It may risk a certain level of blasphemy, or more likely be a "duh" revelation, to say Paula Deen is one of food television's most grating on-screen presences.
This is, perhaps, a politically incorrect conclusion to draw, given the travails she's faced throughout her somewhat soap-operatic life -- a personal journey that has created a Teflon armor around Deen, repelling most critiques. To be sure, after all that personal suffering, including a battle with agoraphobia, she deserves praise for riding out those choppy waters and coming out on top as a bona fide food television star and product endorsement juggernaut. (Check out her robin's egg blue square baker only for $19.95)
But her pulled-up-by-the-bootstraps story shouldn't insulate Deen from reasonable barbs aimed at her annoying on-screen persona. With the advent of one of her latest shows, Paula's Best Dishes, there was the faint hope, quickly dashed, that Deen might dial down the drawlin' and up the refinement on some of her classic, Southern-accented fare.
Instead, judging from Paula's Best Dishes, she's stretching out her monosyllabic "y'alls" and "yums" so that they all but swallow up the show's script. They become an extension of a kind of exaggerated Southern personality that is long on sappy enthusiasm and short on any kind of real culinary substance. This is a problem if you're actually tuning into to Deen's show to learn something.
Unfortunately, Paula's Best Dishes might be retitled Paula's Best Wisecracks, or Paula's Best Cackles. Throughout a recent 30-minute episode, devoted to some fairly clunky and pedestrian Mex-fare, Deen's volume was turned up to such a degree as to invoke Spinal Tap: It's on "11 -- it's one louder." But what was coming out of her mouth did not really amount to anything useful about what she and her ever-obedient son Jamie were fashioning in their country kitchen.
Instead, it was a constant stream of mispronouncing (on purpose, no doubt) "fiesta" as "fiester" as in "we're having a fiester, y'all." The first time was kind of charming, especially when it was followed by Paula's endearingly awkward interpretation of a rumba. But when she punctuated every fast-approaching commercial break with that same "fiester" line, she quickly left endearing behind to enter exasperating territory.
Anyone who has followed the recent evolution of Rachael Ray's on-screen image, seeing some of her more giggly and frantic edges filed down, might ask why no one has affected the same makeover of Deen. Instead, she has upped the wacky ante on her on-screen doppelganger: a batty, Southern matron, emitting all manner of high-pitched squeals and cackles that often overshadow any of the cooking she's doing.
Paula Deen is her own best product placement with the food coming in a distant second.
And that's a pity because, at least on one of the more recent episodes of Paula's Best Dishes -- with its Mexican theme, no doubt timed for this past Cinco de Mayo -- the menu came together in a rather appetizing way. Thanks to the unexpectedly calming influence of Jamie, Deen stopped chortling and rumba-ing long enough to revel in his creamy five-layer taco dip and the roasted corn, pepper and black bean salsa, plus radish cole slaw. All of it was made for Deen's catfish tacos -- made from fryolator-ready strips of catfish, dusted in Cajun seasoning. Ironically, it was only when Deen was manning the fryer that she came up with one of the show's few bits of practical advice about not using any wet ingredients to coat the fish, making for a much lighter crust on the homely catfish.
Deen, thankfully, stayed out of Jamie's way as he whipped together in about two minutes of television air time a luscious dessert quesadilla studded with cinnamon-dusted banana slices and chocolate chips and dripping in caramel sauce. Just the thought of tucking into these legitimately appetizing quesadillas left Deen wide-eyed, cooing, with a fork at the ready.
Come to think of it, Deen really didn't do much of the heavy cooking lifting on this new show, ceding that sweaty business to her dutiful son. She was too busy tossing off various Southern-isms ("I'm pickin' up what you're puttin' down, sonny boy") that were alternately forgettable or just more gilding of the Deen telegenic personality.
Truth be told, Deen has become a caricature of the middle-aged Southern belle, a former Scarlett O'Hara who has turned in her corset for a skillet. She has clawed her way to top, attaining the status of stove steel magnolia. She may have come out on top, but she's leaving a lot of people wincing in her wake.
(Paula's New Dishes airs on the Food Network Saturdays at 10 a.m.)