UPDATE 1/23/12: For an extended and refined version of this post, please see my commentary in the Outlook section of January 22’s Washington Post: What Paula Deen Didn’t Bring To The Table.
It could have been a turning point in America’s war on obesity. This morning on the Today show, Food Network star Paula Deen—the queen of deep-fried Twinkies—admitted that she had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. But when asked whether fans should cut back on the “yummy, fattening” recipes she promotes, she told Al Roker: “Honey I’m your cook, not your doctor.”
Deen’s position is hardly a surprise. This is a woman known for fried chicken and broccoli “salad” that includes sugar, mayonnaise, cheese and bacon. Deen knows that even a mention of healthy, responsible eating could undermine her multimillion-dollar television-and-cookbook empire built on the glories sugar and lard.
Still, it was a grand disappointment. While everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Frank Bruni have called Deen a menace to a healthy society, I always believed that Deen, or someone like her, might be the key to change. Everyday Americans, including a large number that struggle with weight and diabetes, like Deen. They listen to her. As I wrote in a piece on the Atlantic in August, Deen, despite herself, might just be the secret ingredient to changing the way Americans eat.
If that sounds ridiculous, think again about the power of celebrity-awareness campaigns. Magic Johnson singlehandedly changed the debate about the AIDS virus when he public with his diagnosis of HIV. (It’s worth noting, too, that the move hasn’t damaged his career as a broadcaster and endorser.) Christopher Reeves, aka Superman, raised money for research on spinal cord injuries and public empathy for people with disabilities. Lance Armstrong, despite all the controversy over doping, has made supporting cancer research eminently cool
Deen has chosen a different path. Three years after her diagnosis, she’s signed on as a paid spokeswoman for diabetes drugs–her way, she says, of bringing something to the table. Moreover, she denies that her fat-and-sugar-laden recipes have any role to play in the skyrocketing rates of Type 2 diabetes. Fans may see her on TV twice a day swooning over cream pies and “Uncle Bubba’s Wings” but she only cooks and eats that kind of food while filming: “30 days out of 365 days — and it’s for entertainment.”
In the end, Deen told Al Roker: “You have to be responsible for yourself.” It’s advice that the fatty-food diva clearly and cynically has decided to follow herself.