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The cookies have disappeared, and now the sugar is kicking in: 5-year-old Cat Girl begins running around in circles, and 7-year-old Pirate Boy lines up three wooden chairs, leaping from one to the next. The occasion is Paula Deen's Ladies' Home Journal cover shoot, and between takes Deen, resplendent in a sleek black pantsuit and silver slip-on shoes, watches the mayhem with bemusement. She likes this holiday. A lot. "One Halloween I dressed up like a witch and sprayed my hair so it stood up real big and sat out on the front porch," she says later. "I had this big ol' cauldron" -- pronounced, in Deen-ese, cawwwwlll-druhn" -- and I had my real witchy laugh, hee hee hee, and the children would just get all bug-eyed."
Beyond her super-decadent cooking, it is this spark of mischief and her obvious desire to get everyone in on the good times that have made Paula Deen, 61, the culinary star she is today -- and soon, a possible talk-show star. That's because the Silver Fox of the Food Network may very well be getting her own talk show in 2009. She's not yet sure of the format or even what subjects she'll tackle, but one thing she does know: It'll shoot in New York City ("I'm not a big-city girl -- so I'll work there four days a week, then fly home"), and it'll be more gab, less chicken-and-biscuits.
But boy, those biscuits -- and mac and cheese, and fried turkey, and gooey cinnamon rolls -- have served Deen well. Nineteen years ago the Georgia native not only was broke but also virtually locked in her home; for years after her beloved parents died, she suffered from agoraphobia, which made her afraid to leave the house. So she cooked. And cooked some more. When she realized her husband would not be able to support her, she mustered the courage to strike out on her own. Exit the husband (who handed her $200 to start her own sandwich business, with the parting words, "Knock yourself out"); enter a new life.
With characteristic dark humor, Deen dubbed herself The Bag Lady, selling sandwiches door to door. If only her ex-husband had used that 200 bucks to buy stock in Paula Deen Inc: The Bag Lady eventually morphed into The Lady & Sons, a lines-around-the-block Savannah restaurant she ran with her boys, Bobby, now 38, and Jamie, 41. Then came the cookbooks (including her latest, for kids, My First Cookbook), television shows on the Food Network, a magazine, and a best-selling memoir. Cooking wasn't just her gift, it was her salvation. And Deen knows it.
Ladies' Home Journal: Growing up, you were always in the kitchen with your grandmother, and your sons were in there with you. Now you've written a cookbook for kids called My First Cookbook. What's your secret for getting kids interested in eating new things?
Paula Deen: If you can get children to participate in the cooking process they'll eat new things. They're so proud of anything they make, they're willing to try it. It kicks their self-esteem up several notches.
LHJ: You've been criticized for the fat content in your food -- and as you know, there's a childhood obesity epidemic in this country. Did you modify your recipes for children to have less fat in them?
Paula Deen: No. Listen, I am your cook, not your doctor. Don't make me responsible. I share recipes with you, but then it's up to you. You know your body, and you know if you're genetically inclined to have diabetes or high cholesterol. My grandmother cooked and ate the kind of food I make every day, and she lived to be 91. Some people are genetically blessed.
LHJ: But you don't recommend eating your food all the time, do you?
Paula Deen: I don't eat my own cooking every day! My lord, I'd be wider than a table if I ate chicken and biscuits and gravy every day.
LHJ: Do you have to watch your cholesterol? Is it high?
Paula Deen: Well, I've had to watch it as I've aged. When it got a little above 200 last year, I started taking medication. It's fine now. But I've got a news blast for every one: You ain't getting out of here alive. Somethin's gonna gitcha. And I think for me -- well, to never eat butter, then have a truck hit me? Do you know how pissed off I'd be?
LHJ: Your cooking has an improvised, freewheeling feel to it.
Paula Deen: For me the hardest thing about my first cookbook was making myself measure. Because my food is better when I don't. When I put everything into a formula, the taste is just a little bit off. You cook so long, you know just how much to shake in, or how big the lumps should be. Our grandmothers would say, "Drop in a lump of lard the size of an egg." That would be the instruction.
LHJ: Is it hard for you to eat in restaurants? I imagine the chef always wants to impress you.
Paula Deen: Oh yeah [nods emphatically]! And here's the thing -- simple food is best. Food that doesn't want to hide behind a lot of spices and crazy flavors. And I don't require foreplay when I go to a restaurant. I don't need all that junk. Just give me my one fork, my one knife, and bring on the good food.
LHJ: If you had the chance, which of the candidates or their wives would you most like to cook for?
Paula Deen: Well, for me, the person I'd most like to sit down and eat with is still Hillary Clinton. And I almost did! I was supposed to interview her for Paula's Party [Deen's most popular Food Network show].
LHJ: What happened?
Paula Deen: I was going to meet her in North Carolina, where she was campaigning, and I was gonna interview her on the foods she grew up on, and what she and her family like to eat now -- just very light and nonpolitical. But at the last minute her people called and said they couldn't do it, I think because of my relationship with Smithfield. [Editor's note: Deen has an endorsement deal with Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer.] Smithfield's largest plant is not unionized, so my guess is the union people called and said to Hillary's people, "If you allow that woman to interview you, we're going to tell everybody you're not for the union." So the interview was cancelled, and my heart was broken. It was probably political, and that's not my agenda.
LHJ: Do you have an agenda?
Paula Deen: Yes -- bringing people to the table. Bringing families and friends together, surrounded by each other with good meals in front of 'em. That's my agenda.
LHJ: It's incredible, the success you've enjoyed since you started your first door-to-door sandwich business. What was the first thing you bought yourself when you had a little money?
Paula Deen: Years ago I called my ex-husband [Editor's note: Deen has been married to her second husband, Savannah tugboat operator Michael Groover, since 2004], who's in the used-car business, and I said, "I'm driving this lil' Honda hatchback, and I wanna buy me a Lincoln." I wanted the pimpmobile, honey. And he found this used-up piece of crap. And I was so proud of it! Every time I drove by a car wash I'd run it through. I kept me a rag in the car so I could get out and polish it at stop signs. Within a short matter of time, the paint came off the whole hood, like the motor had burned the paint off. I looked like the biggest redneck!
LHJ: Do you feel confident that the "bad old days" are behind you forever?
Paula Deen: You know, no matter how successful I am or how much the business grows, in the back of my head I'll still be The Bag Lady -- the one selling sandwiches. I'll still be that girl who had $200. I'll still be her.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2008.