Racial Slur Puts Paula Deen's Empire At Risk

The world's largest retailer Wal-Mart is joining the list of companies severing ties with southern food star Paula Deen. The Savannah, Georgia-based cook and restaurateur has been on the front burner since an admission she used a racial slur in the past.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, is joining the list of companies severing ties with Southern food star Paula Deen. The Savannah, Georgia-based cook and restaurateur has been in the news since admitting she used a racial slur in the past. And now the future of her food empire is on the line.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Paula Deen built her reputation as a down-home cook with her South Georgia drawl and over-the-top recipes, adding that extra stick of butter and tossing just about anything into the deep fryer.

PAULA DEEN: This is so good, y'all. I don't know how to top this fried cheesecake, y'all. So I guess it's time for me to sign off. And until next time, you know that I always send y'all love and best dishes from my kitchen to yours.

(LAUGHTER)

ELLIOTT: But the Food Network has closed her kitchen. And now Wal-Mart won't order any more of her pots and pans. Smithfield Foods dropped her as a spokeswoman. And yesterday, Caesars said it won't use her name on four restaurants. Other companies associated with Deen are taking a wait and see approach, including shopping channel QVC and the drug maker Novo Nordisk.

For her part, Deen has repeatedly apologized. She admitted to using racially offensive language long ago when she was under oath during a deposition. Deen is being sued by an ex-employee for an alleged hostile working environment in one of her Savannah restaurants.

Yesterday, on NBC's "Today Show," Deen said she is not a racist.

DEEN: I can truthfully say in my life, I have never with intention hurt anybody on purpose and I never would.

ELLIOTT: It's not the first time a food celebrity has been embroiled in scandal. Domestic maven Martha Stewart launched a major comeback campaign after being jailed for insider trading.

Here she is on the "Today Show" earlier this year talking about putting the issue behind her.

MARTHA STEWART: I don't want to be defined by a moment in time. That was a moment. It's passed. I don't think about it anymore.

ELLIOTT: Stewart has rebuilt her empire. The question is: Can Paula Deen salvage her brand?

JOHN T. EDGE: Has she buttered her last nationally televised biscuit? I don't know.

ELLIOTT: John T. Edge is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi.

EDGE: Will she maintain a core audience? Yes. Will she be able to reach a crossover audience that is diverse and thinks in inclusive ways about the South and regional food culture? I think she just lost them.

ELLIOTT: Edge says even before the revelations in the deposition, Deen was building her fame based on a caricature of the South.

EDGE: She kind of lived by a stereotype and she played a role, played a Southern role, and she died by that role.

ELLIOTT: In Savannah, long lines remain to get a table in her restaurants. And other businesses are standing by Deen. The traveling Metro Cooking Show plans to keep her in its fall lineup, says founder and CEO, Denise Medved.

DENISE MEDVED: We do not agree in any derogatory statements by anybody in any fashion. She's been a great friend of our business for many years. She has asked for forgiveness, so in that spirit, we accepted the forgiveness.

ELLIOTT: Medved says Deen is by far the show's biggest draw.

MEDVED: She has a lot of unbelievably loyal fans. And I think she'll emerge out of this just fine.

ELLIOTT: One of those loyal fans is John Schmitt of Indianapolis. He started a "We Support Paula Deen" page on Facebook. The site has racked up thousands of likes, and has become a place for fans to vent about the fallout Deen is facing.

JOHN SCHMITT: I'm just amazed at the number of people who have said, you know, I support you Paula, you know, it doesn't matter. It was so long ago, why is this an issue? And that comes down to what I feel, is why is this an issue?

ELLIOTT: Culinary historian Michael Twitty has an answer.

MICHAEL TWITTY: It's not about name calling. This is not a playground. It's about systemic racism and privilege and power.

ELLIOTT: Twitty says for African-American southerners like him, Deen's comments felt like a betrayal. But he believes she can redeem herself.

TWITTY: But it's going to take a lot of work. And that's something that you can't brand. You can't put that in a brand. You can't put that in a restaurant or a magazine. It's something that you have to do soul work on.

ELLIOTT: Yesterday, civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson said he's agreed to help Paula Deen make amends, saying she should not become a - quote, "sacrificial lamb for racial intolerance."

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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