I know what you’re thinking: What the heck is Paula Deen doing being interviewed on Green Global Travel?!
We debated whether this story was a good fit for us, but the fact is that GGT has always been dedicated to exploring indigenous cultures around the world, and Deen’s traditional Southern cooking is the food I grew up eating as a Georgia boy. Fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, shrimp and grits, cornbread… it’s definitely not the healthiest food on the planet, but eating it occasionally as part of a well-balanced diet always reminds me of family and home.
A conversation with Paula Deen is like a visit to The Lady & Sons, her restaurant in Savannah’s historic district: Lively, comforting and steeped in Southern charm. Her distinctive drawl drips with sweetness– she calls me “Honey” repeatedly– but never feels disingenuous.
Deen’s positive spirit is rooted in overcoming a lifetime of obstacles: Her parents died young, she got married at 18, suffered panic attacks and agoraphobia in her 20s, and got divorced at 42. To pay the bills, she launched a catering service called The Bag Lady, with sons Bobby and Jamie delivering the classic Southern meals she prepared in her kitchen. Now, she’s battling back from criticisms of her cooking after it was revealed that she’s battling Type 2 diabetes, and has pledged to create healthier versions of her recipes in the future.
We recently spoke with Deen from her Savannah home to talk about old memories, the new book, and what makes traditional Southern cuisine so utterly timeless.
It’s often said that food is intrinsically connected with our memories. What are your earliest memories of food from your childhood?
Food played such a big part in my childhood. We lived in my grandmother and granddaddy’s business, which was a motel/swimming pool/skating rink/restaurant. It was like a mini-Disney World back in the ‘50s. I spent much of my life in that kitchen. My first memory of food was with my aunt, who was only three years older than me. She sat me on the counter and got out a big bottle of vanilla flavoring. She said, “Smell this, Paula!” and I said, “Oh, yum!” She poured a big tablespoon and gave it to me and it nearly choked me to death. (Laughs) I couldn’t understand how something that smelled so good could taste so nasty! I was probably three years old.
Who were the biggest influences on your Southern style of cooking?
My grandmother. My mother and daddy died very young, but her parents were in the food and lodging business their whole lives. My grandmother was the one that I spent time in the kitchen with. She had a garden every year until she was in her late 80s and couldn’t work it anymore, and she’s the one who taught me canning. My daddy’s favorite meal was chicken and dumplings. I was 19 when he died, and it was important to me that I be able to make his favorite dish. The first request I remember of my grandmother was to teach me how to make chicken and dumplings.
You grew up in Albany, Georgia. What led you to make your home in Savannah?
When I was 40 yrs old I was battling agoraphobia, and my husband at the time came home and told me he’d gotten a job in Savannah. I was devastated. I went to bed and cried for two months, and got up every day feeling hopelessness. Finally, one day it was like I flipped the light switch [in my mind]. The Serenity Prayer went through my head, and it was like I heard it for the first time. That morning, I accepted my mother’s death, my daddy’s death, my death, my children’s death… I realized that I could live the rest of my life in fear, but it wasn’t going to change things. It all became clear. I got out of bed and I fell in love with Savannah, Georgia.
Why do you think traditional Southern cooking remain so popular?
It will never go out of style! I wouldn’t even consider doing anything trendy: Trends come and go, but mama’s cooking will never go out of style.
When you started The Bag Lady in 1989, did you ever imagine it would lead you where it has?
No way. I didn’t have that good of an imagination! But if you didn’t want to talk to me about my little business, then I had nothing to say to you. I was all consumed with survival. I knew that this was my last chance– my first and probably my only chance– to do something great, because I was 42 years old. I was ready to get out of my marriage of 27 years. I had no education, and I had two sons that I wanted to give a better life. I would not let anything deter me. I even put my relationship with my children on the line, because I felt like if I could make this little business succeed it would make their life better. Of course, they were young and they didn’t see it that way. They told me daily, “Look, this is your dream, not ours!” But they hung in with me, and a wonderful thing happened… they grew up! My goal when I first started my little business was for us to be able to buy groceries on a Wednesday when payday wasn’t until Friday. When I tell my story, or even pick up something and read my story, it’s hard for me to believe!
How is Southern Cooking Bible different from your previous cookbooks?
When I married at age 18, I was given one cookbook at my shower– the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook in the checked loose-leaf. I adored that book, and it still sits proudly displayed in my kitchen today. When I couldn’t get in touch with my family members, I would sit down and read that cookbook. I loved it because it had pictures and it showed me how to carve a ham, how to set a table… everything was in that one book. When I wrote my very first book, The Lady & Sons Savannah Cookbook, somewhere in my soul I said I wanted a book that would mean as much to people as that book meant to me. That’s what I tried to accomplish.
Are there still any major goals you’ve yet to accomplish in your life?
Absolutely! Retirement is not a part of my vocabulary. I did everything ass-backwards. I retired until I was 42, then I took total responsibility for my own life and made a commitment to do whatever it took to be able to say that my mother and father produced a winner. Like I said, I retired early and now I work ‘til I drop! –Bret Love
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