easygoing, intimate style becomes self-conscious before an audience. In her "Cooking Class" segments she avoided this because she was basically teaching a class. The party format requires a performance, and, natural extrovert that she is, she complies by laughing way too much, trying to make jokes, and entertaining guests as if to explain everything they say or hang on every word, big-eyed and open-mouthed. Her real talent is her ability to be at ease, and on this show she looks anything but.

On a kitchen design show, she remodeled a kitchen for a married couple. When asked how they felt about Paula Deen, the husband said, "You can't help but enjoy her -- she's like your college roommate's mother!"

She has become an American institution now. Recently she made an appearance locally to promote her new memoir. It was so overbooked that crowds were calling the newspaper for days. They felt a kinship with Paula, and probably expected to chat with her. Her new show won't hurt her popularity, even with me, and I'll continue to check out her half-hour segments, even though I must have seen them all by now, and the re-runs on the Food Network are endless.

I'm happy to hear her talk, her stories, and her comfy cajoling me to cook odd things. I've gotten some wonderful recipes from her, like Ro-Tel Grits and Watermelon Salad. Sometimes I'm tempted to buy a box of cake mix.

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