I awoke this morning to a lot of buzz about Frank Bruni calling out Anthony Bourdain for Mr. Bourdain’s disparaging comments about Paula Deen (“Unsavory Culinary Elitism,” Op-Ed, New York Times, August 24). The nub of the argument is that elitism, not a genuine concern about unhealthiness, is driving Bourdain’s disparaging remarks. “When Deen fries a chicken,” Bruni writes, “many of us balk. When the Manhattan chefs David Chang or Andrew Carmellini do, we grovel for reservations and swoon over the homey exhilaration of it all.”
What bothers me about this characterization is that it’s easy to make and easy to believe. Bourdain is, after all, a foie-nibbling New Yorker, and Deen makes bacon-egg hamburgers with donuts for buns. The problem is, it’s probably too easy: accusing Bourdain of elitism is a great way to rile up a lot of people, but the reality is far more complicated.
First, as Bruni notes, it’s patently absurd to label a spat between two millionaires as class warfare. Yet, having raised that objection, Bruni brushes it aside himself and proceeds, totally undeterred. That fact, alone, merits reflection. Deen’s food might be embraced by a substantial segment of society, but the woman herself is no pauper. In both regards, she resembles Bourdain.
Nor, despite Bourdain’s swipe, does she only cook carbs swaddled in fat. A quick glance at the recipe section of her website reveals featured recipes for salads, fish, and leaner dishes that get flavor from peppers. Granted, fried chicken is there too, but if the identifying information were stripped off of the site an unknowing visitor, having only read Mr. Bruni’s article or Mr. Bourdain’s characterization, would almost surely never guess that the site is Ms. Deen’s.
What is telling, however, is the “Popular Recipes” tab, which—at this writing—contains the following list:
Skillet Fried Apple Pie Gooey Butter Cake Cinnamon Rolls Simple S'mores Bars Corrie's Brown Sugar Body Scrub Southern Fried Chicken Peach Cobbler Baked French Toast Casserole
Now, this section would send your primary care physician into a dead faint. Even the body scrub might increase the risk of Type II diabetes.
But Ms. Deen didn’t generate this section of the website. Her readers did.
And that’s the heart of what Frank Bruni, and Anthony Bourdain, and Paula Deen, and everyone else is failing to point out—either because they’re too polite to do so, or because it’s much more fun to cast Mr. Bourdain as a wine-swilling elitist and Ms. Deen as a populist damsel in distress. Those images in the popular press are caricatures, distortions. Neither of these celebrity chefs is as one-dimensional as their popular images would have us believe. Their personae are to a large extent a reflection of our desires and demands and attention. Paula Deen knows how to make sliced onions and cucumbers, but that recipe gets one reader review on her website. Her Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding gets 37 (sample: “A wonderful treat for anytime, and so easy to make”). That is not to say, of course, that readers’ desires entirely drive a celebrity chef’s persona—they had to establish a certain “brand” to begin with, in order to attract readers, and (credit where credit is due) she’s the one who turned Krispy Kremes into bread pudding in the first place. But the process is an interactive one, with readers and fans increasingly emphasizing particular aspects of an image that they themselves find appealing.
So what Mr. Bourdain is really expressing, it seems, is a dislike for the public persona of Paula Deen as distorted by the perceptions and desires of her readers. The question, it seems to me, is not whether Mr. Bourdain is elitist for doing so; rather, the real issue, which neither will point out and which Mr. Bruni seems intent on ignoring, is the fact that their personae reflect, and are to some extent shaped by, their readers’ desires.
All of which is why I think Slow Food USA’s $5 Challenge makes a lot of sense. It’s all well and good to pick on Mr. Bourdain for a day and to disparage him as an elitist. It’s puzzlingly incoherent to defend Paula Deen as an icon of the masses, but knock yourself out. The real issue is that a large number of people, whether due to taste or bad advice or adverse circumstances or a system of unwise agricultural subsidies (or maybe all of the above), have developed dietary habits that are really, genuinely dangerous. Some of these habits are a result of low income, but not nearly as many as we are led to believe—and promoting the belief that low income compels a bad diet gives a lot of people justification for continuing to eat unhealthy food.
So join us, or join your local Slow Food chapter. Sign up to prepare or enjoy a healthy, low-cost meal that gives the lie to the claim that poor people have to eat poorly. It’s really only by hammering home this message—that it’s possible to eat well, and healthfully, on a limited budget—to consumers that we have a real chance to challenge the dominance of cheap, unhealthy food in the American marketplace of ideas.