Devotion runs hot for Deen, who also reaps a heap of hate

Food Network star refuses to apologize for her often-divisive cooking style

June 27, 2007|By Kathleen Purvis | Kathleen Purvis,McClatchy-Tribune

There are two camps on Paula Deen.

And doesn't it seem like "camp" is the right word when it comes to the Food Network's Miz Paula? The honey-dipped accent, the butter-soaked recipes, the diamond ring as big as a wrestler's belt.

Love her or hate her? With Deen on tour this summer for her stage show, "Paula Live!" (and coming to Washington's Metropolitan Cooking & Entertaining Show in November), it's something to consider.

Her fans love her with the devotion of puppies.

At Deen's book signing at a Charlotte, N.C., Sur La Table in 2005, the crowd had to move into the mall to make room. Folks bought more than 700 books.

"That's a lot of books," says Doralece Lipoli Dullaghan, who was scheduling author appearances for Sur La Table at the time.

But nonfans despise her with just as much passion. On the Internet, she's right up there with perky Rachael Ray and Semi-Homemade host Sandra Lee for putdowns:

"Is Paula Deen trying to kill us?"

"Even Miss Scarlett would have chosen the dirt."

"Paula Deen would put mayo on an aspirin."

Love her or hate her? Consider these points:

It's not the cooking. It's the story. --Surely you know her story by now. If you don't, her memoir, Paula Deen: It Ain't All About the Cooking, is parked on The New York Times best-seller list.

Here's the short version: Born in Albany, Ga., married young to an alcoholic who couldn't hold a job. Lost both parents by 23. Struck by agoraphobia so severe, she barely left her house for 20 years.

Divorced the husband and started a business with her two sons delivering lunches to offices in Savannah, Ga. Used her last $200 to open a restaurant, The Lady & Sons. Wrote a little cookbook, got discovered by Random House and ended up a Food Network star.

Oh, and that killer finale: She falls in love with a boat pilot who looks like Hemingway and marries him on the air.

How can you not love it?

"It's that inspirational story, that People magazine kind of story," says Pat Adrian, the New York-based editor-in-chief of the book club The Good Cook.

As Deen herself writes:

"I'm a 60-year-old, grey-haired, overweight woman and I'm still employed. Life is a beautyful thing."

It's not just the story. It's the cooking. --Between her books, her restaurant and her shows, Paula's Home Cooking and Paula's Party, Deen has made a fortune off church cookbook food. Doctored cake mixes, butter, lots of mayonnaise. Nothing complicated, everything comforting.

And no fear of frying. A search of her recipes on foodnet work.com turns up fried biscuits (yes, canned biscuit dough in hot oil), deep-fried macaroni and cheese, deep-fried cheesecake, even deep-fried ice cream sandwiches.

That's the kind of thing that inspires nicknames like "the Fairy Fat Mother."

She knows, and she doesn't apologize. "I'm not your nurse, I'm your cook," she writes.

That accent, y'all. --She never says "potato" when she can say "tater." Even in writin', she drops her "g's" and throws around phrases like "don't know grits."

Fans find it comforting and genuine. Nonfans say it's faked, ramped up higher than a majorette's hair.

Not according to people who know her. Sydny Miner, a senior editor with Simon & Schuster, has edited Deen since The Lady & Sons Just Desserts in 2002.

"What you see on TV, what you see in public - that's Paula," Miner says. "She talks exactly the same way today as when I met her. It is real."

Style doesn't come in a bottle, girl. --If nothing else, the woman is honest. In the memoir, she admits to smoking and cussing, even to letting her housekeeping get so bad, she had a roach problem.

On air, she cooks like a cook. And that really galls the nonfans. Licking her finger, leaving her rings on when she's mushing up meatloaf - the food police practically choke on their whistles.

She addresses that, too: They edit out shots of her washing her hands, she says. And it's Paula's Home Cooking, not Paula's Restaurant Cooking.

Feel the love - on both sides. --Sur La Table's Dullaghan wasn't prepared for the rock-star crowds she saw at book signings around the country.

In Palm Beach, Fla., one woman insisted she was friends with Paula, that Paula knew her.

"Rachael [Ray] has enthusiastic fans, and Giada [De Laurentiis] has enthusiastic fans. But nothing like that moment, when this woman was convinced Paula knows her."

Deen's husband, Michael Groover, told Dullaghan it happens all the time. The show is taped in their house, her kids are on the air. People feel like they really do know her.

"There's a message in that, in how she speaks to people on a very basic level," says Dullaghan. "They relate to her as a human being."

And it runs both ways, says Miner. "She loves the people. I have seen celebrities turn on their `celebrity face' in public and then turn it off. She doesn't turn it off."

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