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June 24, 2013

Deen's Savannah Kitchen: Lunch Boycott or Still Frying High?

Well, here’s something you don’t see every day. Two news stories describing the same scene in the same place, both backed up with photos, but attesting to something completely opposite.

I’m talking about the scene on Saturday outside celebrity chef Paula Deen’s restaurant in Savannah. This was one day after Deen was the focus of a controversy based on racially-tinged comments she made which terminated her relationship with The Food Network. For our purposes, however,  what’s curious is what did or didn’t happen on Saturday in front of Deen’s establishment, The Lady and Sons, which is perennially packed with patrons typically lined up down the block.

The NYT photo above accompanies an article titled: At Georgia Restaurant, Patrons Jump to Defend a Chef From Her Critics. It starts off:

The line of Paula Deen fans waiting for her restaurant here to open grew throughout the hot, muggy morning Saturday.

The presence of the crowd, along with other facts in the Times write-up (such as harsh feedback for the the Food Channel on its Facebook site), would suggest an endorsement of Mrs. Deen. On the other hand, a smaller crowd would have its own ramifications. Fewer patrons would invite the idea that the locals were expressing their own disapproval, suggesting — in an even larger way — that the South is also evolving rapidly in terms of race and the culture wars. …Which brings us to the two diametric photos.

The website, Eater, also sent out a photographer on Saturday, its post (Paula Deen’s Restaurant Lady and Sons Is a Ghost Town) actually making mention of the NYT photo and article. Setting up the contradiction, Eater reports how, from at least mid-day on, there was hardly a person to be seen in front of the restaurant. Quoting its photographer/reporter:

Normally lines to get into the restaurant, even in the middle of the afternoon, are “always several blocks long” according to Stephen Thurston, photographer and Savannah resident.

Did people really abandon the restaurant on moral grounds, which is what Eater suggests? While Eater plays up the ambiguity, I expanded a different photo in their article of the “normally mobbed” outdoor host station to full size.

The sign at the host desk, although partially blocked, appears to read: “Sorry, we are (something).”

Hmm. Could the shame of the infamous owner have cause the establishment to shut down early perhaps, the restaurant normally open on Saturdays from 10 am till 11 pm?  If that was the case, we can surmise that the South, or Deen’s fans, at least, didn’t turn on her as much as she might have discouraged them? Or, taking reservations these days, is it possible that people aren’t waiting because the place is full?

Just to make things more interesting, by the way, someone on Twitter posted a photo taken at almost the same time as the NYT photo — but from the reverse angle. The text by Tweeter, @JulieFertig, reads: Crowds still flock to @Paula_Deen Savannah restaurant Lady & Sons despite her fallout with the Food Network. And here’s still another TwitPic (closer to opening time, and also endorsing the turnout — which by the way, shows no evidence of the “sorry” sign.)

Whichever photo and scenario is more accurate, however, is probably a lot less interesting than the fact that each conception is amply represented in the discussion threads at The Times, Eater, Atlantic and other places. You’ve got those who say that Deen’s occasional expression of racial slurs is not unusual for the South, especially given the time period Deen, the great granddaughter of a slave owner, grew up. And then, you have those who feel that Deen got exactly what she deserved last week, her attitudes no more healthy than her food.

Thank you to Twitter friend and expert on all things political and gastronomic, Regina Schrambling (@gastropoda).

(photo 1: Dylan Wilson for The New York Times. caption: People lined up Saturday outside Paula Deen’s restaurant in Savannah, Ga. Many were angry that Food Network had dropped Ms. Deen. photos 2-4: Stephen Thurston/Eater. caption: The media firestorm continues to swirl around the now ex-Food Network personality Paula Deen, and the usually bustling scene at her Savannah, GA restaurant The Lady and Sons is nonexistent. Eater sent a photographer to scope it out, and above and below are photos from mid-day on Saturday. It is aghost town.)

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