Them’s Fightin’ Words
Anthony Bourdain set the food world aflutter about a week ago when he criticized Paula Deen for encouraging Americans to eat food that’s “killing us” and “sucks.” Here’s the full text of the quote that started the whole thing, which appeared in TV Guide Magazine August 18:
The worst, most dangerous person to America is clearly Paula Deen. She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is f—ing bad for you. If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us. Plus, her food sucks.
It was a stupid, incendiary remark. Spite masquerading as “straight talk” and a shameless attempt (on TV Guide’s part, if not Bourdain’s) to manufacture controversy and attract page views. And hypocritical to boot. The claim that Deen has “unholy connections with evil corporations” is mighty rich coming from a guy who shills for Chase Sapphire. Furthermore, Bourdain himself isn’t exactly shy about eating rich, “fattening” foods on his show or serving them at his restaurant, which offers traditional French brasserie fare, including all the requisite butter, beef, bacon, sausage, foie gras, eggs, cream, white bread and fried potatoes. Check out the clip from No Reservations titled "Bourdain makes a deep-fried discovery," in which he points out that in almost every cuisine and every region, someone has figured out that dipping things in batter and cooking them in hot fat tastes pretty darn good before enjoying some deep-fried crab cakes and walleye. I’m not convinced that butter and fried foods are “killing us” or that either he or Paula Deen has a meaningful impact on how very many Americans eat, but I’m also pretty confused why he thinks her cooking is significantly worse for people’s health than he stuff he tells people it’s OK to eat.
Bourdain eventually backed off the hyperbole of his initial remarks on twitter, clarifying that he didn’t say Deen was the worst person in America, just the cook on the Food Network who’s the worst for America and adding that she’s probably very nice “as a person.” He also groused about how no one ever asks him who the best chefs on the Food Network are, and said the next time someone asks him about the worst ones, he’ll keep his mouth shut.
Meanwhile, Deen fired back with a populist appeal. In an interview with The New York Post, she defended her cooking on the grounds that she and the other maligned Food Network hosts feed “regular families” who struggle to put food on the table. She also claimed that she uses her wealth and celebrity for good, pointing out that her “partners” (i.e. the “evil corporations” Bourdain referred to) donate meat to food banks and that the other Food Network hosts also work to help uncontroversial charity targets: the hungry, sick children, and abandoned animals:
“Anthony Bourdain needs to get a life. You don’t have to like my food, or Rachael’s, Sandra’s and Guy’s. But it’s another thing to attack our character. I wake up every morning happy for where I am in life. It’s not all about the cooking, but the fact that I can contribute by using my influence to help people all over the country. In the last two years, my partners and I have fed more than 10 million hungry people by bringing meat to food banks.”
Basting Bourdain for his apparent lack of charity and his attitude, she said, “My good friends Rachael, Guy and Sandra are the most generous charitable folks I know. They give so much of their time and money to help the food-deprived, sick children and abandoned animals. I have no idea what Anthony has done to contribute besides being irritable.
Deen continued, “You know, not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills . . . It wasn’t that long ago that I was struggling to feed my family, too.”
Her attempt to align herself with “regular families” and portray her role as Smithfield’s spokesperson as some kind of charity work is just as ludicrous as Bourdain’s remarks.* She admits she has “no idea” what kind of charitable work Bourdain does or doesn’t do, but certainly implies it’s less than her. And then she mentions expensive foods, as if $650 wine has anything to do with Bourdain’s comments. As Rebecca Marx of the Village Voice pointed out, “Deen is no less a member of the culinary aristocracy than Bourdain—they just belong to country clubs with different rules.”
*Which is not to say that Deen doesn’t do any good work as Smithfield’s spokesperson. Perhaps, like Sandra Lee (another of Bourdain’s targets, although in the TV Guide article he mostly sounds scared of her), she uses her influence as spokesperson to get more food from Smithfield to hungry people. Taking their money and promoting the brand doesn’t mean she necessarily agrees with everything they do; perhaps she figures she can do more good that way than by refusing their money on principle. But I also doubt her deal with them is entirely about charity and not at all about personal gain.
Pot, meet Kettle
I’m not convinced the rules they’re following are really so different. Deen and Bourdain have both established their brands and built their celebrity by catering to essentially the same mass desires. First, they trade heavily on the fetishization of “authenticity.” Deen plays up her Savannah roots, performing what essentially amounts to a drag version of genteel Southern whiteness*—an exaggerated drawl and big hair and constant ya’lling and calling everyone “honey.” Bourdain does it by seeking out street food and the off-the-beaten-path restaurants that only the locals know about, or, even better, people who will cook “traditional” foods for him in their homes.
Both of them serve up something that looks and feels “real” in a way that answers the dissatisfactions of global capitalism and the seeming unreality and homogeneity of mass production, multinational corporate brands, slick but empty advertising, artificial flavoring. As Andrew Potter argues in The Authenticity Hoax, the search for the “authentic” is largely a disguised form of status-seeking, and it’s a particular preoccupation of the wealthy, educated classes. As he explains in an interview with WorldHum:
There are certainly authentic experiences—insofar as the authentic is defined as something that’s a refuge from the modern world. But what I try to argue in the book is that the search for the authentic comes at a price. It tends to be quite expensive to find these things. The other side is that it ends up an arms race….
People have sort of authenticity in degrees. For instance, let’s say the absolute fake is going to some Italian restaurant in some fake Venice in Vegas. That’s the absolute fake. Here in Toronto, where I live, you can go down to little Italy and go to an authentic Italian restaurant, probably run by real Italians. And then you could actually go to Venice. And once you’re there, you can either go to the tourist traps they have all set up for tourists, or if you’re really lucky you know a local who will actually make you a dinner in Venice, which you would call the epitome of authenticity. So all these things have varying degrees of authenticity to them and, not coincidentally, they have varying degrees of priciness attached to them.
Secondly, they both celebrate a particular form of illicit gustatory pleasure and culinary excess. Deen’s unabashed love of butter and bacon and Bourdain’s celebration of meat and alcohol offer an antidote to anxieties about eating “right” and the repressed, Puritanical elements of both diet culture and the Organic/vegetarian/macrobiotic/fair-trade/raw/local/sustainable movement.
You can tell it’s about backlash & rebellion, rather than just what Bourdain and Deen happen to genuinely enjoy, because they’re clearly aiming for shock value as much as for deliciousness. When Deen pretends she’s going to drink melted butter (see below) or makes burgers topped with bacon and egg with glazed donuts in place of the bun, she’s deliberately thumbing her nose at the current nutritional establishment that says calorie-dense food and fat, especially saturated fat, is Public Enemy #1.
Bourdain’s whole persona is based on the bad boy reputation he cultivated in his first memoir, which is as much about sex, drugs, and rock and roll as it is about cooking. And he says nasty things about Vegans and Alice Waters and seemingly takes any opportunity to talk about how much he and his daughter like to eat bunnies (not rabbit, mind).**
Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.
They both specifically delight in being naughty, in breaking the rules. And people who are similarly fatigued or fed up with dietary rule-making (which fatigue, again, is more prevalent in the wealthy, educated classes who make the rules in the first place) or just hate The Man in general absolutely love them for it, though rarely both of them. They are competing brands, but they work in basically the same way.
*Which is not to say it’s entirely fake or 100% an act. Both Deen’s and Bourdain’s public personas are probably like any of our social selves—socially-constructed identities that aren’t exactly real, but also aren’t exactly fake and change according to context. I doubt either Deen or Bourdain have deliberately concocted every aspect of their personas to appeal to mass audiences in these ways—what’s more likely is that they have achieved success where other aspiring celebrities have not because their personas happen to resonate with current popular desires and fears, which makes them effective entertainers. But that doesn’t mean they’re just being “true to themselves,” whatever that even means. Neither of them is probably 100% the same on and off camera. In some sense, both of them are probably relatively savvy managers of their personas, because they’re extremely valuable brands. I’m sure they think about how their performances, including things they say to TV Guide or The New York Post, will affect how their fans and critics perceive them. And it would be almost inhuman if they didn’t attempt to manipulate the outcome at least a little bit, even if usually in subtle ways like saying “ya’ll” or “fuck” just a little more frequently.
**Oddly, Deen has also talked about eating rabbit—supposedly her grandfather would hunt rabbit and squirrel before going to work in the morning and her grandmother would skin them and cook them for breakfast with grits and biscuits and honey.
Win, Lose, or Draw?
So the answer to the question of who’s the real elitist is probably “both” or “neither.” They’re both playing the same game: enabling the dominant social class to justify status-seeking by playing the role of rebels against the Culinary Establishment. They offer foodies plausible deniability about the pretensions involved in the middle-class preoccupation with food. At the same time, they both celebrate the lowbrow, the un-pretentious, and the debased bodily pleasures of eating and drinking. Neither of them is typically in the business of telling people how they “should” eat, except to the extent that they reinforce particular constructions of “authenticity” and desirability.
I can see why The Atlantic declared the results of the fight to be a “draw.” But I think Deen ultimately gained the advantage. Even people who thought Deen’s comments were stupid seem to agree with her that Bourdain was being a snob. By portraying him as the one with exclusive tastes, reminding people that he’s a professional globe-trotter, and reducing his rebellion to mere irritability, she made Bourdain into the Culinary Establishment. Even if people roll their eyes at the idea that she’s really on the side of the “regular families,” she successfully re-framed the fight. Also from The Atlantic:
What They Say They’re Fighting About: If Paula Deen is "the most dangerous person in America" or some permutation of that charge. Bourdain points to her caloric recipes and mass-appeal. Deen refers to her charity work and Bourdain’s lack thereof.
What They’re Really Fighting About: Class, privilege, and good food–and whether the first two are connected to the second.
If it’s a fight about health, she loses. If it’s a fight about class, then Bourdain is the snob because he’s the one saying her food is bad, and she’s the rube saying “to each his own.” The best evidence of her success is Frank Bruni’s piece in The New York Times, whose title is a barb aimed directly at Bourdain: “Unsavory Culinary Elitism.” Although Bruni agrees with Bourdain that Americans are too fat and laughs at Deen’s attempt at populist identification, he ultimately sides with her and scolds Bourdain for “looking down” on people with less money or less sophisticated tastes:
Put aside her one-with-the-masses pose, ludicrous in light of the millions she has made from television shows, cookbooks, cookware, mattresses and more. She’s otherwise 100 percent justified in assailing the culinary aristocracy, to which even a self-styled bad boy like Bourdain belongs, for an often selective, judgmental and unforgiving worldview….
To give him his due: we are too fat and must address that. But getting Deen to unplug the waffle iron doesn’t strike to the core of the problem any more than posting fast-food calorie counts or taxing soft drinks do. A great deal of American obesity is attributable to the dearth of healthy food that’s affordable and convenient in low- and even middle-income neighborhoods, and changing that requires a magnitude of public intervention and private munificence that are unlikely in such pinched times….
I prefer his TV show, “No Reservations,” a summons to eat adventurously around the world, to any of Deen’s. But these preferences reflect privileges and don’t entitle me, Bourdain or anyone else who trots the globe and visits ambitious restaurants — the most casual of which can cost $50 a person and entail hourlong waits — to look down on food lovers without the resources, opportunity or inclination for that.
Bourdain has probably eaten $50 meals far less often than Bruni, the former NYT restaurant critic, but it’s easy to elide Bourdain’s globe-trotting in search of what Potter calls the “epitome of authenticity” with the practice of eating at “ambitious restaurants.” Getting street food in Thailand is certainly as far out of reach for most Americans as the latter. Highlighting the exclusivity of his habits hurts Bourdain’s brand. Suddenly, instead of playing David to the Food Network’s Goliath, he’s Anton Ego and Paula Deen looks more like one of the rats who cooks delicious but humble peasant food.
I’m sure the damage to his reputation hasn’t been significant—his fans love him because he’s kind of a jerk, not in spite of it. But I think his tweet was right: if someone in the media comes calling, asking you to say nasty things about other people, you should probably just shut up.