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The Big Spoon: I Visited Paula Deen's Family Kitchen and Here's Why I Can't Go Back 

click to enlarge JESSICA ELIZARRARAS
  • Jessica Elizarraras

Editor's Note: The following is The Big Spoon, an opinion column on San Antonio's food and drink scene.

This story starts in the summer of 2005, when my best friend and I moved into a new apartment across the street from UTSA. Like most other apartments complexes that popped up at the time, this one was filled with amenities: a resort-style pool, a clubhouse, and, best of all for a poor college student, free basic cable.

This was near the beginning of the Food Network craze. Here was an entire channel devoted to cooking shows that up to this point had focused mostly on great cookery. And as someone who at the time only knew how to scramble an egg, poorly I might add, the Food Network provided access to flavors I hadn't yet tasted and methods I would eventually try. While 32-year-old Jessica wants to buy the good olive oil like Ina, and occasionally pronounces bruschetta with a hard T like Giada would, 19-year-old Jessica fell hard for quaint, cotton-headed grandma, Paula Deen.

The recipes were simple. They were easy to follow. THEY HAD SO MUCH BUTTER. The show was TV Zoloft, and I could sit back after class and indulge in her Southern charms, her jokes and her sass. She emboldened me in the kitchen. At Christmas one year, I received one of her cookbooks, The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook, a plastic-bound booklet with her restaurant's best recipes.

I eventually started dabbling in other recipes, leaned away from the butter, moved out of that apartment complex and had to pay for my own cable.

And then the lawsuits hit. In 2013, a former manager alleged racial harassment from Deen and sexual harassment from her brother Earl "Bubba" Hiers. Deen denied telling racist jokes, but admitted using racial slurs in the past. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, with both sides reaching a settlement. The glass was shattered. The quintessential grandma I came up watching was ... human, and not necessarily a good one. I was disappointed to say the least.

And the allegations didn't stop. After being dropped by Food Network, Kmart, Sears and Walmart, more cringe-worthy stories surfaced. First, the employee whom Deen tried to dress up like Aunt Jemima. There was the time son Bobby wore brown face while dressed as Ricky Ricardo. And there was that whole peddling of butter while not disclosing her diabetes until big pharma came through with endorsement opportunities. The list goes on.

She's visited San Antonio before while on her comeback Paula Deen Live! tour, and she's back again. This time, she's teamed up with Phoenix Hospitality & Entertainment inside Bass Pro Shops at The Rim to open Paula Deen's Family Kitchen, a 275-seat, family-style concept that opened April 30, complete with Cracker Barrel-esque country store chockfull of books, kitchen signage, boxed butter cake mixes, and a demo kitchen where Deen herself will visit with fans when she's in town this June. It's a great location for the third restaurant of its kind (the other two are in Fairview near Dallas and Pigeon Forge, Tenn.), smack dab in the middle of retail and down the way from a significant tourist attraction.
click to enlarge JESSICA ELIZARRARAS
  • Jessica Elizarraras
I visited, begrudgingly, and sat through an hour of over-the-top cheerful service. For $22.99, guests are invited to pick three entrees and four sides, and no take-out is allowed. Drinks are extra. The food itself isn't the problem. The chicken is great, the catfish well-seasoned, the mac and cheese is as good as you would hope given the amount of cheese and butter. But I can't go back.

Before reviewing Paul Qui's Aqui this February, Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook wrote a thoughtful piece on why she ultimately chose to look past the chef's personal crimes (an arrest in 2016 for assault), and review the restaurant based on the work of sous chefs she admires.

While I agree for the most part – and no, Deen was never charged with bodily harm – we all have to do our own moral reckoning. I've made my career by supporting and reporting on local restaurants and the people who do the back-breaking work of keeping San Antonio fed. The number of San Antonians who no doubt have been hired to work at Deen's massive restaurant is not lost on me.

But the guilt I felt while enjoying a chocolate "Ooey Gooey Butter Cake" was real. I could have spent my $22.99 literally anywhere else — down the way at Yellowfish Sushi or across town at Mr. & Mrs. G's Soul Food Kitchen.

I cut the cord on cable several years ago, and I try to be judicious on where I spend my hard-earned writer's salary. The food at Paula Deen's Family Kitchen might be good home-cooking, but it's not mind-blowing. And I can enjoy better butter-filled, heart-warming dishes elsewhere without supporting an admitted racist, no matter how charming her accent may be.
So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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