by Jim Piechota
It Ain't All About the Cookin' by Paula Deen (with Sherry Suib Cohen); Simon & Schuster, $25
With her trademark salutation ("Hey, y'all,") ever-expanding gay following, and laughter, the Food Network's crown jewel Paula Deen serves up something more than a cookbook: the story of her bittersweet life. Born Paula Ann Hiers in Albany, Georgia in 1947, Paula's love affair with food began at an early age, though her disciplinarian mother staunchly discouraged her from participating in kitchen activities. Her grade school experience as a fidgety silly-heart morphed into teenaged years as a popular cheerleader, doe-eyed and swooning over cute boys. But that fun, comfortable life soon soured.
By the time she was in her early 20s, Deen's life became overrun with tragedy. She married her sweetheart, heavy drinker Jimmy Deen, right out of high school, and bore two sons, Jamie and Bobby, shortly thereafter, just as their marriage became irreparably rocky. With the death of both of her parents, the stress and paranoia of suddenly being parentless resulted in a crippling fear of abandonment, and subsequent years of paralyzing agoraphobia. At her most vulnerable, Deen was unable to venture outside even for a few minutes before falling to the pavement, immobilized with fear.
Cooking soothed her fears, and moving to Savannah did wonders for Deen. At 42, she decided to strike out on her own with a prepared-lunch service called The Bag Lady, which eventually proved successful. But it still wasn't enough to save her doomed marriage. One ill-fated affair, a business loan, and two overdrawn bank accounts later, Deen became the proud owner of Savannah's The Lady & Sons restaurant. Her scrappy, handmade cookbook would take Random House and QVC by storm, and the rest of the story can be found in Food Network's history books.
The belle of butter narrates her life story with a friendly style and a down-home sensibility, with generous photographs and recipes thrown in alongside the occasional saucy zinger. Deen's got moxie, and she doesn't hold back when four-letter words feel appropriate. Heirloom recipes, the new true love of her life, behind-the-scenes secrets to her top-rated Food Network shows, some sage wisdom, and the inherent sexiness of braised ox-tails and hoe-cakes round out this charming Southern memoir. Deen turned 60 this year, and shows no signs of stopping. Her memoir demonstrates the fulfillment that a little hard work and ingenuity can generate.