After the whole Paula Deen controversy earlier this year, we were interested in seeing what her "Diabetes In a New Light" cooking campaign was going to be all about. That chance arose recently when Indiana-based fellow D-blogger and journalist Mike Hoskins took a bus ride to Chicago, where one of Paula's sons was doing a cooking demonstration showing their new "diabetes friendly" Southern recipes. Mike had the chance to not only watch the demo and get a taste, but also to meet Jamie Deen and talk with him for a few minutes backstage.
Special to the 'Mine by Mike Hoskins
Jamie Deen, the oldest son of southern chef extraordinaire Paula Deen, made his debut appearance at an American Diabetes Association Expo in Chicago on April 14. His brother, Bobby, had done demos in LA and Oregon earlier this year, as part of the family's new cooking campaign focused on "diabetes friendly" and healthier recipes.
A few friends from the diabetes online community and I made our way to the expo to check this out. Honestly, we were skeptical and didn't expect much; we just didn't see much potential for this "let's alter recipes to make 'em healthy now"-type of cooking, which usually isn't anything to write home about.
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Cardboard and Styrofoam aren't tastes I strive for in my meal-planning. But that's what always comes to mind when someone mentions "diabetes friendly" food. Dry. No flavor. Just wrong. Not the way food should taste. That's why I have traditionally avoided them.
As someone who's been living with type 1 since age 5, I've never felt the need to put a healthy spin on my palate to appease my chronic condition. I'm a steak-and-potato, meat-with-the-skin kind of guy, someone who loves my food while respecting the mantra of moderation in whatever is on the menu.
Maybe my hesitation comes from back in the day (in the 80s and 90s), when what was known as "D-friendly" wasn't yet the cool thing for chefs to cook up. I vaguely remember trying some of those special meals made "just for me" back then, and wanting to spit them out. I probably did. Those sensations apparently melted into my mind...
That's why it didn't mean much to me back in January when Paula Deen announced she'd been living with type 2 for a few years and was now entering into a deal to transform some of her famous fat and sugar-laden recipes into "D-friendly" foods. Of course, my perception was also colored by the fact that she'd kept her health change a secret until signing a deal with Novo Nordisk to become a paid spokesperson, along with her two adult sons. Aside from promoting one of the company's diabetes drugs (which she clearly switched to just prior to her spokesperson deal), she also agreed to a new cooking campaign apparently designed to educate people about a disease (that she's accused of exacerbating) by transforming about 100 of her traditional southern meals to be more diabetes-friendly. Good intentions, or just good business?
Paula herself has staunchly defended how she handled the whole situation, and moved on with the promotional campaign even as the criticism continued mounting. Later, her long-time publicist quit and even her sons criticized her choices.
I honestly didn't care much one way or the other, since I was never big on either her show, or seeking out healthy recipes.
My wife, though, is a different story. Not only does she watch Paula Deen's show, but she also loves to tell me how she thinks the Deen boys, Bobby and Jamie, are pretty darn good-looking fellows. Plus they know how to cook... which means I may have to enroll in some cooking classes if I want to keep her attention. We have a couple-dozen cookbooks in our home, and I'm sure my constant threats to toss them out whenever a new one appears doesn't help the situation.
But, I scored some points recently when I told her that I'd have a chance to meet and interview Jamie Deen at the recent ADA Expo. I promised to mention her to him and recall even mumbling something about buying a cookbook if there was one available.
Deen does gumbo
So to the demo, finally: on that Saturday, Jamie made gumbo with spicy vegetarian sausage for the 130 or so people in the audience. Internally, I yelled in protest about that choice of entree. Not something a meat-eater like me would normally choose...
Nevertheless, with pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Anita Swamy by his side explaining the health-conscious details, the pair went through the recipe in about 25 minutes and produced little sample serving cups for everyone to try.
Moderation came up a few times, as if it were some novel concept no one's heard of before. There was no effort to demonstrate moderation, however, something I've found pretty lacking by most cooks — they don't show, but tell people about portion control almost as if it's an afterthought tossed on as a disclaimer.
Feedback was positive, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the vegetarian gumbo didn't taste like cardboard or Styrofoam but had spice, flavor and generally yummy southern-style. I saw heads nod as attendees tasted the gumbo, and a few echoed that it passed their "taste tests." The recipe is here if you're interested.
My backstage pass
Shortly after the demo, Jamie and I sat down for about 15 minutes backstage to talk. He'd been traveling for two weeks of filming for his new show Home For Dinner that debuts on the Food Network on June 16, so he opted not to do a video interview but just spare a few minutes to answer some questions for the 'Mine.
No, we didn't talk about his mom's publicist quitting. We didn't focus on the Novo deal or media extensively. Honestly, it just wasn't the focus of the interview. Time was short and we focused on this new D-cooking program and how the sons — not the mom — are being all supportive and leading the charge in a new way. A new light, as the name says.
"We're making good food taste good," he said in all seriousness, even though it sounded like a canned slogan.
I bit my tongue and tried not to show my eyes rolling.
Yes, the Deen trio's being paid to be a part of Novo Nordisk's D-cooking campaign and they have a marketing message to send out. Some of Jamie's responses hinted at pre-scripted answers, (and yes, there was a PR rep from Novo sitting in), but Deen was very friendly, and certainly sounded honest and down to earth.
What was the public outcry against his mom's choices like for the family when the you-know-what hit the fan? Jamie said he "hadn't heard one negative remark from people," since he ignored the media reports and criticism and mostly had casual conversations with people in places like the local supermarket.
I cringed again at that response. Did he have his head in the sand? My mind screamed, "Well, of course you haven't heard anything negative that you're going to share with me."
But the more he talked, the more I felt that Jamie probably had actually NOT HEARD any of the bad stuff or chose not to acknowledge it out of support for his mom. And with his busy schedule of filming and other celebrity cook activities, it's entirely likely he's shielded himself from the negativity and skepticism.
He looked off in the distance and a smile came to his face as he talked about just two examples in the past day of people inspired by his mom: there was the driver who told Jamie that he was a type 2, and looked up to Paula Deen, and then there was the lady at the local shoe shop, who told him a similar story about her mom being a type 2 who takes inspiration from Paula. Jamie says he hears those stories almost every day.
"Diabetes is not insurmountable — that's the message I think my mom gives to people," he said. "She inspires people in this role, and she isn't letting this slow her down." She walks on a treadmill every day and "looks great," he says.
Swayed, but not sold
Something that raised my eyebrows in a big way was Jamie's assertion that his mom Paula has only made 5% or less of the TV show meals for herself or her family at home. That's just not what they'd eaten regularly, Jamie says.
This is kind of unbelievable! I have to assume that this statement is in support of Paula's assertion that she never intended her deep-fried cheesecake or other health-crushing foods to be eaten regularly, but as "special occasion treats." Now she's claiming that of course she'd never eat that way at home. Hmmm...
Personally, I think it might be a little hypocritical to promote a certain diet when you don't eat it yourself. I'm sure I'm not alone in this.
Jamie says "nothing has been noticeably different" in his mom's diet, because she's "gradually made small changes over time." The family's simply added to their portfolio of more than a dozen cookbooks with a "diabetes-themed" roster of recipes.
I'm not completely sold on this cooking campaign and doubt all the food will be scrumptious, but heck, the one item I've tasted seemed good enough to me*.
In the end, despite how one feels about Paula Deen or how she handled — and is handling — the whole thing, one message came through clear as day: Jamie loves his mom and through his support is trying to educate, encourage and empower others who might be feeling discouraged about their own life with diabetes.
OK, this isn't enough to convince me that it's time to change my own eating habits or look past the fact that only some, not all, of Paula Deen's recipes are being made "diabetes friendly." But I commend what the Deens are doing to reach others.
* Of course, my standards aren't very high to begin with — when you start with Styrofoam and cardboard expectations, pretty much anything can be made to taste good whether it's for the diabetes community or not.