Every Food Network celeb stirs up some degree of culinary controversy, and Georgia-born Southern cook Paula Deen is no exception. When she sandwiches a fried-egg-topped burger into a Krispy Kreme doughnut, some viewers swoon, others gasp in horror, and many do both. Whatever your stance on her decadent dishes, though, you'd be hard-pressed to deny the woman's preternatural folksy charm. When you watch her hold court on Paula's Party, bantering away for her studio audience while plunging a diamond-drenched hand into a bowl of pimento cheese, it's hard to imagine that she spent two decades paralyzed by agoraphobia, barely able to leave her kitchen. She weathered her anxiety-disorder days by mastering her grandmother's "farmhouse cooking" recipes; by 1996, she'd conquered her fears and opened her now-famous restaurant, the Lady & Sons in Savannah. Thirteen years and three television shows later, she's ticking off another milestone: a Waterfront cooking demo at Bank of America Pavilion.
How did this event come about?
Well, I've never been to Boston. This is as far north as we've ever been.
What will you be doing?
I'm going to have some Johnson & Wales kids there with me, and I chose some things that are really Southern to make. When you're doing these things, you have to be so careful. You can't do an intricate menu. Because you really don't have the equipment, or the time. . . . And I'll tell you what, I do more bullshitting than I do cooking. [Laughs] But, I'm just looking so forward to coming up there. And having lobster. In some butter. Did I mention I like butter? Do they serve drawn butter up there, or do I need to pack my own? 'Cause I would.
So, I have to ask: what's with all the butter in your cooking?
That's very obvious, because there's a lot of flavor in butter. Down South, we're all about flavor. And we love the use of hamhocks and hog jowl, because it gives food so, so much flavor. We get a bad rap for Southern food not being healthy. And I have to disagree with that. Sure, you don't want to eat fried chicken every day of your life. But we have wonderful roasted chicken. And we eat probably more vegetables than any other section of this country. Because our conditions are perfect for vegetables. And in fact, years and years ago, everyone had their little garden. Everybody knows that vegetables are good for you. They might have a little bacon in 'em, but I think the good far outweighs the bad.
I've read you started out cooking by mastering your grandmother's recipes?
Oh, gosh, yes. My grandmother and grandfather were in the lodging and restaurant business, all of my life, and she cooked the same way that I cook today at the Lady & Sons. And it was just a natural part of life. My mother died young, so I didn't have long in the kitchen with her at all. But my grandmother lived to be 91 years old. And some of my favorite memories are with her, in the kitchen, learning. We would pickle, and we would can things . . . from pickled pig's feet on down to mayhaw jelly. She would can green beans, and they were just the best things you ever put in your mouth.