We almost didn’t go. We had started hearing- well- things. “That’s NOT her real accent, nobody really talks that way.” When my parents were in Savannah a few months ago, looking to eat at The Lady and Sons restaurant, the hotel concierge steered them away, “Oh, you don’t want to eat there“, he said as he rolled his eyes, insisting on making another recommendation for them.
Hmmm, we thought. Maybe we should skip Paula’s Boardwalk Party-after all, she was added at the last minute, and with her scheduled cooking demos and her wildly popular following, she probably won’t even be there….all this was just an afterthought to get people to stay into Sunday. And let’s face it- we were getting tired from all the running around that weekend. I really wanted to check out the Market, which we hadn’t been to yet. Then we got the text : “What do you think- Paula at 4:30?” Huh? You mean- interview her?… Wow. Well, yeah! She is a big food star, and our little blog needs all the “street cred” it can get! And it would be fun to have a few laughs and watch her perform for the press…We cut our time short at the Market in favor of hitting the public Paula event late. If we were going to talk with her, it would only be fair to give her “Party” a fair chance.
When we got there, you could hear the crowd, and..Paula! According to our festival contact, Paula had been addressing and interacting with the crowd for over 40 minutes...and showed no sign of stopping. (“She’s my new favorite!” she exclaimed). And she wasn’t just yammering on. She was addressing specific people and having what seemed the time of her life. It amazed me- especially since I recently read about her tough beginnings, that she was an agoraphobic for so many years… I thought her banter only came with a tightly-controlled studio audience. Yet here she was, doing more than most people would be willing to do to make sure her crowd had a good time.
We took a seat and watched as, when she left the stage and walked around the tables, a crowd followed her around like a parade. She stopped to graciously say yes to every request for an autograph, and shake almost every hand that came her way. We sat there, trying to hold on to our jaded attitude, which, we had to admit, was fading. Since we were actually going to meet and talk with her later, we turned our attention to the food.
There was a lot of it- a whole gut-stuffing buffet’s worth. And to my surprise, several of the dishes were courtesy of…Paula’s flagship restaurant, The Lady and Sons.
It was good. Very, very good. Chicken and Dumplings. Barbecue meatloaf- which sounds scary, but was delectable, juicy, tender, smoky, but not all that sweet. Wow. Corn wrapped in bacon. Simple genius. And the oven-baked spice-rubbed ribs…my God. Tender, flavorful and juicy.
They actually beat out the Neely’s ribs at the Blues, Brews, and Barbecue event the day before.
The desserts looked gorgeous and dainty, and were amazing. Lemon meringue that melted in your mouth (I don’t even like lemon meringue and I was in heaven) and a mocha cheesecake that went down more like a mousse. But my absolute favorite was called a “butter cake”, and although richly buttery, was also like the most luscious pineapple upside-down cake you ever had. This must be one incredible little cake, since chocolate is always the end-all, be-all of desserts in my book.
Then it was time to actually meet Paula.
You could hear her chattering pleasantly all the way down the hall from the press room. She immediately came in, grabbed herself some coffee, and sat down to chat with us as if she’d already met us years ago.
At first, there were some of the obligatory press questions that got her to perform and be the Paula Deen personality that some people have become jaded about (Press: “Could you imagine your cooking life without butter?” Paula:”No! I wouldn’t want to! Why would I want to?” With much knowing laughter)…but then it was us bloggers’ turn. And we realized that if you ask Paula some different kinds of questions, you’ll get a somewhat different response…
Me: My first question to you is, are there any misconceptions that people have about Southern-style cooking-
Me: -that you want to see done away with.
Paula: Yes! Yes!
Me: What are they?
Paula: They give Southern food a very bad, unhealthy rap. And, you know, in the last ten years, I’ve had an opportunity to go almost everywhere in these United States, and I would put the South up against any other area in the country as far as vegetables. We eat more vegetables than any other part of the country…and everybody knows that your vegetables are very good for ya. So what if it’s got a little ham hock in it? (laughter)
…Did I mention the tender-crisp, sweet green beans with onion and slices of bacon at the Boardwalk Party?…She continued, and related how everyone seems to think that Southerners are eating fried chicken, biscuits, and gravy at every meal. “Sometimes we’ll just have vegetables. And hoecake cornbread. You know, and there’s not a better meal than that. All our peas and collards…” Testify! Our locavore sensibilities and love of all things fresh had us on her side immediately. “My grandmother was the pioneer in our family for the restaurant business… and she cooked that way every day for her family, every day at the restaurant, and every day for herself after my grandfather died, and she lived to be 91. So I think so much of that crap is genetic. I have fed men in my restaurant 3 times a week, and I had to fix my big salad [for them] with lemon juice…quadruple bypass. [While] eatin’ lettuce and lemon juice…”
There was then a brief question about what she thought of the Jersey shore (“Oh, my gosh, I think it’s great!”), and she told us a funny story about how recently, when she was a presenter at the CMA (Country Music Association) Awards, some genius paired her with none other than the drunken assault queen “Snooki” Polizzi from Jersey Shore (definitely a what-the- %$#* moment): “She just beats the hell out of folks… goin’ from bar to bar, just whoopin’ ass. And, all the time I was with her in the green room and the bathroom she was just worried about her tan…”
Then it was our friend Deb’s turn (from Jersey Bites). Deb is a huge fan of hers, and we knew she was bound to ask Paula something interesting:
Deb: I‘m a single mother with two boys, and I own my own business, and you are just so inspiring to a lot of us.
Paula: Thank you. I’m living proof, girl, that the American dream still exists.
Deb: That was my question. What is your advice- to women and men, because we’re all in a lot of transition right now-
Deb: A lot of people are out of work, a lot of people are thinking about starting their own businesses, and you’re just such a great example.
Paula: Well, thank you. You know, my back was against the wall….I was from the era, and from the geographic location that I was supposed to be tended to by a man. I went from my Daddy’s home to my husband’s home. And, you know, after 27 years, I saw it wasn’t workin’. And I had no safety nets, and…I was comin’ off a 20-year ride with agoraphobia …I tell you what’s been the most helpful thing to me, and I still say it every day of my life-and that is the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity…
My reaction to Paula’s response took me by surprise. I could hardly believe it. She was reciting the Serenity Prayer: a tool that has gotten John and I through many a very,very dark moment, especially this past year. We automatically began reciting it with her, smiling and nodding our heads. Suddenly, we were just a few people around the table, sharing our experiences and trying to make sense of (and something good out of) our lives. It was, all at once, both surreal and perfectly natural.
Paula: So, bein’ able to let go helped me. I let go of so many things that caused my depression and all my fears.
Deb: And I think your tremendous sense of humor, too, had to have helped.
Paula: Honey, if I hadn’t been able to have laughed all those years, I would probably be cuckoo. (laughter) And thank God, my Daddy-that was his legacy to me, was his sense of humor. And, you know, I made horrible grades in school-everything was D’s and F’s- and I failed Algebra I, first semester, four times. ‘Cause to me, pies are round. I never did get that pi-r-squared. (laughter) …I’d come home and say, “Daddy, I’m so sorry.” And he’d say “That’s all right Blue- he’d call me Blue because my hair was so black it was almost blue (well, from a little help from Miss Clairol)…(laughter) And, so, he was a very forgiving man, but one thing he wouldn’t tolerate was me bein’ unkind to another person, or bein’ rude. So that education has taken me much further than that ‘Algebra I, first semester’.
I could see a part of ourselves in Paula’s story. John and have been trying to overcome unemployment with no one wanting to hire, and running around all weekend feeling like the “Little Blog That Could”, as we were meeting and greeting giants in the food media. We were only just beginning to believe that, maybe, just maybe, we could make a real living at this hobby-gotten-out-of-hand that we’ve created.I found myself, blurting out, rather unprofessionally:”We’re being inspired by you, too, because this is our business, and John’s been out of work for a year, and, honestly-if you can do it, so can we.” Paula turned to me and said simply, “Absolutely. All you need is the passion. And I’ve overcome hurdles that I had no idea I could overcome.”
With that, the interview ended. It was the last thing we were to do at this festival. And walking out of that press room, heading back to our seemingly ordinary lives, we found things had changed. It dawned on us that we were already working at our dream job. That making a living at this is more than a possibility, it is a reality-as long as we keep moving in the same direction, and keep the faith. So, go ahead and say what you will about Ms. Deen- I don’t think she’ll care. She has come from the depths of despair and risen far above her circumstances, beyond even what she herself thought she could do. As for us, we’re going to keep working and posting and believing.
And maybe throw a little ham hock into our veggies once in a while.