A Holiday Evening with PAULA DEEN*:
A Three Course Meal, Ya’ll!*
On December 1st, local celebrity and Louisville.com writer George Lindsey interviewed Paula Deen on air to discuss her Saturday, December 3rd show at the Horseshoe Casino titled “A Holiday Evening with Paula Deen”. George is a lucky guy and his entire article can be read on this site (link below), but he didn’t get to spend the evening with The Lady Deen…I did.
FIRST COURSE: Paula Deen, The Empire.
I am admittedly a cooking show junkie and the genre’s success-meets-saturation has more than once tested the limits of my DVR. Opinions regarding celebrity chefs abound even among the chefs themselves, and Paula Deen has always had a special place in my heart. Motherly, sweet, neighborly, loud, funny, talented, wise and all wrapped up with a Southern Julia Childs-like demeanor. Dame Deen has used her qualities to not only entertain and have fun, but to become filthy rich. Plus she reminds me of my mom.
Paula was born in Atlanta, but her road to her current home in Savannah was buttered with tragedy. Both parents died in her 20’s followed by an early divorce before she suffered from panic attacks with agoraphobia. Literally under self-imposed house arrest, she focused on cooking for her family, as it was all she could do without leaving her house. After a brief stint as a bank teller and almost homeless Paula took her last $200 and opened “The Bag Lady” catering service in Savannah, where her sons Jamie and Bobby would deliver “love-and-lunch-in-a-bag”.Well deserved, Paula’s catering became so successful she opened her own restaurant, “The Lady & Sons” and in 1999 USA Today bestowed the honor of “International Meal of the Year”. After her first television appearance on QVC, Paula became the darling of the Food Network and the rest is history. Fourteen books, multiple Emmy’s, several cooking shows, a bi-monthly magazine, a line of products from cards-to-furniture, and even a yearly cruise named the “Paula Deen & Family Party at Sea”, her rise to stardom has been prodigious even by Cinderella standards.
SECOND COURSE: Paula Deen, The Entertainer.
The press release (I didn’t read very well) stated, “This is a DINNER event to include Paula telling her favorite Holiday stories and a live coking demo by an on-stage chef. Ticket price ($100) includes a plated sampling of authentic Paula Deen recipes and dessert. Water, tea and coffee included. Don’t miss this wonderful holiday treat to see Paula Deen at Horseshoe Southern Indiana...”
I was so excited I invited my wife and mother-in-law who are also big Paula fans to join me. I was granted a wonderful personal interview with Paula before I joined my family in the Showroom, naturally assuming that Paula would be cooking something – wouldn’t you? (Disclosure and hindsight forces me to have you re-read the release that states nothing of the sort.)
Paula entered the room larger-than-life (and exactly as you’d imagine in both appearance and energy) beginning the show by welcoming her husband Michael and the chef from the Horseshoe Casino. The stage was dressed as half living room/half kitchen, and as soon as the introductions were complete the three took the places they would remain in for the majority of the show: the Chef in the kitchen, Michael on the couch, and Paula center stage.
Although I was not mislead, it was at this point I realized the show would have been better titled “Story time with Paula and her husband”, and she had no intention of cooking anything.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed, and the fact that her microphone had a short preventing a finished sentence was simply aggravating. Undaunted, I was still excited to be there with my family. Paula she was very entertaining, her husband was hilarious, and we still had dinner to look forward to.
If my description of the show is not what you would have thought, your image of Queen Deen may have changed ‘a-little, ya’ll’, as she told the first of many stories and jokes. Paraphrasing my personal favorite, here’s an example of her humor:
“Ya’ll, Little Timmy’s Ma & Pa are in the bedroom and Pa is doing some of his finest work up there on top of Ma…ya’ll know what I mean (laugh) when Little Timmy walks in the room and catches them doin’ the dirty, y’know? (laugh) Little Timmy runs out of the room screaming and his daddy jumps down off his mama and tries to catch him to make sure he’s okay. He looks in the living room and Timmy’s not there. He looks in the kitchen and he’s not there. He checks the closets and the barn and Little Timmy is nowhere to be found. He goes back upstairs and opens granny’s bedroom door and there’s Little Timmy up on top of his grandma just humpin’ away. (awkward laugh). His daddy yells at him, ‘Little Timmy what do you think you’re doin’?’ and he turns to his daddy and says, ‘Not so funny when it’s YOUR mama, now is it?” (everyone laughs including my mother-in-law.)
Dinner arrived in a single plate consisting of three slices of ham, three asparagus spears, and an ice cream scoop of dry cornbread stuffing. (And no butter!) Other than prison, I’ve eaten in almost every type of cafeteria/dive, and the Queen of Southern Cooking had just lent her brand to a dish that gave cafeteria ladies a bad name. I did eat it, so I can speak with some authority to the quality of the taste and presentation, and had there been a comment card I’d have been forced to invent a rating below ‘One-Star’.
I do not claim to be a “foodie” and will try just about any dish, so to hit my point home: Over my empty water glass and unsweetened tea, I watched the gentleman across from me storm from the table to return with a seven-dollar grilled cheese. He enjoyed is $100 dinner from a Styrofoam container.
Another gentleman at our table (both strangers and paying customers) explained to the server that he ordered a vegetarian plate. After removing his first offering, the same plate quickly returned including the original three asparagus spears, and two charred cherry tomatoes on a single leaf of lettuce. I saw a grilled cheese in his future and wondered about the other tables.
In her defense, during my interview with Paula before the show she confessed laughing, “I hope it’s good honey, ‘cause I didn’t cook shit.”
As people ate, Paula continued to tell stories peppered with jokes and what you could understand through the faulty mike was genuinely hilarious. Eventually, she could sense that the food served to a three-hundred person room was not so funny.
Paula asked to taste her famous cornbread dressing from one of the tables in front and exclaimed, “Oh my Lord, it’s dry!”
To confirm, she requested another taste from a different table, and after grabbing a taste from a stranger’s plate with bare hands, she turned to the chef and asked in an aggravated tone, “This is dry too! Why is my cornbread so dry?” She was wearing a live microphone and was standing under a giant projector screen so we were all witness to the embarrassing exchange that followed. Unfortunately for the chef, the microphone worked flawlessly.
Paula pulled a tray of dressing from the oven on stage, and with her bare hands lifted a solid block of the food we had been served. Clearly making light of an uncomfortable situation, she giggled and explained to the crowd, “Ya’ll, if you can do that with your dressing, you’ve done it wrong.”
Trying to save additional face ,she explained to everyone that it was hard to cook for such a large crowd, told the chef she was not mad, and then made him cook a fresh batch with her help so everyone could see it done “correctly” (and the chef from the Horseshoe would learn a humiliating lesson). The first cooking lesson the crowd received was how not to cook a celebrity-chef’s dish – especially when you share a stage. It didn’t help that his station was missing ingredients and the ones he had were not part of the recipe.
Don’t get me wrong, no one rioted, no boos or tomatoes headed toward the stage, and while the chef prepared one of Paula’s signature dishes she was funny, charming, her husband danced (“Doesn’t he look like a gnome, ya’ll?”), and she had the emcee sing a lovely ballad for the crowd as she knew he was an experienced performer. Announcing that all the alcohol in the room was now free didn’t hurt the mood in the room either.
The one pan of dressing for several hundred people cooked as I wondered how she planned to feed the masses her correct recipe. (If she could pull it off, she’d make even Jesus proud, I thought, but so would the free wine).
Michael, (Mr. Deen) began to look like he was having as much fun as Paula from his perch on the couch. They shared a story regarding her yearly cruise where the two played a version of “The Newlywed Game”. The husbands on the show were asked the bra size of the absent wives and when Paula returned and Michael was asked to reveal his answer, he had written “36-Long”. I’ve always liked Paula Deen, but now I’m a fan of her husband, Michael, as well. No one’s perfect, but they appear perfect for each other.
Once the fresh/correct dressing was ready, Paula removed it from the oven and presented it to the camera that projected overhead. The crowd loved it, and my table was given a plate, which we shared with the groups around us. Admittedly, it was awesome and the quality that I had expected from a pro. The chocolate dessert that followed I can’t speak to because I’m not a chocolate guy, but everyone appeared to enjoy the cake and the fresh fruit immensely.
THIRD COURSE (DESSERT): Paula Deen, The Person.
The show took a turn for the happy as it was announced that Paula would be taking Q&A as an ending, (free booze, a talented host, entertaining show, and chocolate didn’t really hurt).
Paula fielded many questions from the audience, most of which were ways to augment or improve recipes from her cookbook arsenal. Most of the stranger’s suggestions to Deen were greeted with her almost-patented Southern charm. She actually appeared even more likeable when dealing with people one-on-one than, if one can imagine. Much like her persona on television she was talking to people, her fans, rather than at them, and completely comfortable being in her zone.
One of the final questions came from a member of the audience I had not noticed. A simple looking woman wearing a baseball cap and backpack approached the stage and explained how Paula had changed her life. So much so that she had eaten at every restaurant that Paula owned, had been following her for months taking pictures with Paula both in person and when Paula appeared on her television in 2D. Standing close by, Paula’s bodyguard watched as the fan removed a picture album as evidence of her devotion of all things needed to follow the tour of The Grayful Deen.
Although I would have called security at the sign of someone wearing a cap and carrying a backpack full of pictures of me from the last six months through a casino, Paula was magnanimous. Not only did she sign every picture, she invited the stranger on stage for a hug, and gave her private contact information that made many jealous. The stranger didn’t ask for the attention, but for a moment Lady Deen made her the star of the show. In a nutshell: that’s Paula Deen. She too has had a hard life, and knows first hand how good ‘rags-to-riches’ feels – even if it is just a moment on stage with a sincere hug from your hero.
Upon asking Paula who had helped her most “professionally, not personally” she replied, “my grand-mamma and Michael.” When I asked her the same question in reverse order she replied, “my husband and my grandmother”. When I asked her about her favorite celebrity chef, it was her grand-mamma. When I asked her favorite dish, it was Michael. Her hero – no surprise, her sons. A straight answer wasn’t in my future, but it was clear her grandmother was her inspiration, Michael her love, her boys her life, cooking her passion, and her heroes her fans – she may be a famous rich celebrity, but wouldn’t feel lucky without them.
Like Paula and her biggest fan of the night, good people who follow their passion with love in their heart do actually sometimes get what they deserve. Paula granted me an interview because she was asked, she gave a hug to a fan because she wanted to. There’s a word for that: grace.
I may have had a mediocre dinner, been annoyed by a microphone, and empathized with a chef; but in the end, I spent an evening with family and like Paula, learned those who can laugh, last.
*This story is posted a week late ‘cause my momma taught me that "If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, or take a deep breath and wait until you can." Paula and The Horseshoe were great to me and I wanted to make sure the event was covered, so I decided on the 'deep breath' route.
(Photo Courtesy: Joseph Federle, WHAS11 News.)