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Recipe for success; Cooking superstar Paula Deen dishes out Southern charm, a zest for life and passion for fun

(This is a reprint of an article that was published April 15, 2011.)

The television cooking superstar who gave the world deep-fried butter and the egg-topped bacon burger nestled between Krispy Kreme doughnuts isn’t about to apologize to anyone for her recipes.

After nearly a decade of Paula Deen’s hugely popular cooking shows, and millions of copies of her cookbooks, all celebrating the glories of crispy, crunchy, butter-soaked Southern cuisine, Deen has become a target for denouncers of the American diet.

Too bad. She’s not going to say she’s sorry for giving Americans what so many so obviously crave.

“I remember one time when I was on Oprah, she brought up something like that -- ‘What do you say to people who say your food is so bad?’ “ Deen said in a telephone interview with The News.

“I said, ‘I’m your cook, not your doctor. You can’t hold me responsible. I supply recipes, but it’s up to you to know your numbers, speak to your doctor and find out where you stand.’ “

Deen is bringing “Paula Deen Live!,” her road show, to Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Wednesday. She’ll be cooking on stage, taking audience questions and chatting with husband Michael Groover, the tugboat captain she married in 2004.

During the show, he’s her Ed McMahon, Deen said. “He’s kinda shy in front of folks or when he gets on TV,” she said. “But he’s the funniest man I’ve ever met.”

The 63-year-old Deen is the force behind five restaurants, including her flagship The Lady & Sons, in Savannah, Ga. Three Deen-branded restaurants have opened in Harrah’s casinos, but none closer than Knoxville, Tenn.

Deen said she’s looking forward to opening more restaurants closer to Buffalo, though that may remain only a deep-fried dream. “I was hoping to have the opportunity to come up further north, because y’all are definitely fried chicken deprived,” said Deen. “And that should not be, honey.”

It only seems like Paula Deen is everywhere. Her cheery, welcoming image has made her a much sought-after celebrity product endorser, especially for companies trying to sell to older women.

Parlaying her market power, she steers away from attaching her name to existing brands. Instead, brands are created for her -- Paula Deen furniture, Paula Deen rugs, Paula Deen housewares. When it comes to cooking, there’s not just Paula Deen pots and pans, and deep fryers -- there’s condiments, too, including “Paula Deen’s Butt Massage” (a spice rub).

Adding spice to life

Despite her wholesome image, Deen likes to spice things up with a dash of sexual innuendo -- tame compared to pop stars perhaps, but a blue streak through her homey image. Deen doesn’t apologize for that, either. “That makes it fun,” she said. “There’s nothing more romantical than getting in there with your man and cooking up a meal.”

An important part of any recipe is having fun cooking it, she said. “When we walk out our door every day, life is hard. You’ve got so much competition out there,” she said. “When you walk into your home, and into your kitchen, it should be fun. It should be a pleasure. It should be a stress reliever for you.”

By all appearances, Deen’s stress relief regime is going pretty well.

In February, Deen was on stage with fellow Food Network star Robert Irvine on at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami. Irvine lifted his shirt and smeared butter on his belly. “He’s a buddy of mine, and he knew when he wiped that butter on his belly, that I wasn’t going to let it go to waste,” Deen said.

Deen licked butter off his abs in front of the hooting crowd, without spilling the contents of her wineglass. Then she rode Irvine across the stage like a horse.

“What made him get down on his hands and knees I’ll never know, but I looked at him and said, ‘I guess he’s going to take me for a ride,’ “ she said.

Photographs and video of their escapades were viewed by millions. “I heard it was, like, in the top 10 of the most viewed video things in the world,” she said. “I said, ‘That just goes to show, people want to have fun.’ It was innocent, good clean fun.”

Among the reactions they inspired was the website, where artists blended Deen’s Irvine-riding images with other photos and cinematic moments.

Another fan: Her 4-year-old grandson Jack, who was impressed by one of the pictures, Deen riding Superman. “I said, ‘I finally have impressed my grandson.’ “

So, how much did she have to drink first?

“I don’t drink,” Deen said.

The wineglass in her hand? “There’s diet soda in it,” she said. “I have a good enough time.”

In fact, Deen said, she can’t stand wine. “Tastes like baby spit-up, kinda,” she said.

She’s tried to like wine, she said. “In fact, Michael and I said, ‘We’re going to going to grow up and go out to dinner and have some wine, like all the grownups do.’

And we tried it, and we just said ‘Yuk, this is so nasty. Please get us a glass of soda. Diet soda.’ “

A family affair

At this point, it’s gobsmackingly difficult to believe Paula Deen spent 20 years ridden by agoraphobia, unwilling to leave her house.

With Secret Service agents hovering, Deen hosted future first lady Michelle Obama on her show in September 2008, during the sprint toward the election. The next year, she was Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade.

Deen married at 18 and her parents died when she was 23. Stuck in Savannah with two sons, her marriage soured, Deen saw a Phil Donahue show about agoraphobia and learned that her condition had a name.

In 1989, after getting divorced, she saved up $200 and started a lunch business. While she cooked, she sent her sons Jamie and Bobby downtown to sell box lunches of Southern home cooking to office workers.

In 1996, their success led to the opening of The Lady & Sons, in Savannah’s historical district. In 1998, her first cookbook sold 70,000 copies in a day on QVC, and Deen was on her way to meet America.

She brought her family. Her sons have their own magazine, cookbooks, sauce line and speaking tours. Her husband released his own book, “My Delicious Life with Paula Deen,” and has his name on a line of coffee blends.

When asked about the health repercussions of an all-Deen diet, she acknowledges that it’s not for everyone.

“There are some people who can eat anything and everything, and their numbers are great. I have fed men before who would come in every day and I would fix them a salad every day with lemon juice, and they ended up with quadruple bypass.

“So much is genetic. You need to know your numbers, be aware of them, and eat accordingly.”

Yet Deen remains the television star who deep-fried butter, and liked it.

“A viewer wrote in and challenged me. ‘I’m going to challenge you, Paula, to fry butter. I’ve done it and I can show you how,’ “ said Deen. “So we actually invited her on the show.”

They rolled butter balls, and froze them, then dipped them in a coating for a brief ride through hot fat. “You know you can’t fry it for just a second,” she said.

“It was delicious,” Deen said. “Of course, you wouldn’t want to sit around and eat balls of butter. I said then, and I still say, that it would be delicious on a steak or a piece of fish.”

If she was to deep-fry butter again, Deen said, “I would roll it into a log and freeze it, then slice discs of it and fry it. It would sit better on a piece of fish.”

What does food television need more of? the First Lady of the Frialator is asked.

“I know when I first started, Food Network really didn’t want any part of me,” Deen said. “They said that nobody’s going to watch a woman who doesn’t have a degree, and talks with a Southern accent, and is overweight.”

But after putting her on the channel, “they quickly found out that I am that real world out there, I represent those women out there in the real world,” said Deen. “Because it was an immediate success.”

For more about Paula Deen, check out these websites: