Paula Deen cooks up disappointment with diabetes drug announcement

Usually, when I see Paula Deen's thousand-watt smile and Kewpie doll eyes I think of one thing: Butter.

In an amazingly memorable episode of "Iron Chef America" the Southern cook teamed up with Cat Cora to take on Tyler Florence and Robert Irvine in "Battle: Sugar!" In the episode, Paula plays to the audience, cackling with deep-fried energy and one-liners, making the other three chefs and a sous chef in elf gear look like scenery. All the while, she's putting on a show within a show with made-for-TV moves such as grabbing a pound of butter, dumping it in a pan with a half-melted loaf of processed cheese and chirping for the camera, "My favorite ingredient, butter!"

So, naturally, my association with Paula Deen and butter, is normal. And, I imagine, many of you also have the very same direction association. Makes sense, right? Right.

But ever since Tuesday morning, when I see those impossibly blue eyes and wide grin of Southern hospitality, all I can think is: What a waste.

In case you missed it, the queen of Southern cooking confirmed Tuesday morning on the "Today" show that she has Type-II diabetes. Like many Americans, she had no clue until she went to her doctor for a routine physical ... three years ago.

Never mind that she's been whipping up sweet potato praline crunch pie and other heart-stopping delights for three years since finding out that she'd need watch her blood glucose levels. That's untruthful and severely reckless behavior, to be sure, but what was really disappointing came next.

Next, rather than launching a new line of diabetic-friendly recipes or talking about how she's overhauled her diet in the name of health, Deen instead batted her eyelashes, put that grin in place and announced to the world she was to be a paid spokeswoman for a diabetes drug company.

Of course, because the hot glare of the "Today" show lights doesn't come without a probing question or two, Al Roker (yes, they had the giggly weatherman interview Paula) tried his best to do an impression of a hard-hitting journalist and asked her directly if her rich recipes had anything and everything to do with her diagnosis. After a great deal of hokey-pokeying around like an experienced politician, her collective answer on the subject seemed to amount to this: "I'm not a doctor, I'm a chef. Here, take this drug."

Now, I know Paula Deen didn't sign up to be a moral compass when she burst onto the cooking scene in the mid-1990s, all personality and butter pats. Anyone who becomes a celebrity doesn't automatically lose the chance for independent thought, going against the grain or making unpopular decisions. Celebrities are people too, and they aren't perfect, as we've seen time and time again.

But, and it's a voluminous but, celebrities do have to think a bit harder about their actions because their influence is at a premium. I suppose that is why I was so disappointed with Paula on Tuesday. She missed out on a fabulous chance to reach out to the masses and promote healthy eating.

Because of her personality and power and history, if she had said, "Hey, I have diabetes and though I still like rich foods, I am learning to cook in a healthful way and I want to share my healthier recipes with you," that would've been incredible. We all know where she's been (fried mac and cheese, Krispy Kreme bread pudding) and if a lifestyle change were where she was going, it would mean much to many Americans who are struggling with diabetes or pre-diabetes. There would be a certain, "If Paula can change, I can too" oomph attached to such a decision that could light a fire for someone who can relate to her right down to a diabetes diagnosis.

But she didn't do that. Instead, she told us rich foods were merely a puzzle piece in the diabetes epidemic. True, yes, genetics do play a role, as does exercise and weight, to be sure. But diet is a puzzle piece so massive, it would basically play the role of Brazil if diabetes happened to look like South America.

To be fair, Paula's sons have just launched a show that includes healthier recipes called, ironically or not, "Not My Mama's Meals." But you know what? That's not enough.

That show isn't Paula's baby, and it doesn't come with the weight of her word. We could watch her health-minded son, Bobby, make "Bobby's Lighter Gooey Butter Cake," for the masses but, for all his good intentions, an entire season's worth of recipes from Bobby Deen isn't worth an iota of what his mother could've done with a single statement and some personal responsibility.

Instead, her announcement smacks of greed as much as mutual disappointment and it's certainly a bitter taste.

With the backlash she's gotten since her announcement, I hope that Paula decides to use her powers for the greater good, and gets into the kitchen to whip up healthier, diabetes-friendly fare that tastes good — and has the potential to help millions of sick Americans find the road to better health, butter be darned.


RogueThrill 11 years ago

Because she encourages unhealthful eating that cause diabetes and then profiting from it. She is benefiting from both ends.

blindrabbit 11 years ago

I always wondered about her diet preachings, and I assumed her audience was fooled by her sweet southern drawl. Now we find out that she was feeding a diabetic habit while likewise feeding from the trough of the drug industry! Shame on her and her butter and carb. world!

Steve Jacob 11 years ago

We as American have the right to take short cuts with pills.

KEITHMILES05 11 years ago

I have never liked her show and her cooking is plain Jane style and her own personal style is upper crust and very boring. She is all talk and very little substance.

KEITHMILES05 11 years ago

I have never liked her show and her cooking is plain Jane style and her own personal style is upper crust and very boring. She is all talk and very little substance.

George_Braziller 11 years ago

Butter, lard, bacon, or sugar. Everything she cooks has one of those ingredients. The few times I saw her show the blatant excess grossed me out and I wondered how she was even alive. Everything was a heart attack on a plate.

Tracy Bedell 11 years ago

It's her business and no one elses. Her decision not to divulge her personal medical history for years is her own right. Also, she tells people how to cook and appreciate food. She does not force it into their mouths. It boils down to personal responsibility and she is not to blame for other peoples choices. I don't watch her show but she never claimed to be a role model for anyone. As for the money, I suspect Mrs. Dean has plenty of money already and that was not her sole reason for disclosing her illness. I agree with her decision and would not want people knowing my personal life, either.

KEITHMILES05 11 years ago

She is rather loud mouthed and pushy. I don't like her for that nor what she espouses.

Lawrence Morgan 11 years ago

Great column, Sarah Henning! When you have diabetes (and I have several friends who do) it's a much different picture. It is a terrible shame that she cooks the way she does on television. RogueThrill puts it very well in his post. She encourages unhealthy eating that may promote diabetes, and at the same time she profits from it.

blindrabbit 11 years ago

It isn't that she forces her recipies (as obese creating as they are) it is that she creates trust in her audience and thereby gives her authority and excuses for people who are vulnerable!

Cimmy Redmond 11 years ago

Is it possible Al Roker interviewed Paula Deen because of his weight loss struggles?

irvan moore 11 years ago

wow, let's kick around the successfull woman, at least she stayed in the kitchen where she belongs,right? she's now taking lemons and making lemonade, i like and admire paula dean.

Liza Pehrson 11 years ago

I like how Anthony Bourdaine put it--it's analagous to breaking people's legs and then starting a business that sells crutches. . . incredible. But then again, perhaps the hungry masses will have to begin thinking for themselves. . .

Megan Green Stuke 11 years ago

We all know I like my butter and my rich food. I have made a Paula Deen recipe or two in my day.

I have a sense that I need to defend her a bit, seeing as I am not exactly promoting "health food" on my site.

Here's the thing. We pat corporations on the back all the time for doing what it is they do to make money. We tell parents "if you don't like it, turn off the tv" when explicit content comes on. We tell people to be responsible for themselves and we turn the other cheek when we find out our favorite footwear company exploits young workers. Because, dammit, they're making a profit, and they can run their businesses as they see fit!

I do not think that people should eat fattening stuff every day. The things I publish on my blog are not how we eat every day. But I have an audience, as does Paula. She's never billed herself as a health food chef and she's got a huge following based on what it is she does.

Yes, she could change her tune and start putting out salads and quinoa, but she'd lose her fan base.

Most of the commentors here claim they don't like and don't watch Deen. So why do you care now? Why weigh in? You obviously already disdain her brand of cooking/health choices. She's not reaching you, you have nothing to worry about.

If you do not wish to eat buttery, fatty foods, don't. I don't eat like that every day - I have some sense. But Paula shouldn't have to take a hit on her business because you disagree with her cuisine. She does what she does. If her followers are dumb enough to eat fried Twinkies every day, I don't think there's much hope for them anyway, with or without Paula's leadership.

Sarah Henning 11 years ago

Good replies, everyone. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts! I know we can't all agree on this. But we can agree on this one thing: What we put in our mouths is totally up to us. No matter what others say and do or suggest, we are our own people and totally responsible for our nourishment.

kawrivercrow 11 years ago

I'm going to start smoking, the when I get lung cancer, i will lie through my teeth about it and say it's all due to genetics. Then I will become a paid spokesman for an expensive, yet minimally effective chemotherapy.

verity 11 years ago

". . . she was to be a paid spokeswoman for a diabetes drug company."

There lies the ethical problem. Type II diabetes can often be prevented and/or controlled by diet. If it's not controlled, it can have some really nasty results.

I was told more than 30 years ago that I was at risk for Type II diabetes because I have some glucose intolerance. I still eat sugar and butter, but in moderation. I exercise and keep my weight at an acceptable level and try to eat sensibly. It hasn't been that hard and my glucose levels have stayed well within acceptable limits. I consider it very unethical for her to push an immoderate diet when she knew full well what the effects could be---and then to profit from schilling for a drug to treat the disease she has encouraged.

Ms Stuke, "we" don't pat corporations on the back for behaving unethically to make money. Speak for yourself, but not for me.

appleaday 11 years ago

This is complicated on several levels. First, taking drugs does not "fix" diabetes. Even those who are insulin dependent from Type 1 diabetes need to eat right and exercise regularly. Type 2 diabetes, if caught early, can be controlled with lifestyle changes alone. Medication is used when that doesn't work. Diabetes is now considered its own risk factor for coronary heart disease and is in the top five deadliest diseases among adults.
Freedom of speech is a constitutional right but, as with any right, there is great responsibility. Those who have a large audience, either because of television or print media, have a certain responsibility to tell the truth. I'm smart enough to know that butter and sugar are unhealthy at the levels that Ms. Deen prepares, but I've worked with families who honestly believe that meat and potatoes in any form (hamburgers and french fries) are healthy. Now we have one-year-olds who are morbidly obese and we have children developing Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease, and hyperlipidemia at epidemic levels. There is no longer a single state in the US without at least 20% of their population that is obese. The long-term costs of care and disease management for these folks will be shared by all of us.

blindrabbit 11 years ago

Her Southern style of cooking is just a reflection of the cusine of the South. People who eat that type of diet on a steady basis can't help but being obese; the Southern States typically have the highest obesity rates in the US, due to diet, personal lifestyles and lack of exercise. Her recipies result in good tasteing foods, which if consumed very infrequently can be tolerated; but also can be a slippery slope to addiction.

opinion 11 years ago

Darn nice article. No opinion on the topic really but Sarah, that was a a good read. Thanks!

Scott Tichenor 11 years ago

Appears Tony Bourdain was right. As for her show and personality, never cared for either.

Joe Hyde 11 years ago

Instituting Ms. Dean's regimen of high fat/high calorie home cooking (while secretly taking meds to control her own diabetes) is an excellent financial strategy for any Southern Belle type who desires to prematurely collect on her husband's life insurance policy.

naturenut 11 years ago

I feel she represents what most Americans do- ignore the cause of the issue and turn to drugs. Increase the drugs while we increase the sugar, or fat, or salt. Is she irresponsible? Perhaps, but no more so than many others.

Ragingbear 11 years ago

Her recipes are stolen or taken from submissions, she is riddled with plastic surgery, her teeth are fake and she is a hypocrite when it comes to her sincerity. If I were the drug company in question, I would drop her like a bad habit.

Oh, and her cookware is garbage. I got a nice stock pot on my wedding day and have yet to find anything that won't stick to it almost immediately.

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