Growing up in Los Angeles, one of my earliest and best memories was turning on our family television set early on January 1 to watch the Rose Parade. On some special years, we trekked out to Pasadena to take in the parade in person.
Over the years, I saw presidents Dwight Eisnehower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford as Grand Marshals, entertainers Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck and Bing Crosby, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and even whimsical marshals like Kermit the Frog and Mickey Mouse.
Imagine, then, my horror this year when the Rose Parade elected Paula Deen, one of dozens of America's "celebrity chefs," as the 2011 Grand Marshall. Of all the thousands of candidates, no one better than Deen could be found?
Last year the Grand Marshall was Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III, the US Airways captain who ditched his aircraft into the Hudson River to save all 155 passengers. This year it's Deen?
I sadly acknowledge that Deen is famous. She's got a popular Food Network television show, a top-selling magazine, best-selling books, a furniture line, a successful Savannah restaurant named The Lady and Sons, and a string of Paula Deen Buffets at casinos nationwide. All feature Deen's specialties: greasy, deep-fried and fattening food with lots of cream cheese and butter.
The rub is that Deen has no legitimate cooking credentials. Her cooking skills, if you can call them that, evolved out of making sandwiches in her kitchen and selling them to whoever was nearby and hungry. I enjoy a good ham and cheese as much as the next guy. But let's be honest: sandwiches are not haute cuisine.
My guess is that if you walked down any residential neighborhood in Deen's hometown of Savannah, every household you visited would have a cook at least as proficient.
Compare Deen's cooking credentials to Emeril Lagasse's, the 2008 Grand Marshall.
Although I'm not a big fan of Lagasse, I'm impressed with his resume. Lagasse is a former James Beard Award winner who, after polishing his cooking skills in Lyon and Paris, France earned a doctorate at Johnson and Wales University. Eventually, Lagasse replaced Paul Prudhomme as executive chef at New Orleans' world-famous Commander's Palace.
A few years ago, the Food Network overhauled its format. Gone were show hosts who had legitimate cooking credentials like David Rosengarten, Mario Batali, Ming Tsui and Lagasse. Even the Three Dog Bakery fellows, Mark Beckloff and Dan Dye, were gone.
While I didn't necessarily make all their recipes, except for the dog biscuits, I always discovered a new wrinkle or time-saving tip when I tuned into their shows.
From their replacements like Deen, Rachael Ray, Guy Fieri and Sandra Lee, I learned nothing, unless you count opening a frozen bag of peas or coating any dish you're preparing with two sticks of melted butter as cooking knowledge.
When Food Network made the change from real to celebrity chefs, I predicted that its ratings would plunge.
That turned out to be another in my lifelong string of inaccurate predictions. Food Network ratings are through the roof.
During 2010 in the targeted audience of adults 25-54, Food Network was the highest-rated and most-watched network on cable on Sunday night. Among its biggest hits are the "Super Chef Battle," which in one episode featured Michelle Obama and White House chef Cristeta Comerford. Another hugely popular program is "Worst Cooks in America."
Now I just might watch "Worst Cooks in America" — as soon as Paula Deen appears as a contestant.
Joe Guzzardi, who retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008, is a home baker who has won several blue ribbons at the California State and San Joaquin County fairs. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.