As regular readers will recall, I have more than once cast my rapier-sharp mind in the direction of Paula Deen, and, on at least one occasion, used it to poke at home shopping networks. If one tends to be fairly arch in general, it is so easy to make fun of Paula, HSN and QVC that it should almost require some sort of intellectual handicap, like maybe you can only mock them if you have a to file the taxes tomorrow and your six-year-old son has just received a new drum set.
One night a few weeks back, I was in my customary pre-bed couch snooze position as we flicked through channels trying to find something to fill the time until Rob could take the dogs out and we could actually go to bed. (I do realize that I could have been improving myself by reading Proust in the original French, but I had finished that the night before). Suddenly Paula Deen filled the screen, all white fluffy hair and diphthongs, selling cast iron cookware on QVC. She was hawking her hammered cast iron ensemble, and I was transfixed. The square pans, one with ridges and an iron-like press, one plain and flat, were replicas of a pan in Paula’s own collection, handed down through her family. The handles were hammered, and beautiful. She claimed (although I quickly and cynically dismissed her) that the pans were “pre-seasoned,” and that food wouldn’t stick.
I watched Paula, and watched the pans, and thought about my current method of making panini or Cuban sandwiches, which involved trying to cram three square items into a round cast iron skillet and smushing them with a plate topped by a heavy ironstone jug. I thought about how much I love my trusty, round Lodge cast-iron spider and about how much easier it would be to fit bacon, or French toast slices, or four grilled cheese sandwiches on a square surface. Rob noticed that I was standing (well, lying) at attention, and asked whether I liked the pans. I allowed as how I did, the tragic three-tone “Sold Out” music was played, and Paula was replaced by some guy selling a jerky maker. I went back to The Edge of Sleep.
About a week later, Rob anxiously told me that he really, really wanted to tell me what he had gotten me for my birthday. He’s done this before; we have a fundamental disagreement about the value of a surprise vs. the concern that one has bought the wrong gift, and will be thanked with “yes, yes” on the recipient’s lips, and “no, no” in their eyes. He “confessed” that he had ordered the Paula Pans before they sold out, and I was delighted. I had come home from Florida with a strange and wonderful cookbook called “Delightfully Southern Recipes,” and was obsessed with grits, fried catfish, and ambrosia salad. (Although I drew the line at ersatz chicken curry served over mashed potatoes). The signs were all there, and had there been a public service announcement warning against the “Five Signs of Becoming Paula Deen,” I would no doubt have woken up and smelled the shrimp boil. (That’s pronounced “ball,” y’all).
The pans came in a box weighing approximately as much as as William Howard Taft and his bathtub,and the pans were lovely. Sam started making panini the second he got home from school (actually just smushed, grilled cheese), and I christened the other pan making bacon that very night. The claims of pre-seasoning were pretty darned accurate, and although storing these monsters (or just moving them around the kitchen) is a bitch, they are wonderful things. Alton might say that they are uni-taskers, and I have to admit that I do not absolutely require two square, cast-iron skillets, but I am certainly making great use of them. There are complaints on the QVC site about the fact that the sandwich press thingie is only big enough to press one sandwich at a time; I consider this to be a complete non-issue. The press is easily alternated between or among sandwiches, and a pan-sized press would have added so much weight that my oven would fall through the floor.
So in some ways, this is a happy story. As a fundraiser for my doctor, I could easily fry a pound of bacon, cook chops in the grease, and make gravy for the accompanying biscuits in one pan. I could not have done that before. On the dark side, my hair is getting white at the temples, I have made grits three times in a week, watched “Steel Magnolias,” and actually said “y’all” out loud. Maybe I owe Paula an apology; her empire brings joy to thousands of women, and the product I received is damned good. Still and all, I think I’d rather see, than be her.