Tuesday, June 25, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Paula Deen and Butter Chicken

Just a little more than ten years ago, I visited South Africa with a study tour from my graduate school of education.  As I've mentioned before, the purpose of our trip was to study the effects of apartheid on education; we visited schools both in Cape Town and in Johannesburg, most of which were still segregated according to the apartheid system--white, colored , Indian, black--and had obviously skewed access to economic justice that corresponded with racial identity.  Ten years and change later, while progress has been made, it's definitely slow going.  Reparations to the black community leave out those who were considered "colored."  And many argue that a new approach is necessary.  Some people in South Africa want to eliminate race talk; others think that the language of race is necessary in order to eliminate racism.

I've been thinking a lot about that visit again, after Paula Deen's recent debacle.  Though I don't consider myself a food blogger, and I don't watch the Food Network (that's my mother's job, and we don't have a TV anyway), and Paula Deen doesn't even cook the kind of food I would normally put on my table, I couldn't help following the coverage of her story as it unfolded, particularly on Twitter, where the hashtag #paulasbestdishes identified some of the most creative food-related racist slurs I've ever read.  It was, in a word, shocking.  As was Paula's testimony.  But really, I found myself wondering, why was I shocked?

When I visited South Africa, they kept telling us how impressed they were with how far we'd come since the days of Jim Crow; they kept asking us how we managed to do what we did.  What I wanted to tell them was that their discourse was actually more honest than ours.  Because we try very hard, it seems to me, not to talk about race.  Like South Africa, many people in the U.S. think that eliminating race talk, pretending that we are race-blind, will make it all better.

The reality, of course, is that we're not.  And it shouldn't be surprising to us that some celebrities act out the racism that still seethes just below the surface of our culture, or just above it, depending on where you live in the U.S. .  The only difference is that the media scrutinizes celebrities more closely, and celebrities represent the kind of people that many of us want our nation to be, rather than the complex (and sometimes disappointing) people we actually are.

One article in the NY Times described how Paula Deen's racist remarks have brought to light a long-simmering controversy among Southern chefs about the origins of Southern cooking; many of them expressed anger that Deen got rich on the recipes of slave cooks and domestic workers, and yet, the author suggested, disrespected the very people who made her success possible.  As someone who is particularly sensitive to intellectual property issues of recipes, I think they have every right to be angry.

Why do we hold celebrities to this standard (reasonable though it may be for all of us)?  Why do we pretend that we--as a nation--think racism is a crime, when we are so willing to turn a blind eye to it in so many circumstances?  How can we pretend that we have worked for and achieved justice when even SCOTUS can't come up with a stronger statement about affirmative action programs in higher education, where the effects of economic injustice (which have deep roots in racism) are often so blatant?  Or when SCOTUS strikes down section 4 of the the VRA?  Clearly we still struggle with racism as a nation, and not just in terms of black and white.  And I suspect that it would be a lot more productive to talk about the problem than pretend that Paula Deen is the only one.

Butter Chicken
Adapted from Dinner with Julie
Butter Chicken is not at all Southern, of course; it was one of the Indian dishes I first tried, somewhat paradoxically, in South Africa.  Though I don't often eat meat these days (and Bread Wine Salt makes a lovely vegetarian version of this meal with chick peas), my family enjoys it, and it's relatively easy to prepare.

1-2 T. olive oil
1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
6-8 skinless chicken thighs (with or without bone)
4-5 garlic cloves, crushed
1 T. grated fresh ginger
28 oz. can fire roasted diced tomatoes, undrained
2 T. tomato paste
4 t. chili powder
2 t. curry powder
2 t. garam masala
pinch cinnamon
3/4 cup evaporated milk
salt and pepper

Heat the oil over medium-high head in a large, heavy skillet.  Add the onions and saute, stirring often, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Push the onions to the side of the pan and add the chicken thighs, turning to just brown them on all sides. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for a minute or two, until just fragrant.

Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, chili powder, curry paste, garam masala and cinnamon and bring to a simmer.  Cover and cook for 20 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the lid and continue to cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.

Stir in the evaporated milk, season to taste, and serve with rice (most traditional), peas, quinoa, couscous, or whatever else you fancy.
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  1. WHOA. This is really really dense. I will be thinking about this for a long time today. The standards we hold our celebrities to. Getting rich off of someone else's work/ideas. I don't have answers, but I feel like we could chew on this one post for several days and have a feast.

    This was such a clusterfuck because it firing Paula Deen, a lot of other people lost their jobs too. And it becomes a question of who we surround ourselves with. How much control do we have over who we surround ourselves with. What about racist neighbours you can't move away from. If you socialize with them, are you supporting the person and then supporting the mindset?

  2. I've been echoing your thoughts all week. I think this would be a great opportunity to have a conversation about race (well, we are talking about it here, so that's something) but I feel Iike we will squander this opportunity and no progress will be made. People seem to be divided in this case, either Paula is all good and has been unjustly subjected to a witch hunt, or is all bad and deserves to be shunned. What if Paula is neither, but could become a better person through an open and honest dialogue that could maybe change her mind and the minds of others like her? That's the only way to see progress in such a sensitive topic, IMO.

    Thanks for tackling this issue so thoughtfully!

  3. My (white) grandfather used the n-word frequently, but was also well respected in the black community because he had many close friends there and because he helped numerous poorly educated black farmers secure loans and navigate government systems. Does that make him evil?

    I live now in a wealthy, homogenous community where I often hear people decry racism with such fervor. Having grown up in an area where whites were a minority, I wish I could find the right words to explain that while they are entirely right to condemn the act of racism, it is born of and sits within the context of something much more complex.

    We love to classify things. Something is good or something is evil. But most humans, like Deen and like myself, dwell in the grey areas in between. Where I grew up in the South there was verbal, economic and social racism within both whites and blacks both from outside and within these groups. It wasn't "Mississippi Burning", but it was still insidious. But with closeness also came a lot of good relationships that transcended racism and it's this part that I have a hard time explaining here in NJ. It is complex.

    As for Deen's food, I hate to hear those accusations. I was astonished when in the late 1990's the food I had grown up on was labeled soul food. I am happy African Americans have found identity and connection with it. But my people have been in the region since the 1700's and have presumably been cooking fried chicken and collard greens for a few hundred years so can some white folks can consider it part of their heritage too? My company hosts a soul food lunch once a year for African American Heritage celebration, and people look at me odd when I say how glad I am to have food like my people cooked.

  4. You nailed what I posted about days before I posted it. I wish I had read this. Dang. You made all of the same points as Michael Tweedy.

    I agree with all of this, and I do think that the Paula Deen case is a bit of smoke and mirrors, in that we are nailing her for behavior that, while awful, isn't as important as what the SCOTUS ruled or the horrid racism I've seen criticizing our own President and First Lady.

    I just heard a wonderful and heartbreaking story about the most impressive young man in South Africa who had won important leadership awards and been sent to DC to meet with national leaders but then his mother passed away from AIDS complications and he was left trying to be the head of his household and struggling to make time for his studies. It broke my heart and I've been searching in vain for a link because I'd like to contribute to a scholarship fund. When an exceptional person like this young man struggles, it's just not fair. Not fair at all. :(

  5. ETA: Found the link!! Yay :) Going to try to find out how to help Sive's schooling. I think you'll be interested in this feature: the journalist is really looking in depth in what can be done in South Africa to improve education for all. www.theworld.org/schoolyear/


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