Friday, August 26, 2011

Frank Bruni on the Anthony Bourdain-Paula Deen Dust-Up: Unsavory Elitism

I think Frank Bruni is right on target with his critique of the unsavory cultural elitism that underlies Anthony Bourdain's recent attack on Paula Deen.  First, a disclaimer: I've never watched either of these food authorities on television, and never read anything either has written, though I've read articles about both.

Bourdain turns me off from the get-go.  When I light on any one of the numerous food shows hosted by that growing breed of Über-macho food stars strutting their culinary stuff, I change the channel.  I just can't take the swagger, the foul language, the peacock posturing, and, often, the plain ignorance of this set of food authorities.  

The foodways I value have been mediated to me and my Southern culture largely by women--by loving black and white women whose labor and talent in the kitchen have often gone unrewarded and unnoticed, but who have managed to hold onto and transmit a cuisine deservedly recognized around the world as second to none, when it comes to flavor, use of fresh, local ingredients, and the skills required to cook its authentic dishes.

Most of the women from whom I learned to cook would, I feel in my bones, have been inclined to brandish one of their heavy black iron skillets and order the likes of Messrs. Bourdain, Flay, Ramsay, Fieri, or Oliver out of their kitchens.  After washing out several of their mouths with lye soap . . . . It takes time, energy, and focus to cook the way those traditional Southern women cooks have always cooked, and when they're turning out one of their first-rate meals, they don't have leftover attention for adolescent boys' antics.

I haven't watched or read Deen because, well, I already know how to cook the kind of food she features.  And if Bourdain is right about her reliance on Crisco, I cook a different version of it and am not especially eager to learn about her version of Southern cooking.  

But I do think Bruni is right on target with his critique of the elitism that underlies assessments of Southern foodways (and other heartland American foodways) such as Bourdain's.  It takes affluence to buy and eat the way many of our food mavens want us to buy and eat.  For those raising families on dwindling salaries during this time of recession, putting filling food on the table at the lowest cost possible is an understandable priority.

And one of the reasons we're becoming an obese and underfed culture is that it's tempting to meet that requirement--big amounts of cheap food--by relying on fast food.  Which amps up carbs and fats that particularly appeal to hungry people who work hard.  And at a relatively low cost.  And which is hyped constantly through television ads, billboards, and so forth, and so its appeal is all the more understandable.

If we want to combat the poor nutritional habits of most Americans, we need to address the economic problems that issue in those habits.  Elitist scolding is not going to help.  Particularly not when, as Bruni notes, there's more than a little hypocrisy in the food snobbery that turns up its nose at Southern-fried chicken while swooning over an exotic multisyllabic panko-coated version of the very same dish if it's cooked by a chef belonging to a chic and politically-anointed culture:

When Deen fries a chicken, 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. Her strips of bacon, skirting pancakes, represent heedless gluttony. Chang’s dominoes of pork belly, swaddled in an Asian bun, signify high art. 

People who gorge on fatty fried chicken are gross and not quite U.  But people who scarf down big feeds of fat-laden pâté and duck confit are sophisticates.  There's some pretty crude prejudice at work in these assumptions, and it's insupportable and more than a little dissembling.

Though Paula Deen should ditch the Crisco.  If she does, indeed, rely on it.

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