When Anthony Bourdain now infamously called Paula Deen, “the worst, most dangerous person to America” in an interview with TV Guide, it was largely met with rolled eyes and taken with a huge chunk of salt. After all, this is hardly new territory for Bourdain, who has previously skewered the likes of Bobby Flay, Sandra Lee, Rachel Ray and Emeril Lagasse. When you really think about it, attacking other chefs that he perceived as doing a disservice to the profession is a large part of what made Bourdain famous in the first place.
What was surprising, then, was not that Bourdain found yet another celebrity chef to lash out at, but rather that this chef was the seemingly innocuous Paula Deen. As far as anyone knew, Deen had never provoked Bourdain in any way; they likely had never even met. Adding to the overall strangeness of the situation was that much of his past criticism of chefs had to do with the superficiality of celebrity chef culture and were basically harmless snipes, but his criticism of Deen in TV Guide seemed not only over the top, but also filled with genuine malice.
On the surface, it was hard to see what Bourdain’s intentions were. Why go out of your way to slander a TV personality who had never said a negative thing about you? For Bourdain critics, this only added fuel to the fire that he had turned into a sad caricature of his former self, once again bashing a celebrity chef to gain some attention. As for neutral observers, it would be difficult to side with the foul-mouthed Bourdain over the charming, down-home Deen, especially when Bourdain’s comments seemed unprovoked.
Yet, at the same time, the strangeness of Bourdain’s attack points to something much deeper going on in the food world and food culture than a simple spat between celebrity chefs. Bourdain would go on to elaborate on his comments, “ 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.”
So, in Bourdain’s eyes, it’s not about the fact that Deen is yet another cheesy, celebrity chef; it’s really about considering our national epidemic, and how people in the spotlight of food culture — i.e. celebrity chefs like Deen — should take time to consider their actions before promoting an unhealthy lifestyle to a nation that sorely needs to back away from that very lifestyle.
In order to gain some perspective on the subject, let’s take a quick look at some of the facts. Obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. More than one third of all adults in the U.S. are considered obese, while 17% of children and adolescents (ages 2-19) are obese. In 2010, no state had prevalence for obesity less that 20%. As a person’s weight increases to the levels referred to as obese, their risks for conditions such as, but not limited to, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and certain cancers increase. Obesity was linked to 10% of all medical costs in the U.S. in the last year alone, and from this it is easy to see how many now view this problem as an epidemic.
Although Bourdain’s tactics of approaching the problem were brash and not at all diplomatic, he is nonetheless addressing a serious societal problem that shouldn’t be simply swept under the rug. With a quick glance at some of Deen’s signature recipes, it becomes harder and harder to dismiss Bourdain’s comments. Her cookbooks are littered with recipes for “Deep Fried Lasagna,” “Bacon Cheeseburger Meatloaf” and, yes, the surreal “Bacon-Doughnut Burger.” It would be difficult for anyone to ignore the relation between the glorification of these types of indulgent recipes and the current obesity crisis.
Deen has since responded to the criticism of Bourdain, saying on the “Today” show, “On my show, I share with you all these yummy, fattening recipes, but I tell people ‘in moderation.'” This logic is deeply flawed at best. If obesity is in fact a disease (as some doctors are now suggesting), then Deen’s comments become even more absurd. Would it make any sense to tell someone a factory worker that it’s OK to continue working amidst asbestos as long as it’s in moderation?
Recently, Deen’s credibility has taken another hit, when it was announced that she had had Type 2 diabetes for nearly three years, yet continued to promote her overly indulgent foods. Adding to the somewhat sinister quality behind all this, Deen recently announced the launch of a new campaign called, “Diabetes in a New Light”, promoting diabetes-friendly foods along with the diabetes drug Novo Nordisk. Obviously, Bourdain could not miss the chance to comment on this as he snarkily tweeted recently, “Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business so I can profitably sell crutches later”. Snarkiness aside, he’s right in his assessment of Deen. The concealment of her diagnosis, while all the while intending to at some point promote a diabetes drug and a new line of diabetes-friendly food, seems highly questionable, if not outright wrong.
In fairness, we shouldn’t let Bourdain off so easy either. Recently Bourdain attended the South Beach Food and Wine Festival (Deen was also in attendance) and was asked by chef Eddie Huang if he wasn’t a hypocrite for smoking on his show while at the same time making fun of poor Paula Deen for having diabetes. His response was genius, “You’re right. I did smoke cigarettes for a lot of years on my show. But I wasn’t selling [expletive] cigarettes…And when I found a spot on my [expletive] lung, I didn’t wait three years so I could get a deal selling the patch.” The same can be said for his eating of fatty foods on his show. While he has eaten plenty of unhealthy fare on show, he has never promoted it as a healthy lifestyle, often commenting on his poor health decisions in a self-deprecating manner.
In a recent New York Times article, columnist Frank Bruni noted that Bourdain’s choice of words was poor and is likely to cause more resentment than to lead to any of the positive changes which he was speaking up for. This is a valid criticism and even Bourdain has noted that he is sick of his own attacks on other chefs. However, it’s still hard not to side with Bourdain against Deen in their recent feud.
Although clearly overstated, his criticism of Deen is an important one and shines a bright light not only on the hypocrisy of Deen’s actions, but also on a serious concern about U.S. food culture. While there are clearly more dangerous threats to America than Paula Deen, there’s no denying that the lifestyle she has become famous for promoting is legitimately dangerous to the health of Americans and burdening our already in-debt country with more significant healthcare costs. Hopefully, in the future, Bourdain will be able to express himself with more lucidity so that his message will be more easily accessible and not as easily dismissed. At the same time, we must thank him for being an outspoken critic against everything that is wrong with U.S. food culture and hope that he continues to be America’s food conscience.
Charlie is a writer and editor. His work has been published in Gold Coast Magazine and can be seen online at The Rumpus, SB Nation and The Hockey Writers.