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Native son Deen returns home for book signing

Celebrity chef Bobby Deen, son of Paula and Jimmy Deen, will be in Albany with his new wife, Claudia, on Nov. 2 for a book signing at the 112 N. Front St. Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Welcome Center. (Special photo)

Celebrity chef Bobby Deen, son of Paula and Jimmy Deen, will be in Albany with his new wife, Claudia, on Nov. 2 for a book signing at the 112 N. Front St. Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Welcome Center. (Special photo)

SAVANNAH — Bobby Deen knew he was treading on sacred ground when he came up with the concept for his latest New York Times bestseller, “From Mama’s Table to Mine.”

The book jacket offers readers and foodies alike the potentially blasphemous content that awaits them: “Everybody’s favorite comfort foods at 350 calories or less.”

But the celebrity chef, who will be in Albany at the Convention & Visitors Bureau Welcome Center from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday to sell and sign copies of “From Mama’s Table to Mine” and other books he’s written with his brother Jamie Deen and Melissa Clark, called the concept a “no-brainer” during a conversation with The Albany Herald.

“All the recipes in the book are based on ‘traditional Southern recipes,’” Deen, host of the Cooking Channel’s “Not My Mama’s Meals,” said. “Well, if you’re talking about any kind of traditional recipes — whether it’s traditional Southern or traditional Italian or traditional French — the traditional in each case really means fattening.

“What I did in the book is take some of the traditional Southern recipes I grew up with and do things as simple as dialing back the ingredients. If the recipe called for a stick of butter, I’d use half or a quarter of the ingredients. The trick was to find something healthier to replace it that didn’t take away from the flavor. And, trust me, sometimes it just wasn’t possible.”

If anyone knows a thing or twelve about traditional Southern cooking it’s Bobby Deen. His mother, Albany native Paula Deen, is the face of Southern cooking, a restaurant owner, TV superstar and best-selling author whose down-home manner launched an unparalleled business empire in the food industry. Most of the recipes Bobby Deen “dials down” in “From Mama’s Table” were created in Paula Deen’s kitchen.

“When your mother’s Paula Deen, you grow up in a house of good, traditional Southern food,” he said. “When I got to be 30, I just didn’t feel great health-wise. I wanted to make some changes in my life, and with the encouragement of a good friend who is a strength and conditioning coach I embraced exercise. Once I did that, it changed the way I look at food.

“I started to see food more as fuel for the body. There is a lot of pleasure in food, but I began to turn to food not strictly for pleasure. I didn’t really want to sacrifice any of those great foods I’d grown up on, so I started looking for ways to make them healthier.”

The recipes in Deen’s book run the dining gamut: from breakfast favorites to appetizers to soups to salads to casseroles to entrees to sandwiches to side dishes to desserts. And foodies, rest easy, there is no shortage of culinary delights. Jambalaya, pork tenderloin, peachy BBQ grouper, buttermilk mashed potatoes, red velvet cake, French onion soup, cheeseburger casserole, a crispy, crunchy reuben sandwich and golden crunchy okra are a sampling of the recipes Deen takes on.

“People ask me all the time if Mama is mad at me (for altering her famous recipes),” Deen said. “I can tell you, she’s not. First of all, I’m her son, and like all parents she’s happy to see me improving my health. Second, I’m not butchering her recipes or turning my back on my Southern heritage.

“I embrace the idea of creating healthier recipes for Mondays through Fridays. Saturdays and Sundays are for indulging in favorite foods. I think it’s a good balance to eat healthier 80 percent of the time and eat for pleasure 20 percent of the time. But 26 million people in the United States have Type 2 diabetes, so people are finally starting to look more closely at what they’re eating.”

With a bit of prodding Deen admits that, even with his emphasis on healthier dining, there are some Southern recipes that are simply untouchable.

“Believe me, there were things that I couldn’t make work, no matter how hard I tried,” he laughed. “A fried green tomato is a fried green tomato. You can’t mess with that.”

Deen said he’s looking forward to bringing his new bride, Claudia, to Albany.

“Claudia is from Caracas, Venezuela, and she’s never been to Southwest Georgia,” he said. “I’m looking forward to showing her where I went to high school (Albany High), the old neighborhood I grew up in. We were at Mama’s house last night with Aunt Peggy (Ort) — Mama fixed this wonderful vegetable soup like no one else can — and we were talking about churches. Claudia and I have been to several churches in Savannah, and since she grew up Catholic and I grew up Southern Baptist, we haven’t found one yet that we’re both completely comfortable in.

“One of the things that I’ve been wanting to do back home is go to First Baptist Church, where I was baptized in 1981. I understand the church itself and those beautiful stained-glass windows are no longer there, but I think I want to attend church at that structure (which is now Friendship Baptist Church). I love coming home to see my dad (Jimmy Deen) and his side of the family, but if we make it there three times a year that’s a lot. I’m closer to Albany, New York now than I am Albany, Georgia. So this weekend is going to be special for me. The only thing that makes it not perfect is that Nov. 2 is Georgia-Florida Saturday.”

Deen refutes the comments of those who say his mother, who was ostracized in the national media when a former employee accused her of racism and she admitted to having used the so-called “n-word” earlier in her life, is now “coming back” from the troubles that swirled around that episode.

“Mama’s not ‘coming back’ from anything; she never left,” Deen said. “All of us have moved forward, and we’re happy that event is over with. It was just so hypocritical what Mama was put through, but we all learned from it. When these lawyers got involved in all that, it was like the shell game that they play on the streets of New York. People never got the truth.

“Mama knows that her success made her a target, but it was devastating to watch what happened to her. It was so frustrating to watch her name being dragged through the swamp, but she’s a very optimistic person. I can tell you she’s looking forward and feels her future is going to be bright.”

The CVB’s Teresa Smith said Friday around half of the 200 books sent in advance of Deen’s appearance had already been sold. She noted that door-prize drawings, including four lunches for two with Bobby and Claudia at the nearby Hilton Garden Inn, would be held at 11 a.m.

“We’re really excited to have Bobby come back home so that we can showcase Albany for our hometown celebrity,” Smith said. “Claudia will be getting her first look at this area, and we want to help make it a happy experience. We really appreciate Jimmy Deen including us in this wonderful event.”

Copies of “From Mama’s Table to Mine” are available this week at the CVB’s 112 Front St. offices during business hours.