MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The chef and TV personality Paula Deen is famous for her butter-filled embrace of old-fashioned Southern cooking. Well, now she's facing widespread criticism for allegedly using racial slurs. A former employee filed a race and sex discrimination lawsuit against Deen and her brother. As NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, the lawsuit is bringing out some surprising admissions.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Paula Deen grew up in Albany, Georgia, and rose to stardom with "Paula's Home Cooking" on the Food Network. That program began airing more than a decade ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV PROGRAM)
PAULA DEEN: What I'm fixing to do is fry up the lady and son's macaroni and cheese. I'm going to...
LOHR: This decadent deep-fried mac and cheese wrapped in bacon is the kind of over-the-top Southern cuisine that helped make Deen a household name.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV PROGRAM)
DEEN: And it's ready that quickly, ya'll.
LOHR: Deen makes millions of dollars from Paula Deen Enterprises through TV programs, cookbooks, personal appearances and two Savannah restaurants, including the Lady and Sons. A federal discrimination lawsuit filed in Savannah against Deen and her brother, Earl Bubba Hiers, claims employees worked in a hostile environment. The lawsuit accuses Deen and Hiers of racial harassment and contends Hiers viewed pornography in the workplace.
In a deposition taken last month, Deen admitted using the N-word. When asked if she had used the racial slur, she said, of course. But she said it had been a very long time. Deen told lawyers things have changed since the 1960s in the South. The lawsuit alleges that for her brother's wedding in 2007, Deen wanted, quote, "a true Southern plantation-style wedding."
A former employee says Deen used a racial slur to describe the middle-aged black men she wanted to hire as waiters who would wear white jackets and black bowties. In the deposition, Deen says she got the idea from a restaurant she visited which represented the Civil War era. She went on to say she didn't mean anything derogatory by saying she loved their look and professionalism.
Deen said she did not use a racial slur, but referred to the waiters as black. Her attorney, Bill Franklin, said in a statement, contrary to media reports, Deen does not condone or find the use of racial epithets acceptable. Paula Deen Enterprises issued a statement today, saying Deen recounted and used a racial epithet in the past, saying she was born 60 years ago when the South was segregated.
It goes on to say Deen doesn't find the use of the term acceptable. But Tyrone Forman, a sociology professor at Emory University, says that doesn't go far enough.
TYRONE FORMAN: What she sells is partly her food and her catering, but it's also her image. And I think anyone in good conscience would have to pause in thinking about supporting her company in light of this.
LOHR: Reaction is also making its way across the Web and Twitter universe, where many are critical. Deen's cooking show "Paula's Best Dishes" airs on the Food Network. A spokesman says the network will not tolerate any form of discrimination and is monitoring the situation. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.