“Southern or not, we all live somewhere on a continuum between Tofurky and Terducken.” — Bob Rini
Today the news broke that Paula Deen has Type 2 diabetes.
<Pause for Inner Moral Battle that probably ends with Guilty, Helpless Succumbing to Pithy/Catty Line about Oh, The Irony.>
Me, I immediately flashed on the recent MLA convention. A good and true friend was giving a paper on Cormac McCarthy and Irish mythology. Next on the panel was a paper on Lee Smith’s novel Oral History, in which the protagonist is a young girl digging for her family history among a slew of Appalachian stereotypes she’s a little too quick to embrace. Following that was a paper on “True Blood” (famously set in Louisiana and derived from Southern mythologies – Vampire Bill used to be a Confederate general!) and a couple graphic novels I’d never heard of but vowed to check out immediately — including one about zombies taking over the city of Atlanta [“what’s fictional about THAT?” rumble the voices of my rural ancestors in my head, at least one of whom famously remarked that “the only reason anybody’d WANT to go to Atlanta would be so they could turn their back on the LAND and LOSE THEIR SOUL.” <Emphasis original.>] It felt really good to be listening to such sharp, intelligent commentary, and learning so much. It felt even better to be — for the first time in a long time — in a roomful of other Southern voices, in a professional context where a Southern voice can make people — especially other academics — shy away. Whether they know it or not, when they hear your Southern accent you can see a momentary flicker in their eyes, the briefest question — “How did this person get in here?” — before they smile at you and conversation proceeds as normal, including the usual doglike sniffings and gambits by which academics establish their various bona fides. (Creative writers do this too. It just looks a little different. Watch out, AWP!)
Anyway, listening to these papers on various Southern mythologies and the walking dead (gobbling, consuming, bloodsucking, eating anything in their path and replicating themselves on their victims as a sort of metastasis), I found myself weirdly drawn to think about Paula Deen. And, of course, to throw those ideas out there. This may seem kind of wack-ass, y’all, I said during the Q&A [I didn’t say “wack-ass,” but I did say “y’all”], but to me these sorts of pop-culture Southern artifacts, which all have a sly questioning of Southern mythologies at their heart, tie in in really interesting ways to Paula Deen. I just don’t think it’s an accident that the most prominent pop-cultural representations of Southernness right now are “True Blood” vampires and the zombies in this graphic novel and Paula Deen, who is not just a Southern cook but an over-the-top Southern cook, who just revels in the fact that her food is so sinfully delicious and bad for you, and it is messy and bodily and just kind of takes you over. And she KNOWS this about herself and her food, and presents it as a half-serious, half-self-satirical image of “Southernness,” just as “True Blood” and the graphic novels do. We are the South, and we can laugh at ourselves, but we are coming for you, and we are going to take you over and eat you up, and you will like it. Kind of a return of Peter Applebome‘s thesis from the ’90s. So these are my ideas on the myth of the devouring South…. Discuss.
The panelists were polite and intrigued and welcoming about the ideas, but the real enthusiasts — “that was SO COOL!” “that is SUCH a neat connection!” — were other women in the audience. Why is that? I wondered. And I wondered, why do I care about any of this? Well. Being an English professor with a very particular body of my own — which has been described in terms of hair, height, general mesomorphism, obvious Southern accent and mannerisms, and overall Boudiccan affect as “big” — I immediately went all gender-studies and Southern-studies and academic on it. (Big/flowing/uncontrolled hair has a history of its own, of course, going back to the Romantics, into which I have not gone as fully as I might and will unfortunately not take up again here.) Bear with me, y’all, while I try and play this out.
Like a Southern dinner table — in which I reveled, again, over the holidays — this topic just offers me an embarrassment of riches. But maybe I should start with these two clips. The first is one of Paula Deen’s most notorious moments. The second is the trailer for a new film featuring two of the most famously “bodied” women in modern popular culture, Dolly Parton — herself a justly celebrated Southern icon — and Queen Latifah, known for being not just confident and talented but proudly plus-sized.
What do I notice? Immediately, what was both a cliche and a reality of my Southern upbringing: that a shared sensory pleasure — here, food and song — can release Southern women toward themselves, and toward each other. Even if the media moments here are (over-)scripted, the emotions they may be rousing in their viewers may very well be real. The racial politics of the Southern kitchen are famously vexed: the white woman and the black woman have not always been chummy television equals but more frequently Mistress and Maid, Lady and Help. Yet too many memories insist in me that among the complicated elements at work in this relationship was real relationship: shared knowledge, shared effort, shared respect, and, yes, shared pleasure. Think about the moments when conversations with your mother, or your sister, or your girlfriends break into places of greater intimacy, naughtiness, giggling and self-conscious but terribly freeing wickedness: how many of them involve food? Booze? Cigarettes? I’ve got a bunch that I won’t go into here; I know y’all do too. Think about the texture of those confidences, of that feeling inside yourself of relaxation and delight and a sort of freefall of vulnerability: what you offered, what you put forth of yourself, would be accepted and met, even across differences. Because shared sensory delight can create such a space of shared openness and trust between women, based on — for the moment — delight rather than shame in the bodies the world so often does want us to be ashamed of. Food is political, and it is apolitical — a space to mug and camp and perform female friendship in a way both self-knowing and sincere — all at exactly the same time. This is the space of contradiction in which we live with regard to our sensory, desiring selves. Isn’t it? In the heft and loft of deliciousness — like that of song — we can transcend the body through the body itself, reach for a pleasure rooted in the senses even as it reaches beyond them.
So much of this pleasure, too, is rebellion. You say I can’t eat that, smoke that, drink that? Or drink/eat/smoke any MORE of that? You want me to be quiet and sit down? Fuck you, Jack. Whatever else it can express — good and bad — a big, expansive female body can say exactly that to all the forces in this world that want women’s bodies to stay small, manageable, silent, and under their control, literally and figuratively. These currents take their most extreme shapes in men like this, who stunned his girlfriend with a Taser and buried her alive in a cardboard box; she cut herself free — ironically — with her engagement ring. This is the nightmare nestling at the base of every woman’s spine. Captured, held, imprisoned in a small dark space — the trunk of a car, a closet, a coffin. Maimed and ruined and made dead. Not reanimated in any sort of vampiric or zombie life. Never again to rise. Completely, completely under control. As novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and studies like Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism reveal, this is one slender bridge from repression of one type to repression of another. Totalitarianism begins with control of the elusive, intangible self achieved first through control of the physical vessel that carries it. The Ingsoc of George Orwell’s novel 1984 famously starts engineering humanity out of existence by erasing the intellectual and sensory pleasures of language; its next step — and, to Orwell and to me, an intimately related one — is to “abolish” the orgasm. “Our neurologists are at work upon it now,” the torturer O’Brien assures captive Winston Smith. In isolating the body, you deprive it of a good bit of its revolutionary capability. But when bodies, senses, appetites join together, they can be powerfully revolutionary. Look at the moments in Southern literature and history when black women and white women, or black people and white people, have found common ground, however troubled or partial. Look what it rests on. So frequently, that common ground is food.
This is one reason why Paula Deen’s caloric, bodily gloriousness feels so warm and so freeing to me, at a level deeper maybe, even, than anyone consciously knows or intends. This is the Rabelaisian, life-affirming cackle and mmmmmm and eyes-to-heaven rapture of the full body, the full senses, taking pleasure for no reason other than that it feels good. This is a body asserting its own humble, creaturely reality, its simple right to take delight in flesh and in this world, and to share its pleasure with others. This is the pleasure of the senses, which Americans have been battling in myriad unique ways since those old Puritans first dreamed of their shining city on a hill, and which we still have not quite come to terms with — not quite learned how to express in healthiness and joy, neither gluttonous excess or self-starvation. The South, so goes the regional-studies cliche, have always been the stage on which the problems and struggles of the rest of the nation were performed in garish pantomime, from the murders of Emmett Till and Viola Liuzzo to the beatings of Freedom Riders and George Wallace defiant on the University of Alabama steps. Perhaps it is right, then, that Southern cooking means not only the subtlety and artistry of Martha Foose, Edna Lewis, and Bill Neal (rendered, too, by writers like John T. Edge and Eugene Walter) but the campy over-the-topness of Paula Deen.
Perhaps, too, this angst over food and meaning points us at the reality of our society, a bewildering, dazzling mass of muscular can-do-ism and bigheartedness and fatheadedness and the slender, ever-appearing wisp of what can only be called the soul. Our American body has taken into itself slaves and refugees, idealists and criminals, freethinkers and wrongdoers, and somehow — despite everything — we are still the envy and the refuge of the entire world. Even as we export our health problems and our military “solutions” to places where they are more corrosive than helpful, even as 2012 is promising to be one big wrestling match between two blobby masses of political rhetoric collapsing under their own weight, our democracy still remains the best hope of so many people outside — and inside — the overstretched and somehow-still-generous skin of this country. We wrestle with ancestral sins and present contradictions. But sometimes, we get them right.
Maybe it’s appropriate to return to Dolly Parton here, celebrated recently by no less an authority than the very self-consciously-Southern-iconizing Garden and Gun. (Hey, I ain’t hatin’. I read it too.) She’s built a whole career on being herself — big hair, big boobs, big voice, unapologetic Appalachianism, and all — and cheerfully and politely mopping the floor with anybody dumb enough to assume she doesn’t also have a very big brain. Dolly is a true democrat (with the small d) of an increasingly rare and generous American stripe. “Find out who you are,” she advises, in one of my all-time top-five Mottoes to Live By, “and do it on purpose.” Even when “being yourself” pisses people off, as many of her fans objected to her open embrace of homosexuality: “I have a good relationship with God,” she responds unflappably, “but we both see other people.” Dolly exemplifies a strain of Southern womanhood that’s pure strength and inspiration: the tough-minded, tender-hearted far-seer and laugher at life in its most cosmic and comic sense, found in Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Allison and my mama and the ladies in my church who still hug my neck when I come home. Her daughters are Kristin Chenoweth and Gretchen Wilson and me, and all of us. Her spirit is raucous and joyful as Paula Deen biting into that pile of sinful food and exclaiming gleefully, “We’re gonna get ARRESTED!”
Women and men alike, we make our lives and our world just a little bit happier when we lean toward that kind of bright energy and joy, and, in our own way — together or separately — make a whole big mess of gut-busting, roof-shaking, chain-breaking joyful noise.