WRITER: MONICA MERCER
It’s been a long while since Paula Deen got close to Chattanooga.
It was on her honeymoon in November, 1965. She and her first husband stayed “somewhere” on Lookout Mountain, but the tell-it-like-it-is Southern lady who has since become one of America’s biggest food celebrities says that’s about all she can remember of the trip.
“I can tell you it was as cold as ice,” Deen says in her famous Georgia drawl. “No one was there. We just liked the mountains, and I mean at 18, what do ya know about what you’re gonna see?”
Now 62, Deen has seen her life and knack for cooking explode light years beyond what she might have imagined as a teenage bride.
At the time, Deen, an Albany, Georgia, native, admits her dreams were “limited” to becoming only a good wife and mother. But when her perfect husband failed to find a career and her illusions of the perfect Southern family vanished, Deen says it was her instinct to survive, rather than her love of fixing up collard greens and fried chicken, that got her a new life.
“It turns out that many times came when I had to rethink my Southern upbringing and assumptions,” Deen writes in her 2007 memoir about the odd jobs she took while trying to keep her family together.
She got her real estate license, insurance license, became a banker, hung wallpaper and even mopped floors at a grocery store while hoping to be promoted to a checker. She was deathly afraid, she says, that someone might recognize her and realize she was a failure. But then, in her early forties, Deen managed to figure out that Savannah’s work force might actually pay her to deliver the perfect boxed lunch.
It wasn’t without help. Deen says she “dragged” her two sons with her, too, admitting they were “floundering” at the time just like she was, without college degrees and desperate to earn money.
Twenty years after the launch of her amateur food service called “The Bag Lady,”—discouraged by her ex-husband who called her “an idiot” for trying, she says— Deen is now one of the Food Network’s most recognizable stars, hosting three cooking shows that are filmed mostly in the Savannah, Georgia, home she shares with her second husband. She still runs her Savannah restaurant, The Lady and Sons, with her sons Jamie and Bobby, who helped propel her to that next level of stardom, she says. And appearances at events like She: An Expo For Women that sill bring Deen back to Chattanooga in early July allow her to cook in person and sign her best-selling books for countless fans who can’t get enough of her butter and mayonnaise-laden comfort food.
“I love it, I love it, I love it,” Deen says of the pace she tends to keep these days. But as the title of her memoir suggests, “It ain’t all about the cookin” anymore.
Deen is still in bed in Savannah at 9 a.m. on a Friday when Chatter catches up with her. She’s just finished watching Fox and Friends, the show she says she depends on to keep her informed about the “outside world,” and she’s getting ready for a day full of telephone interviews.
“They said we’d be talking for how long?” Deen asks cautiously, not wanting to disappoint if she’s forced to cut the interview short. “It’s been a busy week,” she says apologetically. Indeed. Deen recalls how she had to move out of her house for several days and then watch a moving crew literally redecorate with her new line of furniture.
After returning on Monday, Deen spent hours “trying to get the taste just right” for her new line of seafood products in the final testing stage. Then from Tuesday to Thursday, “there were four different production crews in my house for different shows, different products I’m working on,” Deen says. “The crews literally just passed each other in the night.”
Glamorous, maybe, but even on the road Deen says she usually has to swoop in and then swoop out, she’s so busy. Away from rants, she adds, and often she doesn’t know what’s in store for her before one of several support staff fills her in.
Still lying in bed, Deen says she is content at the moment not having to dress up as the weekend starts. “The best part of today is that I don’t have to go into hair and makeup,” Deen says. “I’ve been suffering from an eye infection for three months, so it’s really, really hard to keep all that eye makeup and those false eye lashes on.”
That’s the kind of detail and candor that endears Deen to fans throughout the country. There are no attempts to hide the fact she’s a reluctant life-long smoker. Or that she’s the only Food Network cook they’ve ever had to “bleep” because of her penchant for using four-letter words.
“Look, here’s the deal,” Deen says seriously. “I’ve aired all my dirty laundry. I did that by choice, because you can’t help somebody if you’re not truthful with them. I’ve had to let people know how low you can go and still survive and come back up.”
After all the struggles, Deen says she loves and cherishes her fans and knows without a doubt that she and they have in some ways all led parallel lives. “My big message I hope to offer women is that anything is possible through hard work,” says Deen of the upcoming She expo at the Convention Center. “I can’t wait to come to Chattanooga. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place, and I look forward to my time with the girls up there.” ◆