Television personality, chef, and author
B orn Paula Ann Hiers, January 19, 1947, in Albany, GA; daughter of Earl (a gas station owner) and Corrie (a souvenir shop manager) Hiers; married Jimmy Deen (a car dealer), November 28, 1965 (divorced, 1992); married Michael Anthony Groover (a docking pilot), March 6, 2004; children: Bobby, Jamie (from first marriage), two stepchildren.
Addresses: Office—The Lady & Sons, 102 W. Congress St., Savannah, GA 31401.
W orked as a bank teller and as a hospital biller, mid to late1980s; founded The Bag Lady (a lunchtime catering business), Savannah, GA, 1989; opened first restaurant, The Lady, in Savannah, GA, 1991; opened Lady & Sons restaurant in Savannah, 1996; published first cookbook, The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook, 1998; host of Paula’s Home Cooking on the Food Network, 2002—; co-publisher with Hoffman Media of the magazine Cooking with Paula Deen; made film debut in Elizabethtown, 2005; published autobiography, Paula Deen: It Ain’t All about the Cookin’, 2007.
P aula Deen hosts of one of the Food Network’s most popular cooking shows, Paula’s Home Cooking. Deen has also authored several cookbooks that showcase the Southern cuisine that made her famous, but it was her 2007 autobiography that endeared her to audiences. In Paula Deen: It Ain’t All about the Cookin’, she discussed her unhappy first marriage, financial setbacks, and the panic attacks that kept her from leaving her house for years when her children were young. “Backed against the wall, I cooked everything my granny taught me and then some,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Fried chicken, collard greens, country fried steak—my family ate good.”
Deen was born on January 19, 1947, inAlbany, Georgia, and spent the first years of her life in the town’s River Bend resort area, where her grandparents owned a motel and restaurant. When she was six, her parents bought a nearby gas station and souvenir shop, and the family moved into living quarters behind the store. “We had no bathroom; our toilet was a big old slop jar inside a pink wicker chair,” she wrote in her autobiography. Sometimes, she took her two-year-old brother “Bubba” to school with her if the babysitter was unable to come and her mother needed to be at the store. She learned to cook from her grandmother, who was skilled in the Southern repertoire upon which Deen would build her career.
When Deen graduated from Albany High School, she asked her parents to allow her to move to Atlanta to enroll in modeling school. They were aghast at the idea, she recalled in an interview with Jim Auchmutey for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “‘No daughter of mine is going to Atlanta and live by herself in that big city,’” Deen quoted her father as saying. “He wanted me to enroll in dental hygiene school. I didn’t want to smell stinky breath, so I said I’m not doing that, I’ll just get married.”
Deen married her senior-year boyfriend, Jimmy Deen, who was a student at Auburn University but eventually dropped out to become a car salesperson. Not long after their wedding in November of 1965, Deen’s father fell ill. He underwent heart surgery at the age of 40, suffered a stroke, then died from injuries sustained in a car accident brought on by another stroke in June of 1966. Four years later, Deen’s 44year-old mother died from cancer, and Bubba, now a teenager, came to live with her. She had two young boys of her own by then, and though she was just 23 years old, she became convinced that she would be the next to die. For years, she told People’s Mike Lipton, “I got up, got my children off to school and sat and waited to die.”
Deen suffered from debilitating panic attacks whenever she left the house, and carried a brown paper bag in her purse to breathe into, to prevent hyperventilating. She recalled the worst years between 1977 and 1983, when she was barely able to leave the house at all. To pass the time, she cooked. “I could concentrate on what was in my pots and block out what was in my head,” she told Julia Moskin in the New York Times. “Some days I could get to the supermarket, but I could never go too far inside. I learned to cook with the ingredients they kept close to the door.” She also said these were times of severe financial hardship for her family. “My definition of success was, I would be successful if I could buy groceries for my family on Tuesday and my paycheck wasn’t until Friday,” she told Jennifer Sergent in the Cincinnati Post. “I thought people that didn’t have to buy groceries on payday were rich.”
Finally, Deen saw an episode of Phil Donahue’s popular daytime television talk show that featured recovered agoraphobics. “I thought nobody else could be this crazy, and here was Phil Donahue devoting a whole program to it,” she wrote in It Ain’t All about the Cookin’. Financial worries also helped her move forward, because she needed to find a job after her husband’s car dealership failed and they lost their home. She worked as a bank teller, but was robbed at gunpoint on one of her last days at work just as she was preparing to move to Savannah, Georgia. The 1986 robbery was so traumatic an experience that she stayed in bed for two months once she relocated. Around the time she turned 40, with one son away at college and the other living with Bubba in Albany to finish his senior year of high school, Deen decided to make a change. “I looked in the mirror one day and said, ‘You cannot live another day like this, ’” she recalled in the People interview with Lipton. “It was like putting on a light switch.”
Deen forced herself to drive around her block, going a little further each time, and found a job in a hospital, but her husband’s income declined further, and she was forced to look for a new source of money in order to avoid foreclosure on their house yet again. A friend told her about a woman who came around to the hair salons and sold snacks to customers out of a basket, and Deen thought she could do better by making bag lunches and selling them to office workers. Even her grandmother tried to discourage her, reminding her how tough the food-service business could be, and her husband only reluctantly gave her the $200 she needed to start, which paid for groceries, a cooler, and the city license for her business, which she called The Bag Lady. Her friends at the hospital were some of her first customers, and her sons made the deliveries.
In 1991, Deen leased a kitchen and dining space inside a Savannah Best Western hotel, and opened her own restaurant, which she called The Lady. Her sons’ girlfriends were the first waitresses, and she continued to run the sandwich business with her sons’ help; however, her marriage finally ended. In 1996, she relocated her restaurant to a larger location in Savannah, and renamed it The Lady & Sons. Savannah had, by then, become a new tourist destination thanks to the success of a John Berendt’s bestselling murder mystery, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which was set in the city and incited interest in its charming architecture and storied past. One of the visitors was an editor for Random House in New York City, who read Deen’s self-published first cookbook and offered her a contract.
The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook was published by Random House in 1998, and Deen went on QVC, the home-shopping channel, and sold 70,000 copies of it in a single day. Her editors in New York arranged a visit by Food Network chef Gordon Elliott, who dined at The Lady & Sons and was impressed by Deen’s personal warmth. That led to an appearance on his television show, Door-knock Dinners, and, in November of 2002, Paula’s Home Cooking debuted on the Food Network and immediately began pulling in impressive ratings.
Deen became a major celebrity in Savannah, a tourist attraction in her own right with one company running a “Paula Deen Tour” for her fans. Around the same time, she began dating a neighbor on the piece of waterfront property she had bought, and her March of 2004 wedding to Michael Groover, a semi-retired docking pilot, was filmed for a Food Network special and became the highest-rated show on the network of the entire year. Her empire expanded later that year to include a second restaurant she opened with her brother called Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House.
Deen’s naturalness before the television cameras— she never uses a script—appealed to the casting director for a 2005 movie, Elizabethtown. Directed by Cameron Crowe, the film is the story of a young man, played by Orlando Bloom, who returns to his Kentucky roots for a funeral; Deen played his dynamic Aunt Dora, a renowned cook. She was initially wary about the idea of acting, fearing she might not pull it off, but as she recalled in an interview with Judith Evans in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, once she and Crowe spoke by phone he reassured her. “He said, ‘Paula, I just want you to be yourself,’” Deen told Evans. “I said, ‘I can handle that.’”
On Paula’s Home Cooking, Deen is known for liberally sampling her creations with obvious relish, and her Southern drawl and idioms have endeared her to viewers. But critics argue that Deen’s typical Southern fare, with its reliance on animal fats and sugar, is unhealthy. “Our ancestors ate this way from the cradle,” she replied when Houston Chronicle writer Diane Cowen asked her about it. “But the thing is those people worked. So I think we need to take care of it with exercise and moderation. If you want to eat a hoecake, eat a hoecake—just don’t eat six hoecakes.”
Deen provides a recipe for hoecakes—which are made with cornmeal and buttermilk and then deep-fried—in her 2005 cookbook, Paula Deen & Friends: Living It Up, Southern Style. In 2006, she inked a deal with Smithfield Foods for her own line of groceries, and that same year her two sons debuted in their own Food Network show, Road Tasted, which focuses on regional American cuisine. Deen thanked her sons for their loyalty and help in the early years of her business in her 2007 memoir, Paula Deen: It Ain’t All about the Cookin’, written with Sherry Suib Cohen, which debuted in the No. 2 spot on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. In it, she candidly revealed her unhappy first marriage and years of agoraphobia, but also admitted her occasional bad judgment, such as the affair she carried on with a married man for several years when she was between marriages. “I’m very ashamed of that,” she told Auchmutey in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview. “I know I’m not the only woman it’s happened to. We get so lonely and our self-esteem gets so low that we think we don’t deserve anything better.”
Deen is often cited as a successful example of someone who found their true career only later in life. “It’s such a blessing,” she told Roanoke Times journalist Lindsey Nair about starting her career after 40—“a time of life when you almost think you’re not wanted or needed anymore . I hope that I offer hope, because there is nothing worse than the feeling of hopelessness, and I had those feelings for so long. But we are not limited by our age.” In her autobiography, she provided advice in the final chapters for readers thinking about starting their own venture, but also made sure to divulge that her two sons, her brother, and her Aunt Peggy, who often drove from Albany to help her make sandwiches, were crucial to the success of her empire. Deen quoted her son Bobby, who reflected, “The best thing about our business is being able to be with our family so much. The hardest thing about our business is having to be with family so much.”
The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook, Random House (New York City), 1998.
The Lady & Sons, Too! A Whole New Batch of Recipes from Savannah, Random House, 2000.
The Lady & Sons Just Desserts: More Than 120 Sweet Temptations from Savannah’s Favorite Restaurant, Simon & Schuster (New York City), 2002.
Paula Deen’s Kitchen Classics: The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook and The Lady & and Sons, Too!, Random House, 2005.
(With Martha Nesbit) Paula Deen & Friends: Living It Up, Southern Style, Simon & Schuster, 2005.
(With Martha Nesbit) Paula Deen Celebrates! Best Dishes and Best Wishes for the Best Times of Your Life, Simon & Schuster, 2006.
(With Sherry Suib Cohen) Paula Deen: It Ain’t All about the Cookin’ (autobiography), Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Deen, Paula, It Ain’t All about the Cookin’, Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 11, 2005, p. B1; April 22, 2007, p. M1.
Cincinnati Post, January 29, 2003, p. B1.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), May 11, 2005, p. U10.
Houston Chronicle, March 19, 2006, p. 3.
New York Times, February 28, 2007.
People, August 22, 2005, p. 113.
Roanoke Times, August 22, 2007, p. 1.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 12, 2005, p. 1.
Virginian Pilot, June 6, 2007, p. F4.