TAMPA — The last time Paula Deen swung through Publix's cooking schools in Tampa and Sarasota, her classes sold out in half an hour. This time Publix moved the party to the Florida Aquarium. And the Food Network star, the "Deen of Southern Cuisine," still sold out the event on Tuesday, luring 200 fans who paid $150 each for the pleasure of seeing their idol up close.
Deen's appeal is part sass, part rags-to-riches story — and mayonnaise, lots of mayonnaise. Deen's food is down-home good — but don't be fooled. She's also got the cooking chops to have defeated the competition (Robert Irvine, whose restaurant venture in St. Petersburg went famously awry) on TV's Iron Chef competition.
Deen, 61, has a personal tale as dramatic as those big blue eyes.
Nearly two decades ago, she found herself battling agoraphobia, newly divorced and new to Savannah, Ga., with two teenage sons and few job prospects. She started the Bag Lady, selling lunches to the downtown business crowd, which by 1990 was parlayed into a successful restaurant called the Lady & Sons. Today, it's a major tourist attraction.
Along the way, she's had two successful Food Network shows; authored four cookbooks and a best-selling memoir; launched a second restaurant, her own bimonthly magazine and the Paula Deen Collection of cookware and food products by Smithfield.
We sat down with her before her book signing and cooking demonstration for a taste of her Southern-fried charm.
Paula, what are you cooking today?
Oh, gosh. With my pea brain, they tell me right before I go on. I think we're making shrimp and grits, banana pudding, some little pork roast sliders and maybe some creamed corn. I'm the guinea pig for cooking schools at the aquarium — this is the first one.
Reading your memoir, It Ain't All About the Cooking, it seems like cooking saved your life.
It absolutely did, in two different ways. When I was going through agoraphobia, I found a way to occupy my time with something I dearly loved. And then when I was 42, it literally saved my life financially. I was desperate for changes in my life. I had no education other than a high school diploma. I lay in bed at night thinking, "How can I take this love of cooking and earn a living with it?"
Southern food has had a renaissance of sorts in recent years. How has your cooking changed?
It hasn't; I think that's why we're so successful. I'm into classic Southern food. And I don't mean these foods with fancy, wacky sauces. I mean a good old pot of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, turnip greens with hoe cake, corn bread and banana pudding.
You were on Iron Chef with Robert Irvine, who made a splash here briefly in St. Petersburg. What's your take on him?
That's so funny. You know, Robert called me this morning. It was the first time I've spoken with him, but he and my husband chat. He's always been a dear friend, fun to be with, a great chef. I was really, really sad when I heard of his troubles. I would never ask him about it, that's between him and himself.
Given the nation's health concerns and the rates of obesity, have you rethought any of your recipes?
I was on Oprah in the last year and one of her questions was, "Paula, a lot of people claim your kind of cooking is unhealthy." And I said, "Well, I'll tell you the slap truth, Oprah, I'm your cook, not your doctor. It's up to you to be responsible for what you choose to eat." She just died laughing. By the time I got back to Savannah my team already had the T-shirt printed up.
One more thing: Southern food does get a bad rap from the food police and them prissy folks out there. But I'll tell you what, my grandmother cooked and ate that way every day of her life, and she lived to be 91. Southerners eat a lot of vegetables — big deal if it's got a little ham hock in it!
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.