In this Lake & Sumter exclusive interview, the Food Network diva dishes on this topic and—like she usually does on her hit show—much more.
Photo courtesy of housewares.org
Paula Deen had children on her mind, specifically hungry children with AIDS. While recently celebrating her debut rug collection with Kaleen Rugs at Atlanta’s AmericasMart, Paula turned the audience’s attention to her work with undernourished children with AIDS in America. Guests in attendance broke into thunderous applause for the Savannah cook and Food Network star who announced that she, husband Michael Groover, and Smithfield Foods would feed one million children in a three-month time period.
With a generous use of “y’all” and “honey” sprinkled throughout her informal talk, the crowd lined up to offer their help to this Southern powerhouse who doesn’t take no for an answer, especially when it comes to helping women and children.
Photo courtesy of Paula Deen.
You’re here to promote your new rug collection, but you made a special trip to Atlanta earlier this year.
Yes, my children got me involved in a program that started up here in Atlanta to help children with AIDS who are food-deprived. I was just amazed at the figures they were throwin’ out at me, like how many people in this country go to bed hungry every night. So we made a commitment with Smithfield to feed one million hungry people in the next three months. We kicked off the “Helping Hungry Homes” tour in Savannah, where Michael and I live and are goin’ across the country.
Is Ocala on the itinerary?
Well, I think we’re close by in Tampa. Come on down! It’s such a good program.
Rug photo courtesy of Paula Deen.
How did you get your own rug collection?
Joe Barkley at Kaleen Rugs is a Georgia boy. Actually, he’s a Savannah boy, so I knew I would like him. He was aware of me and what I stood for. He gave me a call one day and, after a couple of meetings, we realized we both stand for the same things. I will never partner up with anyone who isn’t full of integrity and doesn’t offer the best product they can offer. And the product has to be reasonable to many homes.
That’s the thing I designed my business on 18 years ago. I wanted people to be able to come to my restaurant twice a month instead of once every six months. And I tell you what—it was the best dadgum meal people would get outside of their mother’s or grandmother’s house.
Have you lent your name to other home product lines?
This is the first time I’ve given my name to home décor. I usually decorate the tables with ham and chicken! But I just love these rugs! They’re beautiful and the colors have that “come hither” feelin’ to it. I’m thrilled and excited to be doin’ this.
Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
Your personal story is an inspiration to many, especially now that you’ve published your autobiography (Paula Deen—A Memoir: It Ain’t All About the Cookin’). The book has been very successful. How do you top that?
I don’t know. I kind of set it off after I finished it because it took a lot out of me. I feel like I’m so representative of so many women out there. I’m not a chef; I’m a cook. I raised children. I’ve driven a taxi. I’ve tutored. I’ve done whatever it takes. America is full of women like this. There are a lot of women out there who are feeling very hopeless. I was hopeless. I was so very hopeless.
Yet your book was all about hope, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was. And without being very, very truthful about my life and what I went through, it wouldn’t have worked. I had to be truthful, even though it wasn’t pretty.
Was it an emotional release? You wrote of personal heartaches and broken relationships.
I cried a lot and it was hard, but I felt I had to do it.
How did you feel when you finished?
I was exhausted. I don’t think my children have read the book yet and I don’t think my Aunt Peggy, who is my mentor, has read it.
I’m sure they’ll read it in time.
They will. It’s hard for them to read some of the things that I talked about. But it was very important to me to write this book, especially for women. Because as women, we need to understand how low you can be and how high you can go up.
11 things every Paula Deen fan should know.
- For 20 years, Paula was a “functioning agoraphobic” who was self-confined to her home. She credits Phil Donahue for helping her identify her illness after watching his segment on agoraphobia.
- By age 23, Paula had lost both her parents and was raising her 16-year-old brother and two young sons.
- Her sons were with her from the very first day on the job at Paula’s catering business, The Bag Lady, even though that cut short Jamie’s college education, leaving him wondering about his momma’s “crazy idea” of delivering fresh-cooked lunches to Savannah businesses.
- Paula cooked in a Best Western hotel before opening her own restaurant.
- Paula was overdrawn the day she opened The Lady & Sons. Her banker let her write a bad check for $200 for start-up change and she’s never been overdrawn since. Her restaurant remains a popular Savannah dining experience.
- A Random House editor ended up in Paula’s restaurant one day to escape a thunderstorm. After dining on chicken and biscuits and hoe cakes, the editor noticed Paula’s self-published cookbook, which led to her first publishing deal—the first of many.
- Paula was featured in Cameron Crowe’s film, Elizabethtown, with a red-carpet experience that left her reprimanding a photographer. (You’ll have to read her book to find out why!)
- She’s never met a boxed cake mix she didn’t like. To Paula, down-home cooking means delicious and easy, so if that includes taking a few shortcuts, so be it.
- Paula’s business empire includes a bi-monthly magazine, four best-selling cookbooks, a memoir, and a spin-off show for her two sons. This is in addition to her popular Food Network shows.
- Besides grits, Paula admits a guilty pleasure is hitting the casinos. She says she only plays what she “can afford to lose.”
- These days, the best part of Paula’s day is when she is with her precious grandson, Jack, who she calls her “Little Jackpot.”