Paula Deen doesn't change her holiday traditions easily, but on New Year's Day, she'll have good reason.
Sweetly yet sassily Southern, the Emmy-winning cook of Food Network fame is starting 2011 with a big date -- with the Tournament of Roses Parade. Deen is the grand marshal for the 122nd edition of the event in Pasadena, Calif., one of very few non-news events covered by multiple networks simultaneously. ABC, NBC, HGTV, Hallmark Channel and Univision will televise the ever-colorful procession at 11 a.m. Saturday (Hallmark airs the parade again at 1 p.m.).
"It's gonna be surreal, probably even after it's over," the ever-pleasant Deen muses of being selected for the title previously given to others from fellow "foodie" Emeril Lagasse and Frank Sinatra to Shirley Temple (three times) and airplane captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (last year). "For this to be one of your traditions that you watch every year, then to be on the other end and suddenly be there, it's just surreal."
Since being grand marshal also entails doing the coin toss and sitting on the 50-yard line for the Rose Bowl game, the Savannah, Ga.-based Deen is extremely popular in her household right now.
"I raised men," she says of sons Jamie and Bobby, "so New Year's Day was all about watching football. I have finally impressed my children, when I didn't think that was possible.
"Normally on New Year's Day, my children come to my house. We can be kind of superstitious, so the food we have then is very steeped in tradition. You have to have your black-eyed peas for luck, your greens that represent financial success for the year and your hog jowls for health. I don't know if I'll be able to find any turnip greens or hog jowls out there. I may just have to cook them, freeze them and bring them."
When Deen was announced as grand marshal in October, she boosted the moment in a rather spectacular way by unveiling her four-tier Paula's Sugared Rose Parade Layer Cake.
"We had been working on a beautiful rose cake for Valentine's Day," she explains. "It's covered in red rose petals that we sugared, and I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, this cannot wait. This is gonna have to be the Rose Parade cake.' It's red velvet inside, with a cream frosting."
With as big a splash as the cake made then, Deen hopes to bring another one with her on Saturday.
"It was just so appropriate, just over-the-top for this event," she says. "This year's theme is 'Building Dreams, Friendships & Memories,' so hopefully, this will become a tradition for the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl."
As for anything else she's expected to do that day, Deen says, "They've got a [parade] virgin here, so I will do as I'm told! I'm going to lead the parade in a vintage 1923 Rolls-Royce Springfield Silver Ghost, and I've been practicing my wave. They told me there are several ways. One is like you're screwing in a light bulb, another is like a figure eight, and another is the queen's way. And I won't follow any of them. I'll be so excited, I'll be doing my own goofy wave."
Though she hasn't had direct conversations with her Food Network bosses about her Rose Parade role, Deen suspects "they're very, very happy" about the big exposure she'll have, "even if it's on a competing channel. (The parade organizers) told me how many people watch the parade, and the number just blew me away."
That would seem a good omen for Deen for the entire year to come, but she's already an entrepreneur to reckon with. Besides hosting her three Food Network series ("Paula's Home Cooking," "Paula's Party" and "Paula's Best Dishes"), she has published a number of cookbooks and the magazine Cooking With Paula Deen, she operates two restaurants, she's a spokeswoman for Smithfield Foods, and she has her own lines of cookware and baked goods.
"If you pulled a gun on me and said, 'OK, Paula, you'd better tell me what you're working on,' I couldn't tell you everything," Deen maintains. "I say that my second birthday was June 19, 1989, because that was the day I took total and complete responsibility for my life and myself. Having gotten a late start, retirement is not even in my realm of thinking. There's still so many things I want to do.
"I'm very busy with my partners at Smithfield, because we've made a commitment to feed 20 million people over the next two years (through the company's ongoing Helping Hungry Homes Across America initiative). We're probably somewhere around 10 million now, and that's very important to me. This is the richest country in the world, so the thought of someone who lives in America being hungry is unacceptable."
For the moment, though, Deen's prime focus is on servicing the Tournament of Roses Parade. She recognizes that many of her forerunners as grand marshal, also including Bob Hope and Walt Disney, have been "people who have really made a difference in our lives and I can't believe that next year, my picture will join the pictures of those people. You're talkin' surreal, honey."