When I heard Paula Deen was coming to town, the image that leaped to mind was a fried cheesecake, deep-fried. She actually makes this!
At a time when it's trendy to take things out of food (think: gluten-free, sodium-free, fat-free), Paula Deen unapologetically puts it all back in. She loves all that stuff we're told to eat less of: butter, mayonnaise, sour cream. Did I say butter?
So I wanted to go see what makes her fans so enthusiastic. They wait in line to see her live, even though she's all over the Food Network. At the Metropolitan Cooking & Entertaining Show in Washington earlier this month, I met lots of them.
"She's awesome," Linda Fortanata told me while waiting for a good seat. "She cooks everyday food I can relate to!"
"You just can't help but fall in love with her," Rona Schwartz gushed.
"She makes an amazing apple pie!" Michelle Morgan chimed in.
Apple pie, really? I was scratching my head, trying to make sense of the crazy-for-Paula phenomenon. Doesn't everyone have an apple pie recipe?
And then it dawned on me. It wasn't about the pie. It was about Paula.
On stage, Paula started laughing and telling stories. Each of us felt as if she were speaking directly to us. We'd each just pulled a chair right up to her kitchen table.
"She reminds me of my mom," Alison Keen told me. "Just hanging out in the kitchen."
At a time when lots of people live alone, or have fractured families, knowing Paula Deen fills a void for people, even if it's on TV.
"They feel an intense emotional connection, I think," explains food anthropologist Christine DuBois. "She's very natural, very warm." And for some, DuBois says, "she becomes that wonderful neighbor or that grandma who's missing in our lives."
For all the adoration of her fans, in recent months Deen has been attacked for promoting food so unhealthy that some critics call it dangerous. That was TV chef Anthony Bourdain's complaint. "I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it's OK to eat food that is killing us," he told TV Guide.
Deen fought back, telling Bourdain to "get a life."
"I couldn't care less what he thinks," she told me when I asked her about the war-of-words during an interview. "I believe in live and let live."
And she's created her own kerfuffles. Last month, Deen told the Washington Examiner that Michelle Obama had really chowed down on so-not-healthy fried shrimp when she appeared on Deen's show in 2008. "She probably ate more than any other guest I've ever had on the show," Deen said.
The comments grabbed attention, since the first lady campaigns against obesity and champions healthy eating through her Let's Move campaign for children.
"I found her (Michelle Obama) to be a delightful woman who appreciated my fried shrimp so much," Deen told me. "I totally agree with her campaign," both the emphasis on healthy food and the effort to get kids off the sofa.
As for her own exercise habits? Hmmm. "I've heard that about exercise ... that it is addictive." Deen told me she'd like to start walking on a treadmill, one of these days. "I've got to see if I can get myself addicted."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This may be the one of the few weeks of the year that we get a kind of free pass from the national preoccupation with dieting - that is, unless you follow Food Network star Paula Deen. She's raised a big tent for folks who like the idea of live and let live. But as NPR's Allison Aubrey learned, her fans aren't just drawn to her cheese grits with extra butter, there's something much more elusive that they're after.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: I spend a lot of my time interviewing people who are trying to make us and the food we eat healthier. And then there's Paula Deen. When I heard she was coming to town the image I got in my head was a deep-fried cheesecake. She actually does that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AUBREY: So, who is this woman?
PAULA DEEN: Now, the first dish I'm going to start with this morning is spicy cinnamon cake.
AUBREY: This is Paula from an episode of her TV show. She's wearing her pajamas and cooking from her home in Savannah. She loves all this stuff we're supposed to be eating less of.
DEEN: For this recipe, I going to need butter, sour cream, eggs.
AUBREY: She finds a way to sneak mayonnaise into recipes and she's a fan of tricks to keep things simple, such as adding instant pudding.
DEEN: And one more ingredient that's going to make this real, real moist...
AUBREY: Sour cream. So, is it these easy-peasy recipes...
DEEN: It has a wonderful, wonderful flavor.
AUBREY: ...that compels thousands of her fans to buy tickets and wait in lines to see her perform live?
RONA SCHWARTZ: Oh, believe me, it's going to be great. Everybody's going to be so excited, going absolutely insane.
AUBREY: Paula fan Rona Schwartz drove from Philadelphia down to the Metropolitan Cooking Show in D.C. earlier this month to see her live.
SCHWARTZ: I can't wait. I mean, she's just got that great smile. You just can't help but fall in love with her. You just can't help it.
AUBREY: I was hearing this over and over and over again.
LINDA FORTANATA: She's awesome, she's sweet, she cute, she cooks everyday food - I can relate to her. From Linda Fortanata to Michelle Morgan...
MICHELLE MORGAN: She makes this amazing apple pie.
AUBREY: Apple Pie, really? Doesn't everyone have a yummy recipe for apple pie? But as the spotlight came on, all eyes followed Paula's entrance on stage.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The queen of Southern cooking, the number one lady you came to see...
AUBREY: It started to dawn on me: it's more than the recipes. Paula, with her big blue eyes, and her snowy-white hairdo, she gives people a connection, a soulful connection they're looking for.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And her fifth year here in Washington, D.C., Paula Deen.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
AUBREY: Within moments, Paula's laughing and telling stories as she does on her TV show. She talks about her two sons and about meeting her second husband.
DEEN: I remember when Michael and I - well, a few months after we'd been seeing each other - I got up and I fixed him breakfast.
AUBREY: As Paula talks, James Hample says it feels like she's speaking just to him. It's as if each of the 2,000 people in the audience have pulled a chair right up to her kitchen table.
JAMES HAMPLE: She's so homey, and, like, she makes me feel like I'm in grandma's kitchen. Like, she just, like, I just want to hug her.
AUBREY: At one point, she invites the whole audience to come along on her annual winter cruise. Julie Cook, who's been, says it's a hoot.
JULIE COOK: She'll sit down, and probably pick off your plate. But people get to know her intimately. She learns people's names and become friends with them.
AUBREY: Charisma aside, the part of Paula Deen's personal story that many diehard fans connect with is her triumph over big struggles, including a bad first marriage and agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that left her afraid to leave her house.
CHRISTINE DUBOIS: It's tremendously inspiring to be a person who can overcome something like agoraphobia.
AUBREY: Food anthropologist Christine Dubois says in an age where conditions such as ADD, OCD, PTSD are part of the national lexicon, the ability to conquer one becomes the 21st century, pull-yourself-up-from-the-bootstraps story that can gives people hope.
DUBOIS: If Paula Dean could do it and become this incredible phenomenon, maybe I should have the courage to overcome my difficulties too.
AUBREY: So, what's Paula's next personal dragon to slay? Well, when I caught up with her after the live show, she told me that to compensate for her love of rich food she'd like to start exercising.
DEEN: I've heard that about exercise, that it is addictive.
AUBREY: She told me that her son Bobby is hooked.
DEEN: So, I've got to see if I can get myself addicted.
AUBREY: Well, thank you so much for your time. I really do appreciate it.
DEEN: Thank you. You are so welcome.
AUBREY: Thank you.
DEEN: You're cute and I like those little ear screws.
AUBREY: Oh, she's got me. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.