SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Having known Paula Deen for years before fame, I never cease to be amazed at her extraordinary popularity.
At CBS studios in New York a couple years back, when people learned I was from Savannah, immediate responses formed a common theme: "Do you know Paula Deen?" ... "I just love Paula Deen" ... "Isn't that where Paula Deen's from?"
Yep and we're mighty proud of her.
For the last couple of years, I've been asked to try and arrange a detailed interview with Paula, for stories on WTOC and to share with our Raycom Media sister stations all across the country. I was reluctant at first, mostly because I feared it might seem like I was exploiting a friendship. But I ran the idea by Paula and she being her down-to-earth loveable self, said, "Why sure darlin!' When ya wanna do it?'"
Thanks to some crafty scheduling magic, ably performed by Paula's excellent staff, we were able to set a date.
So off I headed to Paula's house on Turner's Creek, Wilmington Island along with WTOC production manager Craig Harney (who, in addition to his executive duties, is the best videographer in the world), WTOC assistant news director Jan Smith (who ably played the role of field producer and still photographer, though her real motivation was that she's this HUGE Paula Deen fan).
We knew Paula was shooting one of her Food Network shows, but had no idea that her guest was Deidre Pujols, lovely wife of Albert Pujols (yes, that Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals slugger and National League MVP).
And there sat Albert Pujols, intently and patiently watching Paula Deen.
I darn near fell over!
Here's this superstar baseball player, absolutely mesmerized by Paula Deen.
I really didn't have to ponder it long before it made perfect sense. Much as I admire Albert Pujols, I'd bet, for every person who knows his name, there are 50 or 100 that know Paula Deen's (all due respect, Mr. Pujols and Welcome To Our City, by the way).
When their shoot wrapped up and after several of us cleaned up that scrumptious cake Ms. Deen and Ms. Pujols had whipped up, a genuinely affable crew, led by famed producer Gordon Elliott, cleaned up the kitchen so Paula and I could have our chat over coffee.
The story she shared included portions I'd heard before, but was no less awed by it all once again. But she also shared details even those close to her said they'd never heard.
And no, I'm not putting in those juicy details. You have to watch for our series coming up shortly on WTOC: "Paula Deen:-A Recipe for Success".
One funny story you won't see on TV has to do with my having made somewhat of a fool of myself and coming all too close to serious injury in the process right there in Paula's kitchen.
A side note first...
As you no doubt know, our most famous resident now has endorsement deals of all kinds, one of which is for dishes. The cups in "Paula Deen's Dinnerware" are square.
Well, Bobby (yes, the height challenged Deen boy), poured me a blistering hot "Paula Deen Lowcountry Dinnerware" cup of "Michael's Captain's Choice Coffee" and the interview began.
I listened intently as Paula shared moving details of her days battling agoraphobia. Somewhere along the way, I apparently leaned forward and in so doing, shifted my coffee hand just a little. With one of my customary truck-stop mugs, I'd have been fine. But the corner of that square topped "Paula Deen" cup sorta turned into a pour spout of sorts. Like ants attacking on command, that scalding hot coffee passed right through my khaki britches and hit my thigh with one sudden burst of searing pain.
Still trying to be the professional I'm supposed to be, I just kept gazing intently into Paula's eyes. Her words were flowing so sincerely and eloquently, I could not afford to whimper, cry out or do much of anything that might interrupt the moment and destroy this story, the telling of which might never be similarly captured if she had to start over.
But when Paula finished talking about the gripping fear that once held this phenomenal woman hostage in her own home, I shared a tender sentiment of my own.
"I've just burned the livin' *&%^# out of my leg!" I said.
She laughed 'til tears ran down her face.
Then, she said, "Well Sonny, why didn't you tell me!?"
I said, "Well heck, I figured you saw the tears in my eyes."
Without missing a beat, she said, "Shucks, I just thought you were touched by my story!"
Again, that inimitable laugh filled up the spacious, internationally recognized kitchen (that really is her kitchen by the way).
So, while I'm not giving away the crux of the story, let me say for now, Paula Deen is even more special than I thought, which is saying a lot.
Perhaps the most impressive message you might expect when we do share her story on WTOC, is really directed to women.
"There's lots of extraordinary ordinary women out there," says Paula. "You just gotta dream and work hard."
OK, so that's part of her "Recipe for Success".