31 August 2011

Is elitism a bad thing?

Sass-mouthed celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is in the news for picking on sweet, down-to-earth little ol' Paula Deen.  He is the edgy, former druggie who brought you such bedtime classics as Kitchen Confidential (in which you learn that, yes, sometimes cooks put pubic hair in your food) and No Reservations, a culinarily adventurous television program in which he sometimes eats anuses. She is the Georgia peach who taught us how to embrace our love of butter on The Food Network and in her many cookbooks.

So the gist of the argument, in case you have been living under a rock, is that Bourdain has said some not-so-nice stuff about Paula Deen being fat and practicing unhealthy cooking habits.  He does not lie.  He also got personal and said her food was crap, and maybe that didn't help his argument much.  But his major complaint is that, in a country gripped by an ever-increasing obesity epidemic, perhaps it is not helpful to push fried chicken and biscuits and gravy up close o the tv camera, no matter how much we like them.  Paula has retorted with a very populist defense, reminding Bourdain that not everyone can afford fancy menu ingredients and that she is cooking for real people, not the elite minority.  You can follow some of the juicy details here.

What Deen has not come out and said, but it seems to be lingering in the air, is that Bourdain is an arugula-eating (remember that gem from the last presidential race?), homosexual socialist.  Or something like that.  OK, Bourdain is abrasive in his use of language, which is a major part of his celebrity persona, but is he wrong to point out that we should stop eating junk all the time?  Meals made of various shades of tan with no green or red on the plate ARE helping to degrade the health of many members of American society, and this is a problem.  First lady Michelle Obama is struggling to tackle this issue on a national level, and despite her sweet, nurturing rhetoric, she has been painted as an enemy much like the swaggering, f-bomb-dropping Bourdain.

This pseudo-populist rhetoric, adopted by the mega-rich Bush regime of the early '00s (QUESTION: who would you rather drink a beer with? ANSWER: the guy who gives rich people tax breaks!) and equally mega-rich Paula Deen, whose stardom on The Food Network has led to a culinary empire worth undisclosed millions, is ridiculous.  Perhaps she is reflecting the taste of poor people in Georgia, but she has no right to wear that badge of honor as if she was one of them.  And she certainly isn't doing anything to help them by improving their fatty recipes.  When her very expensive physician tells her that she is suffering from  lard-induced heart disease, she will be able to pay the best physical trainers and nutritionists to get her back on track and nurse her to health; what of her "regular folk"?

There is more fresh produce and healthy food available at reasonable prices in this country than ever before (and if the government ended subsidies to the dairy and beef industries, who knows, that stuff might be cheaper yet).  Why not teach regular people, many of whom currently live without health insurance or regular doctor visits,  how to make healthy food taste good in an economical way?  I am an unrepentant cheapskate, and I do it almost every meal.  By pretending this fight is about snobs vs. the "little guy", Deen and her ilk somehow present diet-induced heart disease, obesity, high cholesterol, and premature death as the American Way.  This attitude is illogical, patronizing, and painfully transparent--she waves the American flag in order to sell you more cookbooks, fatty salad dressings, and speckled enamel bakeware.  Don't be fooled, regular folk: Anthony Bourdain doesn't hate you (well, maybe he does, but you can ignore that part)--he just wants you to put down the rum cake.