Why Fans Are Still Defending Paula Deen After Food Network Firing

Though the celebrity chef is accused of making racist remarks, butter devotees aren't kicking her out of their kitchens

The Food Network now contains 15% less butter. On Friday night, the cable channel announced that Paula Deen, the Southern chef famous for her cholesterol-laden recipes, would be packing up her cookware at the end of the month. The firing was prompted by accusations of racism against Deen, who admitted to using the N-word during a recent court hearing. Yet many of Deen's fans are remaining loyal, and a supportive Facebook campaign has already collected a quarter of a million "likes."

To understand how Paula Deen went from nice Southern grandma to embarrassing racist grandma, it's necessary to go back to last March. That's when a lawsuit was filed against Deen by a former restaurant employee, who accused the chef of making frequent racist remarks and sexual innuendos. When planning the catering for a fancy wedding, for example, Deen allegedly told the plaintiff: "Well, what I would really like is a bunch of little n***ers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around. ... Now, that would be a true Southern wedding wouldn't it? But we can't do that because the media would be on me about that."

Fast forward to June 2013. The cast has arrived in court, and Deen's deposition is made public -- which is when the world finds out that she answered the question "Have you ever used the N-word?" with "Yes, of course." In her defense, Deen, 66, adds, "But that's just not a word that we use as time has gone on. Things have changed since the '60s in the South."

According to her former employee, however, she still uses that word frequently. And it didn't help Deen's case when a 2012 interview re-surfaced, in which she defended the merits of slavery ("Black folk were such an integral part of our lives, they were like our family") and cracked jokes about a favorite black employee's skin color.

Shortly before the Food Network announced they were firing Deen, she issued a strange apology video, followed by an improved do-over apology video. But it was already too late. Paula Deen's TV career was (heavily buttered) toast.

On Monday, Smithfield Foods, a company specializing in pork products, also broke ties with the chef. Deen had a line of hams with the company.

"Smithfield condemns the use of offensive and discriminatory language and behavior of any kind," the company said in a statement. "Therefore, we are terminating our partnership with Paula Deen. Smithfield is determined to be an ethical food industry leader and it is important that our values and those of our spokespeople are properly aligned."

Despite all that, online fan support for Deen has been overwhelming. Between her personal Facebook page and the Food Network Facebook page, tens of thousands of fans have left pro-Paula messages. (Many of them have been posted under a recipe for zucchini casserole, to sometimes comical effect.) And then there's the rapidly growing We Support Paula Deen page.

Why all the support for a woman who has unapologetically admitted to using racist language, made her employees uncomfortable with her racial attitudes, and even defended the relationships formed by slavery? That seems like a pretty solid career-killer. However, when it comes to celebrity chefs, our loyalties runs deep. Paula Deen has been in America's homes for years, literally helping put food on the table. There's a relationship there, however one-sided. We trust our favorite cooks to get us through awkward family get-togethers, office potlucks and dinner parties. And now, to suddenly be told that Paula Deen wasn't worthy of all your trust and affection? For die-hard fans, that's a hard pill to swallow. A hard pill made of deep-fried mayonnaise.

On Sunday, Deen released a statement thanking the Food Network for 11 great years. "I have had the pleasure of being allowed into so many homes across the country and meeting people who have shared with me the most touching and personal stories," she said. "This would not have been possible without the Food Network. Thank you again. Love and best dishes to ya'll."

Though she has stepped down, it appears that Paula's legacy is firmly in place: The Food Network will continue to air her son Jamie Deen's cooking show, while her son Bobby Deen's show will continue on the Cooking Channel.

 

Donna Kaufman is an iVillage contributing writer. Find her on Google+.

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