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Y'all can't do much better than Paula Deen

Loran Smith

Loran Smith

Paula Deen lives on Wilmington Island. Her kitchen is a television studio -- what did you expect? -- and if you are invited to see her tape her weekly show, you can sample the food when the crew breaks for lunch. Barbecued ribs and chicken, roast pork, salad, vegetables, and sweet potato casserole for dessert. At least that was my choice for dessert.

You can also sample dishes prepared on the show, like the seven-layered Fiesta dip-black beans, corn, guacamole, and onions, among other ingredients. ("I'm a cook," she laughs generously at a break, "not a chef.") Then wrapping her arms around her elder son, Jamie (Bobby, the younger, was out of town on business), she said with a burst of endearing laughter, "Cooks are better than chefs."

The family compound, which she shares with her husband, Michael Grover, overlooks the marsh. I can only imagine that the sunsets on the marsh, viewed from a wicker rocking chair with a mint julep poised for intake, would surely be moments to be savored.

Taking in the view of the marsh is compromised for Paula, however, who travels six months out of the year and stays overwhelmingly busy the rest. "Got to get it while you can," she laughs, a reminder that when you're hot, you're hot. And Paula Deen is foot-stomping hot when it comes to food. Her cookbooks sell like hotcakes, which would attract lines down the street if she were selling them and the word got out. The word has been out about the menu at the family restaurant -- The Lady and Sons on West Congress Street -- for years. People line up for blocks every day to experience the Deen family recipes live and in living color.

While they wait to eat, they can hang out at the gift shop where her cookbooks, which she has signed in advance, are a favorite. There are also mugs, tee shirts, caps, calendars-anything you might need for the kitchen. If you want your own Paula Deen cookbook library, all you have to do is keep up with her on television. She comes out with a cookbook almost every year. Jamie and Bobby have cookbooks, too. If you're hungry, there is a Deen recipe to fit every taste.

"Boy howdy," she laughs, "you should try my mustard-fried catfish. Lemme tell you, I can do catfish. It is one of my best dishes. Always have some catfish in my freezer. Nothing better than my catfish -- unless it is catching catfish."

Paula Deen is big everywhere -- even in California. "That did surprise me at first," she says with a generous laugh. "But I know why! They had eaten so much lettuce and tofu."

Her celebrity chefs, who tape shows with her in Savannah, are varied. Trisha Yearwood was here cooking with Paula a few days ago. Before that she hosted Albert Pujols, the indomitable slugger for the St. Louis Cardinals. Two of Albert's favorite things are good food and slamming a high fast ball out of the ballpark.

The crew, a mixture of youth and middle aged, works without fuss or rancor. Their addresses are as varied as her menus, their accents nothing like hers-and her accent is one of her most abiding assets. She underscores the use of "y'all," and confirms directives from the producer with the traditional Southern phase, "okey dokey," throughout the taping of her show. Her popularity stems, she says, from the fact that she represents "that woman in the home," adding, "The only difference is our accents." She happily maintains her colloquial connections. "Pecan, for example" is pronounced, "P-can." It would be difficult to be more naturally Southern than Paula.

She and Jamie carry on, good-naturedly ribbing each other, which has the crew howling with laughter. If there is anything more endearing than her natural smile, which would disarm the Taliban, it would be her penchant for humor.

A four-letter word slipped out during the taping, and she laughed so generously it caused the crew to break up. A towel in the bathroom says, "I'm still a hot babe. It just comes in flashes."

If you're lucky enough to witness Paula Deen tape her show, you'll leave on a full stomach and laughing with the sun setting on the marsh.

Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at loransmithathens@bellsouth.net.