Year in Review: Paula Deen's bad 2013

Back in June, the dressing down of the local icon captivated the country

In a deposition she gave in May for a racial discrimination lawsuit filed against her by former employee Lisa Jackson, Deen admitted to using the “N-word” while held at gunpoint in 1986 as well as seeming to condone a climate of sexual harassment at the restaurant she co-owns with her brother, Earl “Bubba” Hiers. The deposition also included mention of the now-infamous “plantation wedding party plan” in which Deen envisioned black servers wearing white jackets.

A barrage of outrage followed in the mainstream media and online, and Deen’s attempt to get in front of the storm backfired when she released a pair of awkward YouTube apologies.

The next day the Food Network announced that it would not renew the contract for her TV show, followed by the fast decampment of Smithfield Foods, for whom she hawked hams. After an excruciating appearance on the TODAY show with Matt Lauer, more partners backed away from Deen, leading to the carmelized meltdown of her hard-built empire. In a few short weeks, her promotional and product distribution agreements with Caesars Entertainment, the QVC Channel, Novo Nordisk (for whom she lent her endorsement for diabetes medication), Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, Kmart, and Home Depot also dissolved like a lump of sugar in hot water.

Deen’s legions of fans fronted a backlash of their own, professing their loyalty by the thousands on “We Support Paula Deen” Facebook pages and mailing origami-folded butter wrappers to the Food Network in protest. Despite the potboiling controversy, her latest cookbook, Paula Deen’s New Testament: 250 Favorite Recipes, All Lightened Up hit No. 1 in sales on over the summer, even though the original publisher, Ballantine Books, canceled its production and new publisher Hoffman Media has yet to issue a release date.

While the hoopla mostly concentrated on Deen’s takedown, some used the scandal as a point to address the unspoken issues surrounding race in America. Others saw it as an opportunity to talk about the cultural and culinary appropriation of African-American traditions, and “An Open Letter to Paula Deen” by blogger and food historian Michael W. Twitty went viral.

In August, the racial discrimination lawsuit brought by Jackson was dismissed in court by a U.S. District judge. Deen has stayed out of the public eye for the last few months, retreating to the loving bosom of friends and family.

Here in Savannah, the adoration of Our Lady of Perpetual Butter is unwavering, and her name continues to draw packs of tourists to her downtown restaurant and retail shop.

Buoyed by a supportive fan base and newly-svelte physique, the chef will enter the new year with her annual Paula Deen & Friends cruise and reunite with some of her former Food Network colleagues at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in February.

As she quietly rebuilds her brand, the woman who once sold sandwiches out of her Midtown kitchen continues to focus on giving back to the community that has always supported her. “I’m gonna be really, really happy to see 2013 gone,” said Deen at the Salvation Army Golden Kettle event in Savannah earlier this month.

“It taught me a lot about people — not all of it you like. But I learned that I had so many people that cared about me and prayed for me and my family. And I’m looking forward to 2014.”

Health food store hoopla

This town was all about getting its kombucha on when Whole Foods Market opened its doors in August.

After months of anticipation, shoppers crowded the newly-paved parking lot of the former Backus Cadillac site on Victory Drive, clutching their canvas shopping bags and ogling the artfully piled pluots. The 20,000+ square foot space features sustainable seafood, organic produce and fair trade treats as well as a pickle bar, a salad bar and an actual bar. ($3 pints on Thursdays are a huge hit!)

The corporate team also added interesting touches like reclaimed wood picnic tables made by local non-profit Design for Ability and items from over 25 local vendors, including Chocolat by Adam Turoni and Nourish bath products.

“Every store is unique, and we do our best to reflect and respond to the local community,” said associate team leader Emily Salzer.

The Victory Station shopping center also brought in “fast casual” chains Chipotle and Zoe’s Kitchen, both which source local and natural ingredients, making this formerly sleepy intersection a formidable culinary destination.

Meanwhile, back on Forsyth Park, Brighter Day Natural Foods stood its ground. Far from napping in the face of corporate competition, the independent grocery store spent the fall revamping its kitchen and reinvigorating the healthy philosophy that owners Janie and Peter Brodhead have proferred in Savannah since 1978. Its staff remains well-educated in the realm of alternative medicine, and its selection of supplements and herbal tinctures reigns supreme.

“Our goal has never been to be bigger, only to do things better,” said Janie in the midst of the construction. The spacious new deli space debuted in November with a menu of tasty entrées, soups and juices — and of course, BD’s famous baked cheese sandwiches. In a rush or have your dog with you? Check out the hand-hewn walk-up window on the Bull Street side.

Other alluring additions to Brighter Day include a selection of “dragon shots” based on the principles of Chinese medicine and kava “cocktails” made from a tropical herb purported to have relaxing properties. And did we mention kombucha on tap?

Hello, Goodbye

These spots came and went — or moved or reopened or something — over the course of 2013

Blowin’ Smoke — This Gaslight Group property moved from MLK to the old Sol spot on Habersham.

Blue Turtle Bistro — Another Gaslight Group property, this one was closed down specifically because it was taking business from another Gaslight joint, the new and well-received 5 Spot in Habersham Village.

Soho South Cafe — This old favorite, closed for months, just got a major makeover under new management.

Pie Society — Brilliant Brit meat pies on the Westside.

Chipotle — Fans of the national organic Tex-Mex chain saw their wish come true in the Whole Foods shopping center.

Spudnik —Slingin’ starches on the west end of Broughton.

Jepson Café — Not only open under new management with a tasty new menu, they moved back upstairs over the Jepson Center gift shop.

Taco Abajo — This Broughton Street Tex-Mex place shut down after, oh, let’s just call it a long and contentious relationship with local law enforcement.

Tequila’s Town — This spot quickly took Taco Abajo’s place as a happening Southwest joint downtown.

Cilantro’s — This Mexican-themed place downtown relaunched.

R.O.S.E. Public House — Closed after being open a hot minute.

Thrive Cafe — Closing the retail side, but still catering strong.

Cafe Florie — Everyone’s favorite tiny soul food spot — they even got the New York Times treatment — shut its doors.

The Sparetime — It was the place to be, until it wasn’t.