The Ancient Sin of Gluttony: What’s Really Behind the Shunning of Paula Deen

Gluttony, attributed to Albrecht Dürer. Illustration from Stultifera navis (Ship of Fools)

We need strategies that do not drag us back to the dispositional focus of the Inquisition’s witch-hunts, that propelled the notion of the “Satan Within,” when much good and evil is the product of situational and systemic forces acting on the same ordinary, often good people.  ~~ Philip Zimbardo 

It’s been with a great deal of amazement that I’ve watched the reaction to the American food-media celebrity Paula Deen’s announcement of her Type 2 diabetes diagnosis three years ago and her decision to endorse a Danish-made diabetes drug, Victoza.

One image I couldn’t shake: the vision of a woman trusted by the community suddenly revealed to be like a medieval witch, causing the sky to rain toads, fields of rye to wither, and cows’ udders to shrivel up, damaging the community. Then I envisioned a huge crowd, standing in the rain, waiting for the cart to bring the old woman, her now-matted gray hair pasted to her chubby cheeks, double-chins hiding the neck that soon would be scratched by the rough hangman’s noose swaying high above on the scaffold. As she passes, the crowd howls like blood-maddened hounds chasing a deer and heckles her, “You lied to us. You got rich off of us. You betrayed us.”

“Witch-hunt,” a word bandied about by Zimbardo and a few other writers on the Deen debacle, seems quite apropos,  although her sin isn’t witchcraft, but gluttony, at least in the eyes of her disgruntled critics.

Buried deep in our psyches, I believe, is the idea that women should be nurturing and not harm those they feed or heal. Emotions – both overt and covert – emerged from this flapdoodle laced with the stench of the sin of gluttony. Don’t forget that in many medieval paintings, artists (usually all male) portrayed women as the personification of gluttony.

Gluttony, the Doge’s palace, venice

Warnings against gluttony stemmed from a slew of early Christian writers, such as Gregory the Great and Evagrius of Pontus, which can be summed up as:

Fancy that Gluttony is not good and pleasant, but filthy, evil, and detestable, as indeed it really is. (A Thousand Notable Things, from a sixteenth-century original printed in 1815)

Dante created a special place in Hell for gluttons, because in essence they worship their stomachs, not God:

My sense reviving, that erewhile had droop’d
With pity for the kindred shades, whence grief
O’ercame me wholly, straight around I see
New torments, new tormented souls, which way
Soe’er I move, or turn, or bend my sight.
In the third circle I arrive, of showers
Ceaseless, accursed, heavy and cold, unchanged
For ever, both in kind and in degree.
Large hail, discolor’d water, sleety flaw
Through the dun midnight air stream’d down amain:
Stank all the land whereon that tempest fell.

Ecclesiastical mummies in Sicily support the thesis that rich diets lead to health issue, thus making it clear that the relationship between eating and health are obviously nothing new.

Illustration for Ganrgantua and Pantagruel, by Gustave Doré

With this in mind, and side-tracking a bit, one possible reason for people turning away from French cuisine lies in its (perverse?) enjoyment in the pleasure of eating and the ensuing perception of French gourmandise as gluttony. Rabelais wrote in La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel (The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel) (ca. 1532):

The bun-sellers or cake-makers were in nothing inclinable to their request; but, which was worse, did injure them most outrageously, calling them prattling gabblers, lickorous gluttons, freckled bittors, mangy rascals, shite-a-bed scoundrels, drunken roysters, sly knaves, drowsy loiterers, slapsauce fellows, slabberdegullion druggels, lubberly louts, cozening foxes, ruffian rogues, paltry customers, sycophant-varlets, drawlatch hoydens, flouting milksops, jeering companions, staring clowns, forlorn snakes, ninny lobcocks, scurvy sneaksbies, fondling fops, base loons, saucy coxcombs, idle lusks, scoffing braggarts, noddy meacocks, blockish grutnols, doddipol-joltheads, jobbernol goosecaps, foolish loggerheads, flutch calf-lollies, grouthead gnat-snappers, lob-dotterels, gaping changelings, codshead loobies, woodcock slangams, ninny-hammer flycatchers, noddypeak simpletons, turdy gut, shitten shepherds, and other suchlike defamatory epithets; saying further, that it was not for them to eat of these dainty cakes, but might very well content themselves with the coarse unranged bread, or to eat of the great brown household loaf.

Note the moral imperative to forgo the pleasures of eating and settle for a “great brown household loaf,” one likely to crack a tooth or two with a stray stone or unmilled seed.

M. F. K. Fisher envied gluttons, in a way:

I myself would like to be able to eat that much of something I really delighted in, and I can recognize overtones of envy in the way lesser mortals so easily damned Brady as a glutton, even in the days of excess when he flourished. [She’s referring to Diamond Jim Brady and his devouring of  “nine portions of sole Marquéry the night George Rector brought the recipe back to New York from Paris, especially for him does not mean that he gorged himself upon it but simply that he had room for it.” Brady’s stomach apparently was six times larger than normal.]

I could go on for reams about this topic, but let Francine Prose have the last word, as she wrote in her delightful little book, Gluttony: The Seven Deadly Sins (2003):

No wonder that thoughtful and even altruistic humans have found it increasingly important to warn their peers about the passing, transient, gluttonous pleasure that leads to eternal penance and pain. (p. 49)

For more on the history of attitudes toward gluttony: 

“G” is for Gluttony. The Art of Eating, by M. F. K. Fisher (1976)

Fat, Gluttony and Sloth: Obesity in Literature, Art, and Medicine, by David and Fiona Haslam (2009)

Eating to Excess: The Meaning of Gluttony and the Fat Body in the Ancient World, by Susan E. Hill (2011)

The Gluttony Plague: or, how persons kill themselves by eating, by James Caleb Jackson (1881)

Gluttony: The Seven Deadly Sins, by Francine Prose (2003)

Hieronymus Bosch – The Seven Deadly Sins

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

3 thoughts on “The Ancient Sin of Gluttony: What’s Really Behind the Shunning of Paula Deen

  1. This was an utterly fascinating post, from the standpoint of both one who loves food anthropology/history and as an expat who is equally taken aback by the unkind response to Paula Deen’s diabetes, proving there are many issues afoot. But it is your response to the last comment that really grabbed me: a bit of human compassion and refraining from judgment might serve us all well. Thank you for this.

  2. As I have said, wearing my hat as a nutritonist with a Master’s degree in Human Nutrition, Food, & Exercise from Virginia Tech, diabetes is not a simple disease. The causes are complex and often have nothing to do with the food that a person eats or does not eat. For example, I am pre-diabetic, according to my doctor’s latest word – I have never been overweight, I eat healthy foods, there is no family history, and I exercise a lot. Yet .. there it is. We do not know that Paula Deen actually eats the food she cooks on her show. That she is overweight is obvious, but I know many vegetarians who are overweight, believe it or not. We CANNOT be sure that her food caused this problem. I will defend Paula Deen, because she is a showman/woman in the same sense of a circus or other performer. She does not deserve to be ostracized as she is – you could say in her own, perhaps warped way, Paula Deen is an artist pushing the limits of propriety. Her food is theatrical. The French linger over their small portions of their foods, yes, but other factors come into play there – many, at least in Paris, walk a lot, carrying their groceries up four flights of stairs or more, and cooking in small kitchens without room for excess food. And they smoke. A lot. Yet, the obesity crisis is affecting France as well; I know, I have seen it happening, and I have carried groceries there up four flights of stairs. Look at other Food Network shows; you will see the same attachment to extremism in eating. I will grant you that Paula Deen probably has been a bit gauche about her endorsement of the drug, but passing judgment on a person with a disease seems to me a bit like cheering at a gladiator match. Or a hanging. Like I said …

  3. With all due respect, there is a difference between taking true pleasure in food and having a sick, compulsive relationship with food. The french linger over their cheese and their cream sauces and savor their lovingly braised meats, but I dare you to find even one true gourmand – French or otherwise, who would find Paula Deen’s Krispy Kreme donut bread pudding or cheese fudge (made with Velveeta) appetizing.

    I recognize your point – there are those who take a puritanical stance on food and see something sinful in a perfect chocolate cake. But don’t defend Paula Deen. What she does to food is truly disgusting, and she’s in denial about the cause of her illness. It’s sad.

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