Bobby Deen, youngest son of Paula Deen, signs seven copies of his cookbook, “From Mama’s Table to Mine,” for Ted and Mary Stewart during a a booksigning event at the Albany Welcome Center Saturday. Many of the book buyers had known Deen and his family when they lived in Albany. (Staff photo: Jim West)
ALBANY — Bobby Deen, celebrity chef and youngest son of Paula Deen, was at the Albany Welcome Center Saturday, signing copies of his latest cookbook. The occasion sparked a flurry of sales for Deen’s paperback, “From Mama’s Table to Mine,” as well as some lengthy hometown reminiscence.
“He’s never brought his new bride, Claudia, to visit his hometown and he wanted her to meet some of his family and tour where he grew up,” said Jenny Collins, manager of marketing and communications for the Albany Convention & Visitors Bureau on Front Street, which sponsored the event. “His father, Jimmy Deen, came to us and suggested it was a perfect opportunity to just have a community event and book signing.”
Just before the official start, the author slipped from visitor to visitor, shaking hands and smiling, before finally settling in for some serious signing.
“My mother is the inspiration for the book, as well as where I grew up,” Deen said. “I was raised right here in Albany on wonderful traditional Southern foods.
“But as I got older, my relationship with food just changed. I wanted to figure out how I could enjoy the food I grew up with — the things that meant so much to me — like fried chicken and collard greens, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, sweet tea and peach cobbler. They’re are the things that remind me of my youth. but I’ve realized I can’t have those every day. I just wanted to find simple ways to tweak those old traditional recipes and see if I could make them healthier — something you could eat Monday through Friday, and then on Saturday and Sunday have the traditional things.”
So how do you tweak fried chicken? According to Deen, you start with chicken of the boneless, skinless variety, run it through an egg white wash, then pound unsweetened cereal flakes into a faux crust. Bake don’t fry.
“You’re sort of tricking yourself there a little bit,” Deen said “It feels and tastes like fried chicken. You don’t really miss the … well, yeah you do. You miss the grease. It’s delicious (laughing). You know, a cheeseburger is just a cheeseburger. Some things are what they are, but these are simple little things to make big changes to traditional recipes. I didn’t pull any rabbits out of the hat.”
Deen called his book “a labor of love” and said it took about a year to complete. The healthy concept dates back 13 years, Dean said, when he was 30 years old and tending to let things “slide” heathwise. He became friends with a strength and conditioning coach who turned him on to exercise and healthful eating.
“I look at food differently now,” Deen said. “I didn’t turn my back on my heritage, on the food that I loved. I just try to bring them on the ride with me. I realized I couldn’t eat fried chicken every day.”
Deen’s shift to exercise and healthy eating may be due in part to mother Paula’s well-known type 2 diabetes, a medical condition that, in many cases, can be avoided or even reversed by proper diet and workouts.
“My mother has type 2 diabetes, and her parents didn’t live long enough to know how far back that went,” Deen said. “When my mother was 20 years old, she was married to my father. She had one son, I would be around in another two years and both her parents had already gone. But a lot of people are surprised to find out my mother’s cholesterol is absolutely perfect. She’s known as Paula Deen the Butter Queen, but her cholesterol is better than mine and I exercise every day.”
Deen said he was excited to be in Albany and reunited with people he hasn’t seen in years.
“I’m a fan of his and of his mother,” said Shirley Austin, who was waiting toward the front of the book-signing line. “Paula and Jimmy and their boys lived on Pine Knoll on the same block as us. I have his cookbooks and a lot of his mothers books and she’s signed all of them for me. Special, real special.”
Mary and Ted Stewart are fans as well, buying up seven books to give away for Christmas.
“We’re just covering all the bases,” Mary Steward said, “and I think this will be a great memento for them — something they’ll keep and not just throw out, you know.”
Ellen Ungarino of Albany thinks the concept of tweaking famous and traditional cooking toward a healthy lifestyle is good for Deen in a commercial sense.
“I think it’s a good marketing strategy for him,” Ungarino said, “taking his mom’s recipes and making them a little more healthy. I think if you get the flavors and the spices right it can taste as good as traditional. I cook a lot and we eat really healthy, so I’m always up for new recipes.”
Tickets for the Deen event were $16 each, which included a signed copy of “From Mama’s Table to Mine.” In addition, four lucky individuals — Janet Reagan, Melba Cravey, Maxie Goff and Jack Carden — won a lunch for two with Bobby and Claudia Deen.