A Paula Deen Thanksgiving
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A Paula Deen Thanksgiving

We got to spend time with Paula Deen at home as she talked about her favorite holiday and the traditions and food her family loves.

Family and Food

For Paula Deen there are a baker's dozen reasons to be thankful: the two Emmys she recently won for her Food Network show, Paula's Home Cooking; her burgeoning food magazine, Cooking with Paula Deen; her best-selling cookbooks; her well-trafficked Web site, PaulaDeen.com; her popular Savannah eateries The Lady and Sons and Uncle Bubba's Oyster House. But this Thanksgiving, as the 60-year-old chef gathers her family into the dining room of her gracious home, it quickly becomes apparent that Paula's greatest blessing is the people sitting around her. Ladies' Home Journal pulled up a chair to the Deen family table and listened in.

"What am I thankful for? Are you kidding?" asks Paula, letting loose one of her trademarked peals of laughter. "Look at who I got under my roof -- only my whole family, who I love to death. There's Jack, my new grandson -- he's my son Jamie and his wife Brooke's baby. I love my little Jackpot so much I wonder how come I didn't have an empty hole in my heart before he came. There's Bobby, my other son, who was recently named one of the most eligible bachelors. There's my brother, Bubba, and his new wife, Dawn, and Dawn's boys Trevor and Iaan, and Bubba's kids, Corrie and Jay. There's the matriarch of our family, Aunt Peggy [Ort]. And there's my Michael -- do you believe I got me a cute guy eight years younger? And Michael's son Anthony. And the dogs Otis and Sam and Cody and Bodine -- all with their paws under my table. We're all healthy and walkin' and laughin', and you know what else? Thanksgiving is my most favorite holiday because you don't have to wrap no presents for 30 people after you've had to figure out what they don't have. You only have to bribe these kids with a great meal and they're here.

"We don't bother with a lot of Thanksgiving rituals," Paula continues. "Jamie says grace in the kitchen as we all join hands in a prayer circle. And then it's eatin' time. We laugh and eat and rest and eat some more. Humor is so much a part of us -- if you don't laugh, you cry."

"I've always loved Thanksgiving," says Michael [Groover, Paula's second husband, whom she married in 2004]. "But my best one was probably the first one with Paula. I'd found a soul mate who could cook. You know, for so many years I thought my Momma was telling me to marry a kook. Years later I realized she was sayin' I should marry a cook. I couldn't go wrong because I did marry a kook who turned out to be a cook."

Thanksgivings Past

"After the anchors of our family were gone I felt displaced," says Paula [Editor's note: Deen's parents, Corrie and Earl Hiers, had both died by the time Paula was 23.] "But my Daddy's brother, Uncle Bernie, and my Aunt Glennis took over hosting Thanksgiving for the next 20 years or so, and the entire family would gather at their home, in Statesboro, Georgia. I would just live for those Thanksgivings. We'd get in on Wednesday and set up the poker table and the grown-ups played poker for four days, just stoppin' to eat."

"As dark as our year might have been, Thanksgiving was always a bright spot," says Jamie.

"Aunt Glennis and Uncle Bernie lived in an old house with a catfish pond, so we fished."

"And there was deer and bird huntin'," says Bobby. "People drove five and six hours to get there so we didn't want to eat, turn around, and go home. There'd be homemade pallets and cots laid out all over the modest house."

"Thanksgiving morning, Paula, Aunt Beth, and Aunt Glennis would make us country breakfast," says Corrie, Paula's niece, "no matter that soon we would eat an endless Thanksgiving dinner. Then there were great platters of food and sweets laid out all over the house."

"Thanksgiving was never a formal dinner," says Bobby, "it was a day of grazing."

"Of course, we all brought our special dishes," says Paula. "Aunt Glennis made the best macaroni and cheese and green corn. But I always brought the stuffin', 'cause she made absolutely the worst stuffin'."

"We might not have had a lot of money," Peggy says, "but we never realized things were bad. Although we knew we were of modest means, we never felt poor."

The Birth of a Cook

"I bet I'm the only one here who remembers the first Thanksgiving dinner Paula cooked!" says Peggy. "It was November 1970. She was in her kitchen and I was in mine. Every few minutes she'd call me wantin' to know how to start her Butterball turkey. I'd be trying to do my own dinner and teach her how to do hers at the same time. Finally, her Uncle George called out, 'Peggy, for God's sakes, tell Paula to get offa that damn phone or I'll never have my turkey dinner.'

"I'm not surprised by the fame that's happened to Paula," continues Peggy. "The way I saw her improvise I knew she'd make it. Once, when she'd just opened her first restaurant, The Lady, in 1991, she had a customer waiting for a sandwich. She was missing so much in that place -- didn't even have a spatula to apply the mayonnaise. Well, Paula, she just washed her hands real good, reached down two fingers into that gallon jug o' mayonnaise, brought them up and slathered the stuff on the bread. I knew then that no lack of a spatula or anything else could stop my Paula."

"Success got me way too late in life to change me," says Paula. "Some things in life -- fame, money -- they are gone just like that. But the love of family -- that never fades away. I'm very aware that one mistake and it could all be over. But I also think that mistakes can turn into blessings, which turn us into the people we are. In the end, if I wake up on the right side of the dirt, there's always time to make it better."

Home Is Where the Stove Is

"When Uncle Bubba's opened, in 2004, there we were, all back together again on Thanksgiving, workin' in the restaurant," says Corrie.

"I remember," says Bubba. "We'd been super busy for the week before and on Thanksgiving, about 3 or 4 o'clock, Paula and I looked at each other and she said, 'Oh my God, we're outta turkeys.' So we jumped in the car and went to Kroger and Publix and found some more turkeys and hams and we fed about 1,100 people.

"Lately," Bubba continues, "we work all Thanksgiving and when the restaurant closes, we sit at the bar and eat."

"When our guests are gone, we've been known to go into the kitchen and take a few gobbles out of the pots," says Corrie. "Everyone's drinkin' Diet Pepsi and, eventually, you'll hear a burp. Then another. Paula has done some very loud burps herself!"

Giving Thanks

"My nephew Jack gives me a new perspective on life," says Bobby. "I've never been married, but watching my brother and his wife and child -- well, now I want that, too, and soon."

"This is Jack's second Thanksgiving," says Paula. "He won't remember anything about it. But I hope the feelings he senses today will set the stage for his whole life -- that is to know how important family is and how big a part food has played in his destiny. Food is our second soul. It generates our whole being. It's the vehicle that brings us together and ties us together."

 

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2007.

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