Paula Deen may be a walking food – and – entertainment conglomerate, but success hasn't dimmed her sincerely charming and caring ways. "I always remain true to my roots," says Deen from her home in Savannah, Georgia. "God has been very good to me."
Once a single mom with a simple entrepreneurial idea, Deen launched a box lunch and catering service in Savannah in the early 1990s, assisted by her sons, Jamie and Bobby. A popular local restaurant, The Lady and Sons, followed, as did self-published cookbooks that helped spread the word about Deen's Southern "comfort food" cuisine. Then came an Emmy Award-winning Food Network television program, "Paula's Home Cooking," more cookbooks, appearances on "Oprah" and other talk shows, a role in the 2005 feature film Elizabethtown and, in 2007, publication of a memoir, It Ain't All About the Cookin', which told of Deen's triumph over hardships and disappointments and her amazing emergence as a celebrity. In the midst of all the show biz, Deen remarried in 2004, to a Savannah tugboat pilot named Michael Groover. Deen, 61, has a bigger-than-life persona and a sharp drawl that almost projects deep-fried caricature. Yet when she's speaking about the importance of home and family – and the kitchen as the hub of cycle-of-life activity – she comes off as the real deal.
Her new book, Paula Deen's My First Cookbook, is her first for children."It blew me away to find what a large audience I have among the children," says Deen. "Maybe it's because I get silly, I giggle a lot and I like to have fun. You have to make it entertaining. And I probably remind them of someone in their lives that loves them very much – a mother, an aunt, a grandmother. But I've never targeted any audience in particular. To me, it's just about bringing family into the room."
Co-authored with Martha Nesbit and featuring infinitely charming illustrations by Susan Mitchell, Deen's heartwarming new cookbook features recipes for dozens of yummy main – course dishes, sandwiches, salads, soups, snacks, desserts and holiday treats, plus drinks for all-year-round, tasty surprises for mom and dad and a final section on kitchen arts and crafts ("Don't Eat These!"). Each recipe is explained plainly and clearly – just right for savvier older children who want to figure it out for themselves. Yet this is a book ideally pitched to parents, older relatives and friends or caregivers, who can share in the preparations, patiently supervise the creativity and be the "adult helper" who needs to be ever – present whenever youngsters are near cutlery or hot stovetops and ovens. "My granddaddy," says Deen wistfully, "God love him. He taught me how to make gravy – clumpy and thick like wallpaper paste – and he had the patience to let me get in there with him. It's important for kids to be in the kitchen and for us to teach them to do simple things. That's a self-esteem builder. And they see the product of their work. They're proud of what they've done, and they're trying something they might otherwise have turned their noses up at."
Besides Mitchell's colorful and quaint drawings of kitchen utensils, ingredients, finished dishes and a pair of cartoon kids who prepare them (and eat them!), the book features chapter-head snapshots of Deen and her devoted sons through the years. The elementary school picture of a pixieish Paula, age nine, is adorable.
"I didn't really cook as a young girl," says Deen. "I was too busy. I had a social life and was always active. A couple of times I remember saying, 'Mama, let me cook!' Reluctantly, she would say OK. Then, later, she'd say, 'Paula, honey, you have to leave now.' I married young, and I couldn't even boil water. Then I fell in love with it. It's in the genes, maybe?"
Deen's favorite recipe in the new book is the Cinnamon Rolls. It's a surprising choice, given that more complicated dishes stand out, like the Porcupine Balls, the Sausage Quiche or the Hawaiian Beef Teriyaki Kebabs with Grilled Pineapple. On the other hand, there's something that says simplicity and kid – friendliness about crescent rolls stuffed with marshmallows and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.
"Cooking is about memories," says Deen, "and that is so important. We relate that to a time in our lives that is carefree and safe, when there wasn't a bad world out there. Cooking connects you to those times. I think 9/11 played a big part in jogging memories about family times and kitchen times. Some of our safest times were in Granny's or Mama's kitchen … back when daddies and granddaddies were our heroes."