Friday, January 20, 2012

Paula and Pound Cake

If you have been anywhere around a TV or the internet over the past few days, I’m sure you have heard about so-called “Queen of Southern Cooking” Paula Deen’s admission on the Today show that she has Type 2 Diabetes – the most common type of diabetes which typically develops in adulthood and is linked to obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Approximately 25 million Americans suffer from the disease and numbers continue to rise as the obesity epidemic continues to spiral out of control. Her announcement, endorsement deal and the surrounding fall-out has been dubbed “PaulabetesGate” by

Her announcement and others' reactions have brought to forefront some interesting questions:
  • What is Southern food?
  • Who represents it?
  • Is Southern food inherently bad for you?
  • What responsibility do celebrity chefs have to their audience?

Everyone, from chefs like Hugh Acheson and, of course, her nemesis, Anthony Bourdain seems to have an opinion. Not surprisingly, I do too! Here’s my take. It would be one thing if Deen said, “Hey y’all (in her trademark style)! I have diabetes and I’ve changed my lifestyle and diet – and I want to help you do that, too.” Instead, she kept her condition private for three years – which is her right – while she continued to cook deep-fried cheesecake and hawk her butter flavored lip balm (for real). However, in fairness, she’s also endorsing my organic Georgia-grown Springer Mountain Farms chicken (oh, and mattresses and cookware and I can’t even keep up). It wasn’t until she had a paid endorsement deal with big pharma and a new health-focused Food Network show for her son, Jamie, that she made her condition public. Coincidence? I think not.

Paula's on my chicken.

In the Today show interview with Al Roker, she said something that really stood out to me. When going on about how she isn’t going to change the way she cooks because it’s all about moderation, she said, “Like I told Oprah, 'Honey, I’m your cook, not your doctor.'” That quote just cemented to me the real problem. We are a nation of Paula Deens. We think of nutrition and medicine as completely separate entities. We think that it doesn’t matter so much what or how much you eat until you get sick. Then you see your doctor, they give you some common sense nutritional guidelines (that we all should be following in the first place) and put you on some meds. We go home and maybe half-heartedly follow the nutrition and exercise guidelines, but we sure do take our pills. “I want that new Paula Deen drug!” we tell our doctors. Problem solved – or so it seems.

Now, I’m not saying that diabetics don’t need insulin or that if you have high cholesterol you don’t need a statin. I’m just saying that we are completely missing the boat on prevention. The fact that nutrition, lifestyle and the practice of medicine all go hand in hand is something that we have to get through our thick skulls. And it’s not easy. I use “we” because I am including myself in these sweeping statements. I happily bake the three sticks of butter and five egg kinds of desserts that Paula is known for, but of course I know that I can’t bake or eat them all the time. I also love restaurant food, much of which is laden with fat and salt. As Southern food writer and chef Virginia Willis astutely points out in her interview with the New York Times: “No one vilifies Michelin chefs for putting sticks of butter in their food,” she said. “But when a Southern woman does it, that’s tacky.”

Problem is Paula is kind of tacky – and that’s why people love her. I have to admit that we she first came on the scene I was enamored. She reminded me of many of the hilarious Southern women I grew up with. I admired how she worked hard, overcame obstacles and made a name for herself. However, over the years, I’ve grown increasingly tired of seeing her mug all over everything – including my chicken. (At least she has some integrity with that deal, though.) Now, thanks in part to “PaulabetesGate,” I’m completely over it. Most of all, I’m tired of people thinking that she represents authentic Southern cooking. Yes, some of the food she cooks is true to tradition, but much of it is deep fried and over the top for sheer entertainment purposes. Once again, I will turn to Virginia Willis who I think put it nicely: “Paula’s food often reflects modern cooking and convenience foods more than Southern tradition. She feels like she cooks for ‘real people,’ and for better or worse, that is how many people in this country choose to eat.”

But, we’re eating stupid, y’all. I just prepared a meal for someone who is recovering from heart surgery. He knows he has to embark on a new diet and lifestyle, but he loves good ol’ Southern cooking. It wasn't that difficult to come up with a meal that was healthy, low sodium but still flavorful “comfort food.”  I slow cooked some dried pinto beans with peppered turkey bacon, made cornbread from fresh ground local corn, sauteed spinach and made a low-fat chocolate pound cake for a special treat. I’m not going to lie and say that it was as good as this traditional pound cake I made. Part of what makes pound cake so delicious is the pound of butter that’s in it! However, this version only uses a fraction of the butter and non-fat yogurt for added moisture. I topped it with some melted dark chocolate chips and raw sugar for a little extra sweetness. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Give it a try and see what you think.

Finally, let me end by sending out a great big “bless your heart” out to Paula. Southerners know this phrase has multiple meanings. Clearly, I’m not a fan of her gimmicky cooking and shameless promotionalism, but at the end of the day she is a person struggling to make the best choices just like the rest of us. No one is waving money in my face so it’s easy for me to sit back and say, “I would never do that!” I just know there was a missed opportunity here – and I hope she will use her celebrity to teach people about real food, diet-based diabetes management and real Southern cooking based on our strong agrarian tradition. Yes, we enjoy our bacon and butter – but there’s more to Southern cooking than that.

Chocolate Pound Cake Loaf (Reduced Fat)
Adapted from Baking Bites 

1 cup white whole wheat flour (I used fresh-ground which is extra tender)
½ cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup butter, room temperature
1 cups sugar (I used organic, less refined)
¼ cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg white
1/4 cup low-fat milk (could also use soy or almond milk)
1 tablespoon water
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup plain non-fat Greek yogurt

Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease a 9×5-inch loaf pan or four mini-loaf pans (as I did). In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in egg and egg white. Mix in 1/3 of the flour and cocoa mixture.
In a small bowl, whisk together milk, water, vanilla and yogurt until mixture is smooth. Add half of this mixture to the sugar mixture, followed by another 1/3 of the flour mixture. Stir in remaining yogurt and remaining flour, stirring until just mixed.

Pour batter into prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake for 55-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. For mini-loafs, baking time will be even less – about 35-40 minutes. Let cake cool in pan for about 10 minutes, then carefully release the cake and cool on a wire rack before slicing. Decorate with melted chocolate chips or a glaze if desired.


  1. Insightful and well written post Rachel.

    Getting organic things over here takes a bit of work, but I think it's time to move in that direction when I can. The pound cakes look lovely, by the way.

  2. Thanks @ Christine and Steve. It was surprisingly moist and satisfying. Of course, it would be better with some ice cream and homemade fudge sauce on top! :) @Kim, thanks for reading. I imagine it is hard to find organic things where you are. Your kids are going to be excellent multicultural eaters, though. What an adventure!

  3. I am not sure you understood what Paula Deen was saying. I did not listen to her on The Today Show, but I did on a few other shows. She did not tell people to take a pill instead of eating better. I am a type 2 diabetic myself for about ten years. Medication is what you take when the diet and exercise do not do enough to help lower blood sugar. It is not something you do instead.
    The drug company is sponsoring a Paula Deen diabetes website that helps people do all the things they can do to help them fight diabetes. In addition, her son, Bobby, has a cooking show called "No my Mama's Meals" where he has created healthier versions on her recipes.
    Also, I have read over the recipes on her original website and own one of her books. The majority of her recipes are not excessively full of fat and sugar and those that are are special occasion foods such as cakes. Fat and sugar is what makes food taste good and Paula is no worse about it than Emril Lagasse or Julia Child (whose books I also own.
    Let's be fair. It is not her job to provide healthy food for America. It is her job to create delicious food that people want to buy. It is our choice to eat it or not.

  4. Thanks, Margaret, for your comment. I watched the Today show episode and that's what this editorial is based upon. I know that medication is often a very necessary part of diabetes treatment. I certainly do not fault her or anyone else for taking medication. My problem is that she explicitly said her interview with Al Roker that she was not changing the way she cooks and she seemed to downplay the importance of diet as risk factor for Type 2 Diabetes. I have watched her shows and read her recipes. Yes, many of them are "normal" comfort food recipes, however her trademark and brand in recent years has become processed, deep fried and butter laden foods. She seriously has a recipe for deep fried butter balls! I get it -- it's part of her schtick. Yes, it is ultimately up to people to decide what they eat or not. And you're right -- plenty of other TV chefs cook fattening food. However, they don't endorse medications. Paula said, "I'm your cook, not your doctor." However, why is she trying to "sell" people on a certain brand of medication - one that I understand is somewhat controversial and expensive? That's really my problem. I'm glad that the website will provide recipes and dietary guidance, but let's be honest, the real purpose behind the site is to sell medication. Of course, this is my perspective on the issue and we are all different. Again, I thank you for reading and taking time to share your opinion.

  5. Paula's food would be healthier if she explored more of the food traditions of the old south and abandoned processed ingredients for real food ingredients. That would be a step in the right direction. She would still be cooking the comfort foods she loves minus the trans-fats and heavy doses of sugar.