My mother grew up in Washington when it was still a southern town, and despite the fact that we kept kosher she cooked southern. She would substitute turkey for ham and non-dairy creamer for buttermilk. I can’t remember a picnic in Rock Creek Park that didn’t include southern fried chicken made in an old “seasoned” skillet (not a deep-fat fryer), potato salad, coleslaw and watermelon. And she made the best fried green tomatoes I ever ate. I come by my love of southern cooking genetically.
Since I do a lot of the cooking in our family, I’m always on the lookout for good recipes. I often watch food shows on television for tips and ideas. I used to watch Paula Deen’s cooking show, with its emphasis on southern cooking. She reminds me a bit of my mother: accent, hairstyle and all.
But I don’t watch Paula anymore. Vanessa Reeves put an end to that.
Vanessa used to work at the Smithfield Packing Plant in Tar Heel, N.C. She worked on the kill floor where hog carcasses come down the line swinging on meat hooks at a fast clip. They process 30,000 hogs a day at that plant. That’s hard physical labor.
As it happened, one day a carcass fell off a hook, knocking Vanessa to the ground. Hog carcasses weigh about 250 pounds, and Vanessa was pregnant. She got up and went back to work on the line.
As the day wore on Vanessa began to feel sick. Something wasn’t right and she ended up in the hospital that night. She had a miscarriage. While still in the hospital, Smithfield fired her — because she didn’t call in sick.
What does this have to with Paula Deen?
I opened a newspaper not long ago, and out fell a coupon for Smithfield products with Paula’s picture on it. Paula Deen is the new spokesperson for Smithfield. Paula may remind me of my mother, but all I could think of was Vanessa.
Unfortunately Vanessa’s story is not the exception. Donald Turner was put to work on a band saw at Smithfield even though he wasn’t trained to use it. He lost a finger when he was bumped.
Slaughterhouses are dangerous places under the best of conditions, but Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant has a particularly bad reputation. Workers who are injured are often fired. The company sometimes denies that injuries have occurred at the plant so they don’t have to pay workers’ compensation claims.
Worse, Smithfield often requires workers to return to work before they’ve recovered or else lose their jobs. These are not isolated incidents. Injuries at Smithfield increased to 663 in 2006 from 421 in 2005; that’s a 57% increase in one year.
Why would Paula Deen represent such a company? How could anyone in good conscience allow their name to be associated with a slaughterhouse that treats people so poorly? I just don’t understand it.
So I won’t watch Paula Deen anymore. Because now when I see her on television, all I can think of are the people working under horrible conditions at Smithfield. Instead of seeing Paula Deen, all I can picture is Vanessa Reeves lying on a cold, wet, slaughterhouse floor.
Avram Lyon is executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee.