Paula Deen may be television royalty, but the queen of Southern cuisine wasn’t born with a slew of books, a suite of restaurants, a trio of TV shows or a line of gourmet goodies to her name. In fact, at age 40, the Emmy-winning cook was a struggling, single mother who not only hadn’t yet started down her career path — she was afraid to even walk out her front door. She and her husband Michael Groover sat down for a video interview with me to share the story of her remarkable journey and his delicious life with Paula Deen.
AOL Food: Who taught you how to love food?
Paula Deen: I don’t know if I can say one person that taught me the love of food. My Daddy certainly loved food. My grandmother certainly loved food. She loved food so much that that was she and my grandfather’s business. They were in the food and lodging business, so food was going on all the time. My mother was a fabulous cook and my daddy over-served himself many, many, many times on my mother’s cooking. My brother loves to eat so I’d almost say it’s a family affair.
AOL Food: What dish do you make better than anyone on earth?
Paula Deen: I think I make fabulous lace hoecake cornbread. You know, there’s kind of an art to that and a lot of people can’t get it down and I think I make that exceptionally well. And you know what I have to say that you make the best of anybody I’ve ever tasted?
Michael Groover What?
Paula Deen: Beans, dried beans. This man, y’all, can cook the best pot of dried, white, navy beans and ham hock you ever put in your mouth. And then I do the lace hoecake cornbread so we feel like we’re eating like a king, don’t we? And we’ve only spent pennies.
Michael Groover I learned that on the tugboat, they always eat beans on the tugs.
Paula Deen: And I know y’all were a joy to be around. Can you imagine six men all eating dried beans. I bet that was one smelly tug y’all. Yes, siree buddy.
AOL Food: Is there anything that your Mom or your Grandmother made that you just, no matter how hard you try, can’t seem to make as well?
Paula Deen: My mother made the most wonderful homemade divinity candy that you’ve ever put in your mouth. I can see my mother standing up at the kitchen counter with that wax paper rolled out and she would have two spoons, two tablespoons, and she would work that divinity candy — it would glide off those spoons and it would make the most beautiful curl. It would come out looking like an ice cream cone and it was to die for delicious. And, to this day, you know, I’m missing that temperature cooking that syrup by a degree or so. My divinity will never be as beautiful or delicious as my mother’s. I can see that beautiful redhead right now swirling that candy.
AOL Food: Your memoir It Ain’t All About the Cookin’ was was so beautiful and brave, and in it, you talk very frankly about your struggle with panic attacks and agoraphobia. Could you talk a little bit about how you overcame it?
Paula Deen: I found the memoir to be a very emotional project. I laughed a lot and I cried a lot too. Sometimes facing your demons or your faults or your mistakes is not an easy thing and then to know you’re going to share it with the world, whoever picks it up, you’re sharing your most inner feelings with them, it was hard.
I was on a 20-year roller coaster ride with agoraphobia. I didn’t know what I had, I would never share my feelings with anybody because I was afraid that they thought I was crazy and I had never met a fellow agoraphobic because here’s the deal about that y’all, you’re not going to meet agoraphobics out on the street or out socially, they’re hiding behind the safety of their doors at home.
So one morning I was watching the Phil Donahue Show and he said today our program we’re donating a whole hour to something called agoraphobia and this is people who can’t leave their home, who just cannot face the fears that could take place outside their door. And I sat there and I listened and I sat on the edge of my bed, the foot of my bed, and I don’t think I blinked for one hour. I cried and I cried and I said what I have has a name. I’m not crazy.
It took me 20 years to come to grips with it. And one day, I was 40 years old, my husband at the time, my ex-husband, had moved my children and myself to Savannah, Georgia and I was crushed being pulled away from my hometown, the place I’d been all my life. And my big fear was death because I lost my mother and daddy very young and it was very traumatic for me. And one day I got up and said, you know, you aren’t going to die, you cannot continue to live this way.
I was standing there in my bedroom, in my gown, and the serenity prayer went through my head — a prayer that I had heard for so many years but this particular morning, it went through my head and I understood it. I knew what I was supposed to be asking God for: to change the things that I could and accept the things that I couldn’t and pray that God would give me the wisdom to know the difference between those two things. And I sit here, I can’t believe it’s been 22 years since that morning. It was not an overnight miracle, but every day I would get out and I would venture out further and now, I’m never home!
AOL Food: Do you feel like you were able to open doors for conversations with other people suffering as well?
Michael Groover: We had one lady who came up on stage and I was so proud of her because for an agoraphobic to come up on stage, is a big plus.
Paula Deen: I was doing a pilot for a talk show. Michael is referring to this woman that was agoraphobic and I talked to her over the phone. We had a lovely conversation and I knew everything that she was saying. Her agoraphobia stemmed from her father’s death, just as mine had. I knew what she was going to say before she said it. And I asked her if she would please come to Atlantic City, New Jersey and talk to me and she did. And if they ever run the pilot, she will be there.
You know I said the pain and the embarrassment of telling my story is so O.K. if it helps one person, just one person out there, it was worth every bit that I went through to write it and share it.
AOL Food: Recently in a commencement speech, President Obama cited Julia Child as a person who may have gotten a late start, but had great success. I was surprised he didn’t mention you! Was there any benefit in coming to your chosen career a little bit later than people might think?
Paula Deen: You know if I could go back and change my life, you know there’s probably very little that I would change. My daddy was dead at 40, my mother was dead at 44 so you know that old saying, “Life begins at 40?” Well to me, 40 meant death. So I started waiting and preparing to be dead at 40.
And when it didn’t happen, you know, “What’s up?” Here I am, poor as a church house and I haven’t accomplished anything so it’s time for you to take responsibility of yourself and do something with what talents you feel like you do have.
I started my business when I was 42 years old and by the time fame started coming my way, I was way too old for it to change me. I feel sorry for the young people out there that peak at such a young age — 16, 18, 19 years old. My heart goes out to them because that’s a hard period even when everything is normal. Like I said by the time I was noticed, I knew what was important, I knew what really mattered and my feet were planted firmly on the ground.
I worked like a dog. I worked 16 and 20 hours every day for quite a few years without even a break but you know what, that’s all right too because I started my business with $200. And when you only have that little bit of money, there’s no room for errors, so I had to think about everything completely and thoroughly every day as I nurtured and grew my little business. I could not as so much afford to buy a rotten cantaloupe — it had to be perfect — so I smelled, I pressed, it had to be perfect. And it allowed me to grow along with that business. I grew everyday and she grew everyday and I would not change a thing.
There’s only one thing in my whole life that I would go back and change. I was 15 years old and I was with my girlfriends and they said pull over and let’s get some cigarettes. I hated cigarettes but you know, I wasn’t about to tell them. I was driving, I said ok. We pulled over. They gave me a cigarette and I lit it and I’m telling everyone out there, if you are a young person, don’t ever put a cigarette to your lips because you will go to your grave fighting that little bitty stick of tobacco. It’s the hardest thing to give up in the whole entire world and I confess I have not beat it yet.
AOL Food: Is it true that you were the first Food Network host to ever get bleeped on air?
Paula Deen: It is true, y’all. I was the first Food Network Host to ever get bleeped. I was making hot wings and I put the wings down in my dutch oven with my deep grease and all of a sudden, I said “crap is that chicken still alive?” Because that wing literally flew out of the pot and he popped grease all on me and I said well you little son of b****.
Michael Groover: B*****d was what you said.
Paula Deen: Oh! I said you little b*****d — that’s exactly right, what I said. And they bleeped it but you could see my lips moving. Even I could read my lips. But you know, people, they’ve come to know me, and they know I don’t take myself too seriously. And, you know, I tell everybody, my God has a sense of humor. I think he loves to hear us laugh.
AOL Food: You sometimes are the scapegoat for folks complaining about unhealthy cooking. What would you like to say to the butter naysayers?
Paula Deen: It’s just like I told Oprah y’all. I am your cook, not your doctor. Please don’t confuse me. I can give you good, honest, Southern recipes but only you know your body and so many things are genetic. I think nine out of ten things, as far as our bodies, are genetic. I’ve seen people that eat like horses and they have a cholesterol of 137.
I have met people that eat nothing but lettuce and lemon juice and theirs is 365. If you live long enough, there’s a good chance that you are going to have the high sugar, the high blood, the high cholesterol, so you have to be responsible for yourself. Like my cholesterol, the last time that I had a physical, which was in November, my cholesterol was 137 so…
Michael Groover: Just eat in moderation.
Paula Deen: Moderation is the key. Something that I don’t do very well and my best friend Michael here probably doesn’t use enough moderation either. But you know they say butter is much better for you than margarine and it’s real funny, I adore my boys — I adore Jamie and Bobby Deen. I go behind them kissing the ground as they walk past. They’re just the sweetest boys but if I say tomay-to, they’ll say tomah-to. If I say butter, they’ll say margarine and the next thing I know, I’m watching American Idol the other night and who pops up on the screen but Jamie and Bobby talking about their “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.” I said, look at them, just ’cause I say butter, they say margarine.
See Jamie and Bobby’s response below.
AOL Food: What brings you to New York?
Paula Deen: Michael and I are here in New York tonight ya’ll because we’re introducing two new products. I have my own nut line now — when I say nuts, I’m talking walnuts, pecans, and almonds. B. Lloyd’s by Paula Deen. They’re the most wonderful nuts you’ve ever put in your mouth.
And I also have my own seafood line coming out that we have been working on now for almost a year. The best fried shrimp — frozen, fried shrimp I’ve ever tasted, and they go in the oven, you do not have to struggle with putting them in a frying pan and trying to fry them up.
Our deviled crab, y’all, is Michael’s mother’s recipe and I am so thrilled and proud to have it. Michael too, lost his parents while they were rather young. His mother was 52 and living there on the water all her life and the boys catching the crabs and shrimp and whatever they would bring home. Mama would cook it and she got very very good at making deviled crab. So when we were able to locate her recipe, probably 6 months ago, Michael and I danced around the kitchen so that’s the deviled crab that we’re going to be offering up to everybody out there and it’s wonderful.
AOL Food: Michael, what’s your new book about?
Michael Groover: The name of my book is ‘My Delicious Life with Paula Deen’. It will be out in November When we first met, I didn’t get out of Georgia much, I didn’t do a lot of traveling and it tells a lot of the trips we made and how this has broadened my horizons quite a bit by meeting Paula and meeting all of her friends. You know I’ve changed a great deal since I’ve met Paula so it’s going to be a great book.
Somebody asked me one day, “what do you do for a living?” And I explained to him that I was like the valet parking for ships. And they were like what a great job you have. I have a great life. When I get off, I go home and my wife’s Paula Deen.
Paula Deen: You’re so sweet. Can I have a kiss for that one?
Michael Groover: Sure! (kisses Paula) There you go.
This was originally on AOL Food.