Sunday, June 18, 2006

5,001 Nights at the Remote.


The other day during a really excellent show about hamburgers, during preparation of the first Paula Deen suddenly realized that she had forgotten to take her jewelry off (ground meat + diamonds = nasty mess). If you've ever seen her eng*g*m*nt r*ng, then you know that this is a fairly serious place for raw meat to become lodged. Anyhow, she said, "I better take these off or Michael will spank me" (meaning her husband). You could see her face change as her thoughts wandered off her normal kitchen patter and she made this hilarious smile at the camera out of the moue she was sporting, then just kept going.

Of the chorus line of chickies on FoodTV, Paula Deen might be my favorite. That moment, which sounds in the telling like nothing very far-out--a kinda rote maewesty nudgenudge TV bit--made me laugh out loud at its spontanaeity. It doesn't rival the One Fat Lady's comment about greasing up with butter like it's Last Tango in Paris, but that isn't her kind of humor, which isn't usually that sly or ironic, but right out front.

I like that she's older. Yes, I do. The average age of a cooking show host on TV keeps getting younger and younger and it's starting to feel like the information they impart--which cycles around this tired track of very common shared cooking knowledge--could't be that useful for anybody, even for a beginner. Either way, the good news is that Paula Deen brings her own (often nicely lightly-worn but) serious cooking experience to the show. She knows a lot about Southern cooking, and although she's sometimes hyperbolic in her natural demeanor, she doesn't have that rhapsodic food anthropologist/foodie air. She knows how to make lacey corn cakes, the real kind, because her dad liked them. Maybe she's dragged out that story a few too many times for the camera, but it's still interesting.

Although we seem to fetishize "peasant" food of other countries like ribolitta or whatever but don't always have that much interest in our own, she is somebody who actually cooks American food that has a real basis in economics. Like her bean patties on white bread (very good). I don't mean all her food does, and I don't know how to explain this very well, but her basic ingredients are often the only ones I've seen that you *can't* spend a lot of money on. Hard to pay a lot for beans. A lot of her shows feature recipes that you really could start from your pantry, not just if your pantry contained perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes and $70 of halibut steaks. She makes lots of fancy stuff too, but somehow her food feels more like cooking--meals--than foregrounded Dishes with a capital D. She's not pushing the food in the camera quite as hard as other TV chefs do in their zeal--she's in charge here.

I like the way she cooks and her depth of knowledge. She has strengths that come from being both a serious home chef and then a restaurateuse. Sometimes her years in restaurant cooking comes out in all the unPC stuff she dips into without a lot of fanfare like Accent, garlic powder or liquid smoke, but it helps make the whole thing feel, well, honest, to use the word in the total MFK Fisher sense of it (as she always used it about food or wine or cooks). PD also uses home cooking shortcuts like the occasional cake mix, but that works too. She is also quite in love with butter and mayonnaise, bless her.

Although she uses a lot of kitchen help to speed things along on her show, she's also clearly in her domain by the way she uses her hands. I've always said that the cooking shows I like the best are the ones where I can turn off the sound and still learn almost as much (one reason Jacques Pepin is King). You learn a lot about how to handle yourself in the kitchen just watching her work. The way she handles meats, the deliberate order in which she does things, the casual way she handles other things. Again, it's a not a ballet of precise show-off choppings--it's just that you get the feeling she's really doing this, she's really done this a hundred times before, and this is how she gets stuff done. There's a certain ease--not bravura--but ease. As a result, she spends much less time than other TV chefs telling you to always do this or to never do that. She just does it and you can judge if it's something you'd do or not yourself.

She's got a seriously "folksy" demeanor...the word oil is "ooooooooohhhhhhr" and the word bread is "braaae-hed." The other day as she poured a glaze onto chocolate bread pudding (sweet jesus did that look good) she said, "ooo, listen to eet goooo-ooooouush." I'm going to guess it could become pretty grating for some people, like the way she attaches gender to foods, especially meats ("I'm going to rub him with a dry rub" about a steak) but I like it, as I like most things about her, since it feels real. She's also pretty. She has beautiful eyes and the most beautiful head of white hair I've ever seen, one that's giving me hope along with Emmilou Harris for the glamour of going greywhite. And her clear happiness in her later-in-life second marriage is very charming. It's a little tedious that even with her very comforting auntie-like persona people don't notice what a glamorous older lady she is.

Folksy TV is still TV, with all its sins and manipulations and overexposures--especially folksy TV--but I still really like this one.

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