Paula Deen’s Downfall Speaks to the Big Picture on Racism in the Restaurant Industry

paula-deen-apologySo, Paula Deen isn’t going to get her contract with Food Network renewed. Big freaking whoopty doo, I stopped watching her years ago when I realized that every episode was just a willfully ignorant, politically incorrect advertisement for butter. It was almost like the Food Network’s version of Sarah Palin as she happily mocked the culinary elite with copious amounts of unhealthy ingredients while her audience cheered on.

Even as she thumbed her nose at healthy food, she was very ill from years of poor eating habits. She had already inked a deal with a pharmaceutical company prior to her type 2 diabetes announcement and switch to a healthier focus with her dishes.

Racism, sexual harassment and everything else in the accusations against Paula Deen and her brother are the norm, not the exception in the restaurant industry. Off and on over the last almost two decades, I’ve spent my time doing everything from washing dishes, to waiting tables or even standing menacingly by a door in a club as a bouncer. In fact, I even worked for a few months as a waiter in the very restaurant that was later bought by Paula and her brother and turned into Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House. This was right at the beginning of the Iraq War, and I remember one very overweight customer demanding “Freedom Fries” with his fried fish from underneath his “America, Love It Or Leave It” baseball cap.

If you’ve ever watched her shows that were taped looking out over a saltwater marsh with the sun setting in the distance, that was in the banquet room of what was once Snapper’s and then Snapper Jack’s, and then Uncle Bubba’s. In the distance, you could see Wilmington Island, the island we both called home.

The service industry is a rough, nasty place. Regardless if it is a lonely Waffle House at 3 am off the interstate in North Carolina or a 4 star restaurant visited by Washington insiders, it is an environment in which many of the rules of a normal society are either bent, or completely ignored.

I’ve watched cooks and waiters do shots prior to and throughout the shift, employees walk out in the middle of a dinner rush and even managers break down crying while smoking a joint in the back office. I’ve seen managers steal tips outright, sexually harass employees, and blatantly violate labor or safety laws.

Racism and bigotry? It’s common in that environment. It is an accepted part of both the South, and the industry. In my previous (and hopefully last) stint in the business, I watched a white manager repeatedly seat black patrons in the back of the restaurant, and I personally took constant drunken abuse from another manager for being Jewish — even to the point of being told that he’d like to shove me in the oven. This wasn’t an independently owned restaurant, this was a national seafood and steak chain based in Houston, Texas.

This isn’t an excuse for Paula Deen but I am stating that what she has admitted to, and has been accused of, is commonplace in her industry. Her mistake is that she got caught — the tragedy is that she is the norm, not the exception.


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