After months of wildfire publicity, the lawsuit that was instrumental in
the virtual destruction of the Paula Deen empire was dismissed by the
federal judge hearing the case. A week before, the judge had dismissed
the racial discrimination portion of the lawsuit. Why? Because the
plaintiff, Lisa Jackson, is white, as is Miss Deen. All that remained
was the sexual harassment claims. No court costs or attorney fees were
awarded to either side. It is unclear if any settlement was made. The
case was dismissed with prejudice, which means it cannot ever be
resurrected. However it was not the lawsuit itself that was such a destructive
force. Most people never even knew of it. It was a deposition that did
it. Specifically, it was Deen's admission that in the distant pass, she
used the word “nigger.” The deposition, which was given in May, made
headlines and the repercussions were severe. The end of the lawsuit is
probably not going to do much to restore Deen's reputation or bring
those corporate sponsors back and it will not get her book contract
reinstated, because the lawsuit is not what caused their loss. The
deposition, which became a matter of public record when it was filed
with the Court (not all depositions are), was found by a local
newspaper, the Savannah Morning News, which published then it.
Food Network yanked her show and refused to renew her contract. Walmart
ended their business relationship. Smithfield terminated their
partnership. Novo Nordisk, which makes a diabetes drug, stopped using
her as a spokeswoman. QVC dropped her. Her publisher canceled her
contract for a new cookbook, despite the staggering amount of
pre-orders. Target dropped her. Caesars Entertainment decided not to
renew her contract and four restaurants in different casinos were
closed. Whit-Ash Furnishings yanked a commercial in which she appeared.
And Home Depot dropped her. Sear’s, Kmart, Walgreen’s and J.C.
Penney’s joined the exodus. All in all, Deen lost at least $7.5 million
in endorsement deals, and at least another $5 million in television
deals and the four restaurants. Last year, Deen’s income was $17
million, making her the fourth-highest paid celebrity chef in the U.S.
Deen has been a lightening rod for controversy before this. She came
under fire in early 2012 when she revealed that she suffers from
diabetes. Why? Because she kept her diagnosis a secret while
continuing to push her high-fat-high-calorie signature foods. Paula is
all about butter and deep-frying. Critics called her a hypocrite and
worse. Even before the deposition debacle, fellow celebrity chef
Anthony Bourdain said of her to TV Guide, “[Deen is the] worst, most
dangerous person to America. Someone who revels in unholy connections
with evil corporations and [is] proud of the fact that her food is
f—ing bad for you.” (Bourdain 2012)
Despite everything, Deen maintains a strong, large, and vocal fan base.
Business at her family-run restaurants remains strong and loyal. In
many ways, though, it just isn’t about her food anymore. If you believe
that her past use of racial slurs makes her a racist, does that mean
that using her cookware or eating in her restaurants makes you a racist,
too? Will making her deep-fried lasagna now be a hate crime?
I like Paula Deen. She comes across as a warm, friendly woman. I’ve
watched her show in the past. I would probably watch it again. I don’t
know if she is a racist. I know I am not. I know that some of her best
known offerings are just not my cup of tea. Her deep-fried lasagna,
stuffing on a stick, and fried butter balls are a little too much for me,
despite my deep, abiding love for all things butter. On the other hand,
some of her casserole dishes are both easy to make and very tasty. Deen
is not fine-dining. A quick perusal of many of her top 100 recipes use
canned vegetables and soups. Her Twinkie pie calls a box of Twinkies.
By the way, those top 100 recipes can be found on foodnetwork.com.
Actually, her recipes are the kind my grandmother would have made, had
she been southern.
Will Deen be able to put it all behind her? It remains to be seen. Not
all her corporate sponsors and partners have deserted her. She has
hired new publicists. Just last month, she appeared on MasterChef. As
I mentioned above, Food Network still has her bio and recipes on its
website. There have been other celebrity chef scandals; The Frugal
Gourmet, Jeff Smith, was sued in 1997, by seven men who claimed he
sexually abused them when they were teenagers. (Smith settled out of
court.) Mario Batali and his partner were sued by their employees, who
accused them of pocketing their tips, among other things. Rumors of
infidelity have swirled around Bobby Flay for years who is married to
actress Stephanie March. And Guy Fieri has been accused of homophobia,
and his Times Square restaurant, Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar was
destroyed by a devastating review by New York Times critic, Peter Wells.
With the exception of Smith, who died in 2004, all these
scandal-touched chefs are still going strong today. So there is hope
for Deen. The public has a way forgiving the likeable among us for
even the egregious sins. Memories fade and images get polished. At some
point in the future, her personal failures will cease to be what she is
about, and the focus will be back on her food.