The Grotesque Gastronomy of Paula Deen: A Dinner Party

Kevin Nguyen and friends throw a Paula Deen-themed dinner. The trauma is carefully documented here, complete with butter and cheese counters.

I firmly believe that Paula Deen’s infamous “down-home” cooking exists to serve two purposes: to reinforce every stereotype of the South, and,to load dishes up with enough butter and cheese to ensure no human heart continues beating past the age of 40.

But perhaps I am being unfairly judgmental about the Food Network personality. It’s easy to criticize food without actually tasting it. So a few friends of the Bureau and I decided to have a dinner party and prepare a few recipes from Paula Deen’s website.

Three P’s Salad

Prepared by Clay (recipe)

three_p_salad

The three P‘s in this dish were peaches, pecans, and prosciutto — ingredients I suspect were the first three P foods that Deen could name off the top of her head. Clay made a few changes to the recipe. Since peaches weren’t in season, he used canned peaches; and since he couldn’t grill them in his apartment, he sauteed them.

Surprisingly, the peaches tasted fine, perhaps a little bit too sweet. But nothing else in the dish — the prosciutto, pecans, and spinach — came together. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed prosciutto less. The only thing going for this salad was that it was the only dish of the night where both butter and cheese were absent.

Butter: None
Cheese: None

Corny Cornbread

Prepared by Aaron (recipe)

corny_cornbread

Despite having the worst name for cornbread possible, this was not the worst cornbread I’ve ever had. Far from it, actually.

Aaron couldn’t find self-rising flour, so he ended up adding baking soda, which was a comparable substitute. Still, the result was a denser cornbread, and though I’m a fan of fluffy, airy cornbread, I enjoyed Aaron’s accidental deviation quite a bit. He added the two optional ingredients — a cup of grated cheddar and half teaspoon of cayenne peppers. The taste of cheese was a nice subtlety, but I couldn’t make out the peppers at all.

Butter: None
Cheese: 1 cup grated cheddar

Shrimp and Crab Au Gratin

Prepared by Sean (recipe)

shrimp_and_crab

Out of all the dishes, Sean’s shrimp and crab au gratin actually looked the most appetizing. But it turns out that au gratin is French for “tastes like shit.” It was a mistake to give this dish any space on my plate. This cheesy mess of savorless, lumpy seafood was hard to swallow.

Rather than spring for real crab, Sean used imitation crab meat. I asked him if he thought the dish would’ve been edible had he used real crab.

“If I had real crab, I wouldn’t cover it with cheese.”

Good point. This was a truly awful dish.

Butter: 1 stick
Cheese: 1 cup grated cheddar

Cheeseburger Meatloaf and Sauce

Prepared by Sean (recipe)

cheeseburger_meatloaf

What actually looked like the most disgusting entree of the evening ended up being the biggest surprise. Even as someone who has never been a fan of meatloaf (probably because it’s a loaf of meat), I found myself going up for seconds. The cheese sauce was a bit of lactose overkill, but the meatloaf itself was delicious — strong flavor with an excellent texture, and moister than your average meatloaf thanks to the cheese.

And just as a concession, I believe that the Cheeseburger Meatloaf was the only recipe of the evening that was actually followed without any deviations. Could that have anything to do with its success? Are Paula Deen’s concoctions so precisely designed that they demand an absolute adherence to the recipe?

Yeah, probably not.

Butter: None
Cheese: 2 1/2 cups of grated cheddar (1 cup for meatloaf + 1 1/2 cups for sauce)

The Lady’s Brunch Burger

Prepared by Daniel (recipe)

ladys_brunch_burger

Easily the most notorious of Paula Deen’s dishes, the Lady’s Brunch Burger takes a regular ol’ American burger, tops it with a fried egg and bacon, and stuffs it between two Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The Lady’s Brunch Burger is the Southern cooking equivalent of the Tower of Babel, and I thought that God would punish me the moment I bit into it.

Daniel couldn’t get to a Krispy Kreme on such short notice, so he got old-fashioned doughnuts from Top Pot, a Seattle-based cafe that specializes in delicious “hand-forged doughnuts.” And as the most health-conscious individual of our dinner party, he even cut the doughnuts in half, didn’t use a top bun, and cut every burger in half. So essentially, we got one fourth of the amount of doughnut that Paula suggested.

The savory ingredients — the patty, egg, and bacon — tasted fine together, but the sweetness of just that fourth of a doughnut ruined the burger entirely. Similar to the Three P’s Salad, none of the elements in the dish harmonized, but instead acted as independent flavors. Perhaps going all the way and using an authentic Krispy Kreme doughnut could have improved the burger, but I doubt it would have changed anything, other than exacerbating everyone’s post-dinner indigestion.

Surprisingly, Daniel says that out of all the dishes at the party besides the salad, his was likely the healthiest. There were only a couple tablespoons of butter and no cheese.

Butter: 2 Tablespoons
Cheese: None

Chocolate Cheese Fudge

Prepared by Kevin (recipe)

chocolate_cheese_fudge

I was responsible for the dessert, and I say “responsible” in the sense I should be blamed.

Melting butter and cheese together in a saucepan was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever had to do for a recipe. I remember the scent of the buttery, cheesy liquid wafting through my apartment, and at that moment, I realized that you could actually get Type 2 diabetes from a smell.

Even the recipe recognizes that the amount of butter it calls for is ridiculous: “Because of the amount of butter in this recipe, pat the top of the candy with a paper towel to remove the excess oil.” That is to say, the fudge will be excreting butter from its chocolate-cheese pores.

And the recipe demanded an entire pound of confectioner’s sugar!

I made a couple deviations from the recipe. First, I accidentally bought good cheese — a brick of Tillamook medium cheddar — instead of processed cheese, like Velveeta. It was harder to melt, and was more prone to clumping, but actually I don’t think it affected the overall taste much. Taking a suggestion from one of the commenters on the recipe page, I doubled the amount of cocoa used.

Surprisingly, the cheese flavor was mostly masked by the cocoa. Everybody at the party took a piece, but I don’t think anyone ate more than half of it. The chocolate cheese fudge wasn’t bad, but the leftovers sat in my kitchen a week later, untouched. I dumped the remainder into the garbage. It’s not that I didn’t want to eat it — but it’s hard to respect a food when you can’t respect its ingredients.

Butter: 2 sticks
Cheese: 1/2 lb. cheddar


plate

For me, each ingredient should contribute something to the dish to create an entirely unique palatable experience. Call it the Ratatouille school of culinary philosophy. Just as the Lady’s Brunch Burger is Paula Deen’s signature recipe, it was also a strong representation of why the dinner was so largely disappointing: it never amounted to anything more than the sum of its parts. But maybe that’s what I expected. I’m still irrationally afraid of the South, and we’ll see if I make it to my 40th birthday.

Special thanks to Daniel for the photos.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.