A Voice From Within The Paula Deen Wilderness
A trip to the Southern doyenne's The Lady and Sons
Making a dinner reservation for one person is always a depressing turn of events. What, you wonder, have you done wrong in your life? It’s especially bleak when one is making a reservation at The Lady and Sons, the home base of Food Network star Paula Deen. Mrs. Deen, who was born in in Albany, Georgia in 1947 but moved to Savannah in the late 1980s, looms over the city like a plump cheery rain cloud.
The Lady and Sons occupies nearly a whole city block in the part of Savannah most heavily frequented by the most heavy tourists. They form lines that encircle the brick building in which the three-story restaurant is housed. Old timey trolleys disgorge them at lunchtime to stand, their pale legs like thick human stalagmites shifting in the hot sun, and to wait and wait until their name is called. But when I showed up at 8 p.m. — party of one, sad — there was no line outside and, inside, quite a few tables were empty.
Two hosts, who couldn’t have been more than 30 years old combined, stood outside behind a podium, tucked in an alcove. “Hey y’all,” they said, though I was only a party of one, sad. I gave them my name. “Your table isn’t ready yet,” said the younger one, “but if you wait in the gift shop, we’ll call you when it is.” What one day would be mustache but, for that night, was a mere foreshadowing of one, curved upwards in a smile.
Herein the bind and the rub and the genius: I didn’t want to go to that gift shop and yet, I was compelled to if I wanted to be informed when my table was ready. [NB; The table was obviously ready.] And so I walked a few doors down and I entered into the cheery apocalypse of Paula Deen merchandise. There was Mrs. Deen, her eyes unnaturally blue, her teeth unnaturally white and her hair ungodly grey, baring her chompers at me from every permutation of an object possible. She glared from cutting boards. She stared from posters. Her face rubbed against the stiches of a Paula Deen apron. There were keychains that said “Hey Y’all” in bedazzled cursive and red plastic sippy cups that said, in MT Curlz, the world’s worst font, “S.L.U.T.S.” That stands for Southern Ladies Under Tremendous Pressure.
I actually couldn’t take it for very long so I went outside and kicked a stone around the sidewalk for a while. I pestered the tweens for my table. They might have not liked it but fuck 'em. I could be their dad. Finally, eyes peering into the distance as he listened to a voice in his ear, one of the pipsqueaks said, “Your table is ready, sir. Take this ticket,” he said, handing me a ticket, “and go to the third floor.” I took the elevator because stairs seemed totally unDeenian.
Recently Paula Deen dealt with two controversies. The first one had to do with her keeping a diagnosis of Type II diabetes secret until she could land an endorsement deal with a pharmaceutical company. This she did in January 2012. The second, which broke in March, had to do with her being horribly horribly racist. [She’s a big fan of using the N-word.] The second is only an allegation; the first is undeniably true. And, since Mrs. Deen couldn’t do much to mitigate the fall out of her deeply crummy dishonesty, she’s at least tried to soften the damage of the second by hiring a nearly exclusively all-black staff. My server was named Akil Fenn. He was the best part of the experience.
There are nominally things to order from the menu. There’s shrimp, that comes stuffed with crab, that comes wrapped in bacon. There are crab cakes touted as “A New York Times favorite!” but if you take a look at The New York Times, it’s actually a favorite of a dude quoted in a Frommer’s review. This is, perhaps, demonstrative of Mrs. Deen’s allegiance to the truth. Anyway, as Mr. Fenn told me, nearly everyone goes to the buffet. And so I did too.
The buffet is maybe 2 ½’ x 8’. It’s made of stainless steel and there’s a sneeze guard. Nowhere, definitely not in Savannah and perhaps not in the world, is every cliché of Southern cooking so well embodied. In chafing dishes constantly replenished are mac and cheese, collard greens, yams, pot roast, brussels sprouts and green beans. A thin film of grease coats everything, including the stainless steel serving utensils. There was a mound of fried chicken which towered high above the sides like the mountains of Mordor. It all looked intensely unappetizing but, to be fair, I’m not sure anything looks great under the heating lamps that were affixed to the center of the sneeze guard.
Somewhat off to the side was the included salad bar, which looked like it hadn’t been touched since Sherman’s March to the Sea. There was potato salad there and cheese. Next to the crouton bin was a bin of butter.
I made eye contact with a woman scooping extra cheese off the top of the mac and cheese, thus denuding the remaining mac and cheese of the cheese that should have rightfully remained upon it. She paused for a moment, shoveled some more on her plate and headed back to her seat. I made my way back to mine.
To get this out of the way: The food isn’t terrible. It’s pretty salty. It’s extremely greasy. There’s little in the way of subtlety and nothing in the way of nuance. But I would be lying if I said I hated it. I hated myself for eating it but, properly speaking, there was a real transgressive joy in putting mac and cheese so obscenely cheesy, fried chicken so excessively fried, and green beans so bathed in butter into my yap. Two old ladies next to me beckoned to Akil, though they were not in his section. “Oops,” they said, “you looked like the other one.” Akil called over to the other one. Beyond both being black, the two did not look alike at all. “C’mon,” said Akil, “you really think we look alike?” The women strenuously insisted they didn’t look anything alike. It was an extremely satisfying interaction to observe.
Akil finally came over to my table.
“You going back?” he asked.
“Are you kidding?” I said.
“I’ve seen old folks go back three or four times,” he said, “It’s always the little old ladies.”
I did however have dessert, which was included.
“What has the least amount of sugar?” I asked Akil.
“They all have an insane amount,” he replied, “but I guess the banana pudding has the least.”
I ate it when it came, neither happy nor unhappy. My taste buds had been buffeted to their limit with saltiness and sweetness. My tongue was coated in grease. Grease ran down my chin and about my mouth like blood down a lion’s mane after a kill.
The check, when it arrived, wasn’t much much much. The buffet and a beer cost only $24. Of course the food isn’t where Mrs. Deen’s interest lies, either practically or financially. For that, one must look at a message written at the bottom of the check. “Y’all Make Sure to Visit the Paula Deen Store!” it read, for there isn’t a part of this woman that wasn’t for sale.
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