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Tilly: Saying goodbye to Paula Deen

BY ZACH TILLY | JUNE 24, 2013 5:00 AM

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Paula Deen learned this week that no matter how old or Southern you are, you can’t get away with pining for the golden age of slavery.

Her reign at the Food Network is over — the network will not renew Deen’s contract when it expires at the end of the month — although her empire had already been damaged considerably by last year’s revelation that she had concealed her Type 2 diabetes even as she taught America how to make butter sauce to drizzle over her signature bread pudding, which was made of doughnuts.

What Paula said (the “N-word”) was awful, of course. But long after the memory of her bigotry fades, her negative contribution to society will remain. And I’m not talking about how she brainwashed a generation of Food Network watchers into spouting Paula-isms every time they step into a kitchen:

“If it ain’t butter, it ain’t good, y’all. Hyuck, hyuck, hyuck.”

That’s bad but still not the worst thing she did to us.

Deen rode to prominence the same wave of anti-intellectual redneck apologism that brought us such cultural phenomena as Larry the Cable Guy and Big Mouth Billy Bass. This wave has largely broken and receded into the sea, but some of the trash it washed up onto the beach is still intact.

What she and her country-fried compatriots wrought was a northward creepening of the customs that made the Deep South the unhealthiest region in the country.

Most glaring is the new ubiquity of “sweet tea” above the Mason-Dixon Line. “Sweet tea,” for those of you who aren’t familiar with the stuff, is a Southern concoction and the most repugnant product on the market. It’s the worst thing in the world.

But what about soda, you ask — isn’t that just as bad?

Perhaps, but at least a Coke has some complexity to it. The ingredients in Coke are, of course, sugar, water, brown, fizz, and acid. Sweet tea strips away the all the pretenses of soda. It forgoes the convolution of more complex sugar-delivery mechanisms.

Sweet tea is sugar, water, and leaves. So simple and single-mindedly committed to corroding your insides that it’s disturbing.

Soda is a smooth-talking, charismatic killer; sweet tea is a wild-eyed psycho. Coke is Patrick Bateman, sweet tea is Buffalo Bill. (Would you drink me? I’d drink me.)

A McDonald’s sweet tea is 54 grams of sugar dissolved in brown water.

If that isn’t enough to sour you on sweet tea, then have a listen to this possibly apocryphal story of how the sweet tea is made at a very popular fast-food chain. According to a girl in my sister’s high-school PE class who worked at said fast-food chain, the sweet tea is made by dumping a large amount of sugar into a tank of iced tea and mixing it up by hand. Again, possibly apocryphal, but plausible.

But what I keep coming back to is how messed up it is that in a country absolutely racked with diabetes, we decided to import a new kind of sugar water from the South, the Type 2 diabetes capital of the world. As a country, we spent $245 billion treating diabetes last year; of the 11 states with the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes in the country, 10 of them are in the South and the other one is West Virginia.

So seduced were we by the down-home charm of Southern cuisine that we discarded such statistics and thought, “They seem to have it all figured out food-wise; how can we eat a little more like them?”

For that, at least in part, I blame Paula Deen.

So, a little overt racism finally ended Deen’s reign as the nation’s foremost culinary Lothario, but her spirit lives on in the sweet-tea fountains of the North. May they pour forth their nectar forever.


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