When I first started watching the Food Network, I feel immediately in love with Paula Deen. I loved her warm and friendly personality. I loved her food. I really didn't see anything bad or wrong about her food. I know that many people from her neck of the woods find that it's nothing new, but it was a cuisine I had little familiarity with. I did know that it was not the most healthful cuisine in the world, but that's not why I watched her show.
Paula Deen's show opened up a new world to me and brought me some great recipes. They weren't things I would eat every day, but when I needed a recipe for some classic comfort dishes, she came through for me. I knew that she was the chef and owner of a popular and successful restaurant and her cooking skills, if not CIA-quality, seemed solid enough. I never heard her say anything particularly stupid or wrong on her shows. I also saw her cook outside of her comfort zone. She experimented with international dishes and tried to be somewhat authentic with them.
I was watching one of her older episodes a few weeks ago. She was subdued, friendly, and on the ball. She cooked everything I saw from scratch and she thoroughly washed her hands after handling chicken. Back in those days it seemed that she was well liked by most people. There was a general acknowledgement that she was not a master chef and that her food was not partiuclarly good for you, but she wasn't uiversally reviled.
How did someone so innocuous become so universally hated in the same way that Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee are?
I think that a lot of the early criticisms of Paula were a bit unfair. Because her cooking is high in fat, and associated with a part of the country that less open-minded people associate with rednecks and white trash, she was really looked down upon. It didn't matter that her food was often good, or that it wasn't always so incredibly high in fat. Still, people did things like have the Paula Deen Coronary Watch.
Again, I don't deny Paula uses a lot of cream and butter. I also just wish people would notice how much cream and butter Ina Garten uses, or Emeril Lagasse uses. Apparently, if you're a J&W trained chef, or a caterer to the Hamptons swells, it's sophisticated and normal to use large amounts of fat. If you're a successful restaurant owner who happens to be in the south and doesn't cook haute cuisine, well, then you're just a crazy old lady giving a heart attacks to her viewers.
I've made many Paula Deen recipes and had a lot of success with them. My family loves it when I make her Cheese grits for holidays (how a northern family came to be so fond of grits I'll never know, but they are quite traditional around here on holidays). I love her Bourbon beef tenderloin. Her Basic 1-2-3-4 Cake has been a basis for several fun cake variations. While her Gooey Butter Cakes do require a cake mix, I have to say they are delicious. I can't say that Paula Deen is a bad cook. She's great or at least she was.
But something has happened to Paula. Rather than refute or defend her claims that everything she makes is bad for you and swims in butter, she began to revel in it. The more people called her on it, the more she seemed to play it up.
As her food become more unhealthful, it seemed it also became more dumbed down. I saw fewer fresh ingredients on her show. I saw more shortcuts and boxed mixes. Of course it makes sense since just about every other cook on FN seems to be doing the same thing. Giada is using a lot more packaged ingredients as well. I don't blame Paula Deen as much as I blame the Food Network and its desire to dumb down all of the shows so that the cooks don't "intimidate" beginners with their cooking skills.
People liked Paula because she was easy, so FN made her easier. People liked Paula because she made food that disregarded the health police, so FN made her fattier. People liked Paula because she was so warm and friendly and FN made her - CRAZY.
The problem with Paula is that she has now become over the top in her food and her personality. It seems that the FN executives can't leave a good thing alone. They had to take what was a decent concept and then force it heavily on the audience, overplaying it and taking it over the top. She went from being a pleasant woman cooking tasty food to being almost unwatchable, and made food that veers rather scarily into Sandra Lee territory. It doesn't seem to improve her popularlity much. It seems to me that it just turned people off. Will the Food Network ever learn?
Maybe FN executives do this on purpose. Maybe they think if the oversaturate the market with Paula, people will grow tired of her, the ratings will go down, and they have an excuse to replace her with a younger, bustier woman.
While I don't really enjoy watching Paula Deen much anymore, I don't think it's entirely her fault. If you want to make it on FN, you have to follow their party line, or you're out.
Of course that makes me wonder how Ina Garten has managed to stay on the air all of these years. She's never been one to play by their rules and she's overweight and middle aged. I'm surprised Scripps hasn't shuttled her off to Fine Living. That's where anyone who can cook goes these days and that saddens me since good cooking shouldn't be thought of as some kind of elitist pastime.
On a completely different note, I am finding that FN is changing its tune a bit. I was home yesterday morning and was pleasantly surprised by the lineup. There was only one Rachael Ray show. Alex Guarnaschelli was followed by Anne Burrell, whom I watched for the first time. She created some great homemade recipes with personality and didn't make them look complicated. There was no Sandra Lee and no Ingrid Hoffman. The only thing missing was Jamie Oliver (well, and Sara Moulton, and Emeril...). Maybe they're finally doing something right.
I hate the new FN website. It's slow and full of popups. Just had to say that.