As the new York Times‘ former food critic and a current opinion columnist, it was more or less inevitable that Frank Bruni would weigh in on the Paula Deen controversy at some point, as he did in his latest piece, “Paula Deen’s Worst Ingredients.” Unsurprisingly, Bruni doesn’t approve of Deen’s use of racial slurs or proposed Civil War-themed wedding, complete with an entirely black serving staff she referred to as “slaves.” It’s a standard interpretation of Deen’s actions, and coming from any other columnist, Bruni’s accusations of a “dearth of reflection, [and] a deficit of introspection” on Deen’s part would be unremarkable.
But unfortunately for Bruni, he made the mistake of unfavorably comparing the always opinionated Anthony Bourdain to Deen nearly two years ago. In his August 2011 column “Unsavory Culinary Elitism,” Bruni objected to Bourdain’s harsh criticism of Deen and her calorie-laden cooking, pointing out that many of the dishes so beloved by high-profile chefs like Bourdain are just as fattening—they just lack the classist stigma attached to Deen’s cheaper, simpler, typically Southern fare. In fact, Bruni pointed out, much of the blame placed on Deen for her supposed role in perpetuating the obesity epidemic obscures greater problems, like limited access to nutritious food. Seizing on Bruni’s newfound sympathy for Deen in this week’s column, Bourdain took time out of his birthday celebration in Sicily to tweet out a link to the piece, calling Bruni’s more recent musings a “complete 180.”
Bourdain isn’t the only one calling out Bruni for his supposed hypocrisy; within hours, Eater National had also picked up on the seeming disparity between the columnist’s takes on Deen. In a post whose headline, “Frank Bruni Does a Complete 180 on Paula Deen,” echoed Bourdain, editor Raphael Brion accuses Bruni of “cranking out opinions on deadline,” demanding that the columnist “look back and maybe realize you were wrong and apologize for being an asshole.” Brion even compares Bruni to Deen herself, suggest that his shift in tone is just as “wilful[ly] obtuse” (Bruni’s words) as Deen, in all her N-word-slinging, diabetes-concealing ways.
There’s nothing about observing that Deen’s appeal is more populist than Bourdain’s that conflicts with finding archaic racism abhorrent.
But both Bourdain and Brion fail to dig beyond the superficial differences between Bruni’s columns and look at the actual arguments contained in each, not to mention what’s changed in the time that’s elapsed between the first piece and this one. For one, the original column is more of a criticism of Bourdain than a defense of Deen; he says that Deen’s cooking “isn’t my cup of lard,” denounces her “one-with-the masses pose” as “ludicrous,” and admits he’d rather watch Bourdain’s show “than any of Deen’s.” What Bruni defends in “Unsavory Culinary Elitism” isn’t Deen herself, but rather the possibility that her less expensive, more accessible food might appeal to some audiences more than “No Reservations” and Lucky Peach.
“Paula Deen’s Worst Ingredients,” meanwhile, largely doesn’t concern itself with Deen’s food at all, but instead with her attitudes about race, which are universally repellent and only recently came to light. Even if Bruni had been as glowingly positive towards Deen in 2011 as Bourdain and Brion seem to think he was, he’d be fully justified in pulling “a complete 180″ based on the recent allegations alone. As it stands, there’s nothing about observing that Deen’s appeal is more populist than Bourdain’s that conflicts with finding archaic racism abhorrent.
Where Bourdain and Brion have more of a point is Bruni’s condemnation of Deen’s irresponsible endorsement of fattening food as well as her racist views. “Paula Deen’s Worst Ingredients” criticizes Deen for continuing to peddle “calorie bombs” after her diagnosis with Type 2 Diabetes, which is, yes, the exact same thing he defended her right to do in “Unsavory Culinary Elitism.” But as Bruni notes, Deen didn’t reveal her diagnosis until early 2012, months after his first column was published. And just as Bruni’s allowed to modify his opinion of someone after it’s revealed she’s a racist, he’s also allowed to think differently of someone who’s been deliberately concealing the consequences of her own lifestyle from the very fans she’s encouraging to adopt (and buy) said lifestyle.
Of course, it makes sense that Bourdain would jump at the opportunity to criticize Bruni. This is the guy who compares vegans to Hezbollah; he’s not likely to be forgiving of the New York Times writer who essentially called him a snob, let alone stay silent about it. What’s more surprising is that a major media outlet like Eater is so quick to agree with Bourdain’s hastily drawn parallel between two rather different columns. The urge to point out hypocrisy in media, particularly among writers as trusted and high-profile as Bruni and his fellow columnists, is understandable. But at times, this urge amounts to looking for hypocrisy when it simply isn’t there—and making it up when it can’t be found.