Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Transcript Suggests a Possible Tennessee Connection to the Paula Deen Scandal

Posted by on Tue, Jun 25, 2013 at 11:17 AM

Restaurateur Mike Kelly (seated) and a member of the waitstaff, from the Jimmy Kelly's website.
  • JimmyKellys.com
  • Restaurateur Mike Kelly (seated) and a member of the waitstaff, from the Jimmy Kelly's website.
There's a lot of discussion about Paula Deen's testimony in the case involving racial discrimination and sexual harrassment allegations from a former employee (who was a white female). Most of the accusations are directed at Deen's brother, but the lawsuit targets Paula Deen as well, and questions about her past actions are being used to frame allegations of a hostile workplace environment.

That's about as clearly as I can explain the situation, and I think it's important to note all that because it seems a lot of folks are jumping the gun and assuming that she is losing her contracts (Food Network, Smithfield Farms, possibly QVC ...) because she used the "n" word.

Frankly, I'm glad for any reason for her to go away. It irks me to no end that one of her most popular "recipes" (Gooey Butter Cake) is just the same chess squares recipe that everyone in the South has been making since cake mix started coming in a box. And that she is sometimes called a "celebrity chef." She is not a chef; she is a cook. But is she a racist? Fortunately, that's not for me to decide.

What is clear is that the attorney questioning her was simply doing a good job by establishing that, in the past, Deen has used offensive terms and may have an unfavorable attitude toward employees of color. I imagine the questioning was pretty brutal and some of the answers would have been the same for just about anyone of Deen's generation. She asserts, however, that she no longer uses offensive terms and is not racist.

But as I read a portion of the transcript — one that is key in establishing her attitude toward black employees — one portion stood out:

And I remember telling them about a restaurant that my husband and I had recently visited. And I'm wanting to think it was in Tennessee or North Carolina or somewhere, and it was so impressive. The whole entire wait staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie. I mean, it was really impressive. And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid somebody would misinterpret.

Uh-oh. Two restaurants immediately came to mind. First, Belle Meade Cafeteria. I recall when I moved to Nashville the second time, in 2004, when the restaurant was still open but most people I knew refused to go because it felt very racist due the neatly dressed black waitstaff that served the elderly white clientele. I never visited the restaurant, but I was told it felt like a time warp from the 1940s or '50s.

My second thought was Rendezvous in Memphis. The waitstaff there is legendary. It's nearly impossible to get on staff because the men who wait tables there never leave and bequeath their jobs to handpicked successors. But all of the servers are black men who wear very tidy starched white shirts with black bow ties. I believe they also wear white aprons (it is a barbecue restaurant, after all), so it may not be the one Deen is referring to.

I also got a message from a friend who wondered if Deen may be thinking of 79-year-old Nashville steakhouse Jimmy Kelly's. It too is known for a predominantly black waitstaff that fits the description.

It's entirely possible, of course, that none of these restaurants were the inspiration. There are a number of restaurants all over the South (and possibly outside the South) where the "old school" waitstaff is still in place. The Camellia Grill in New Orleans, for example, comes to mind. Though I've only read about it; like the other restaurants mentioned except Rendezvous, I've never been there.

Anyone else have an idea what restaurant Deen may have visited? Do we even want to know? And I'm wondering if the demand for such a place is dying out with Deen's generation or if that type of service might be coming into style with the younger generations who are flocking to "speakeasies" and other retro-style establishments.

Service by African-American waiters and Pullman porters was an attraction of rail travel, for it allowed white passengers to enjoy the privileges of personal service and attention associated with wealth. These service positions were the highest jobs to which most African Americans could aspire in the American railroad industry.
  • http://explorepahistory.com
  • "Service by African-American waiters and Pullman porters was an attraction of rail travel, for it allowed white passengers to enjoy the privileges of personal service and attention associated with wealth. These service positions were the highest jobs to which most African Americans could aspire in the American railroad industry."

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