Paula Deen and Tunica

Harrah’s Casino should give its restaurant partner a break.



TUNICA — Luck turns on a dime.

A flip of the cards, a roll of the dice, a spin of the wheel, a turn of the reels. One minute you're up, the next minute you're down, and that goes for slot junkies and high-rollers.

A slip of the tongue can do it too if you're Paula Deen. Paula Deen's Buffet opened in Harrah's Tunica Casino in 2008. Harrah's went all in. Getting Paula out of the casino would be like getting the butter out of a pound cake. Her name and likeness are everywhere.

On the sign at the entrance just off of U.S. Highway 61. On the cardboard cutouts at the restaurant with its homey white shutters and Paula Deen photo collage. On the tables with Paula Deen hot sauce and Paula Deen recipe cards for Mississippi Mud Cake, cheese biscuits, and hoe cakes. In the Paula Deen Gift Shop, you can buy Paula Deen pots and pans, books, knickknacks, aprons, candy, picture frames, and T-shirts ("Our hoes are complimentary").

The Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau website features a three-minute video of Paula taking a chowhound on a tour.

"Do you know why I was so excited about coming to Tunica, Mississippi?" she coos. "You've got to have cooks, and I knew that these women and men were good Southern cooks."

Then she autographs the host's forehead with a Sharpie.

Round and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows.

Last week, the Food Network announced that it is ending a partnership with Deen that began in 1999. On Monday, Smithfield Foods, known for its hams, dropped her as its spokeswoman. On Wednesday, she went on the Today show. Paula Deen's goose was cooked when a 2012 deposition became public earlier this month. She admitted using racial slurs in the past. No public figure can survive the "have you ever" question and the resulting media feeding frenzy. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni scoffed at suggestions that Deen, 66, is a product of her place and time.

"All of her adult years post-date the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and she's a citizen of the world, traveling wide and far to peddle her wares. If she can leave Georgia for the sake of commerce, she can leave Georgia in the realm of consciousness."

Sounds like somebody's got a Georgia problem. Ever used the word "cracker," Frank?

Can Paula Deen hang on in Tunica County, where 73 percent of the population is black, or with Harrah's, the biggest player in gambling in the state of Mississippi?

A spokesman for parent company Caesar's Entertainment said "we will continue to monitor the situation."

When I visited the Paula Deen Buffet for lunch this week, a black woman at the hostess stand mumbled "all right, I guess" and let it go at that when I asked her how things were going.

The buffet was doing a good business at $14.95 a head. Answering duty's call, I started with a plate of fried dill pickles, fried catfish, and chicken gumbo, then attacked Bobby Deen's "healthy" kitchen for corn bread dressing, sliced ham, cheeseburger meatloaf, baked catfish, and a cheese biscuit before finishing strong with hot bread pudding with caramel sauce and a peanut butter "gooey" from the bakery.

Then I bought a Paula Deen "Queen of Southern Cuisine" picture frame for $4.95 in case there's a Twinkies effect.

Queen Deen has talked her way out of tight spots before, such as her belated disclosure of her Type 2 diabetes. Where Bruni saw a racist buffoon in her 80-minute interview with the Times before a live audience last year, I saw a woman who could make it as a stand-up comic with a blue streak in another life. Like Oprah and Ellen, her following bridges race. One fan, a black woman, calls her "one of my four vanilla mommas." Paula is clearly touched.

The question Harrah's should ask is this: If Paula Deen is a racist, has it come out before this in her daily and very public life? Harrah's pioneered customer research in its industry and has a racially mixed workforce of more than 3,000 people in Tunica. There's your focus group.

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