Has Paula Lost Her Way?

Ok. I'll admit it. I am a Food Network junkie (which is probably not a surprise to a lot of people). I can tell you the names of all their chefs (past and present) and when their respective cooking shows are on. Even some of my weekly rituals are shaped by their programming schedule. However, I am discouraged that change is afoot at the network. And what bothers me most is not the new programs, but how their old cooks are "reinventing" themselves. Case in point: Paula Deen.

As it's told, Paula Deen was discovered by one of Food Network's more prolific producers, Gordon Elliott. While working on a cooking show that traveled around America, Mr. Elliott found himself in Savannah, GA. His program stopped in a seemingly random neighborhood, knocked on a seemingly random door and asked the occupant whether or not he could make a meal with the current contents of his/her refrigerator. If so, a local chef (in this case Ms. Deen) would then prepare a gourmet bonanza with whatever ingredients found, however pedestrian or eccentric.

Ms. Deen's warm and quirky on-air personality was immediately recognized and a deal was soon penned for her to write and star in a new cooking show on the then young Food Network. No stranger to the kitchen, Ms. Deen culled recipes and stories from her years of owning a restaurant as well as from her beloved late aunt. The result was folksy and endearing with an occasional recipe that elicited deep groans of disgust.

I got used to waking up on the weekend and tuning in. Actually, I looked forward to it. With her quirky demeanor and a strong penchant for butter and mayonnaise, I was always curious what she would do with food next. Generally she would prepare Low-Country favorites like catfish, fried chicken, okra and shrimp which made me reminisce about my days in the South. But every once in a while she would concoct a substance that had both my wife and I saying "No way!" in horror.

For example, let's look at her preparation of Cracker Salad. With a sleeve of crushed saltine crackers and a remarkable amount of mayonnaise, the salty / creamy goo is quick and easy to prepare. And also nasty.

As Ms. Deen's program developed, she got more experimental with her recipes. Surprising results occurred when she blended Southern ingredients and preparations with those of other cultures. I have to admit I've been more than tempted to try making the Collard Green Wontons.

But as her restaurant empire grew along with the network, a change began to occur. Entire shows were focussed on this Southern chef making faithful versions of haute cuisine and the dining staples of other nations. Mayonnaise and butter (and for that matter saltines) were missing and the formula of a "celebrity chef" competently sharing recipes became the norm. And with that, gone was my interest in the program.

Perhaps the biggest and final (for me at least) change was redesigning the set. The program was always filmed in Ms. Deen's home kitchen which featured a menagerie of odd appliances. Struggling with the doors on her unusual (and very expensive) oven and a refrigerator that looked like a cabinet was integral to the program's charm. But just like the show's personality, all traces of quirk have been removed from her new kitchen and replaced with streamlined professional appliances.

And with that, I guess for now, House & Garden Television will have to fill the void.

sandie, Jun 28 2006 7:08PM

Yes, Paula HAS lost her way! I agree. Not quite as scary as Cracker Salad, but in the same vein, here's a recipe from Giada Delaurentis, who also is a food network star, for Potato Salad with Hotdogs. Maybe we should try it for the Fourth of July?

mark, Jun 29 2006 1:06PM

at least she recommends "good-quality hot dogs" and the recipe does not use mayonaise. and while trash talking the food network chefs, you can't forget rachel ray's "Chili Dog Bacon Cheeseburgers" and any recipe by sandra lee.