Paula Deen and Me

By Connie Barnard

Isn’t it funny how life can jump up and cut you down to size? About the time you start feeling you really have arrived, the Fates just laugh down and zap you good. Let me tell you about my most recent experience with the gods of hubris.

As many of you know from my previous prattling, I was born and raised, as they say, in a tiny corner of Southwest Georgia. I have always described my hometown as something close to Eden, and in my mind, it is. However, I should also tell you that many people also call of it by another term: The Sticks, which is also quite apropos. My family moved to Albany before my birth when my father’s job brought us there and, to this day, I still get homesick for it – especially in early spring. When the rest of the world is still dormant in its winter sleep, South Georgia is a virtual fairyland of color, like the Masters on television but without the crowds and that soft background music.

Anyway, as I was saying before Truth broke in about the dogwood and azaleas, I realized early-on that folks from my part of the world were, ah, a tad different from the rest. My Virginia-born, South Carolina-bred mother never ceased to remind me of this as she looked down her nose at our Podunk ways. Hence, even before going off to college, I started affecting more genteel speech patterns. For example, I practiced over and over in front of the mirror to say, “Hi” or “Hello” instead of “Hey” – which seemed “hickish,” if not downright country, to my emerging 17 year-old persona. I also started pronouncing those wonderful nuts found on trees in everyone’s yards as Pe KAHNS – not PEE-Cans like all my friends (including my boyfriend at the time with whom I have slept for the last 40 years, and he STILL says it that way, poor old rube). I even began to say the name of my hometown differently – i.e. Albany (like the one in New York) instead of Au-Benny, which even Willard Scott says when somebody turns 100.

Over the years, I have carried on a bi-polar love affair with the town, proudly loving it one moment and running as culturally far from it as I could the next. Living in different parts of the world through my husband’s Air Force career, I learned to savor lots of exciting food we never had back home where the definitive word was never sauté, but, of course, fry. Any recipe containing Cheez Whiz was eventually exiled for being uncouth, as I substituted the lovely-sounding Dijon for redneck mayo and whole grain for white. In short, I became a bit of a Euro-Yankee food snob – except for fried okra, which will always hold my deep and residing passion.

Well, you may have guessed where this is heading: my downfall – denouement as they call it in classical drama. It happened a couple of years ago in one of our favorite towns, Savannah. We hadn’t been there for a number of years, and as we took a mid-morning stroll through Market Square, we came upon a line of folks wrapped around the block, waiting for the noon opening of – you guessed it: The Lady and Sons, brainchild of another Albanian who also early-on skedaddled out of town. Somehow, I had managed to miss out on the whole Paula Deen mayo and Cheez Whiz-glopping phenomenon! Later that day, when we decided to tour Savannah’s historical and movie sites, the nice concierge hailed us a trolley to Tour Bus Central for the carriage ride to view Forest Gump’s park bench, Juliette Lowe’s Girl Scout home place, and Tecumseh’s grave. The driver was a gregarious fellow who felt it his professional duty to point out significant places of importance along the way, such as, I kid you not: Paula Deen’s children’s elementary school, the office building where Paula Deen first delivered her homemade sandwiches, the place where Paula Deen “usta live” before she got remarried and happy, and on and on and on. In my Moment of Truth I realized that all these years while I had been soaking up refinement, another hometown Au-benny girl had been getting very rich off her greasy cooking and coarse, colorful ways. Why, this good old girl is more famous than the Savannah Waving Girl who has stood over the harbor flagging down sailors forever.

And it gets worse – or better maybe, depending on your view. The men in my family are all a little in lust with the fun-loving Paula. They even laugh when she lets a profane word rip here and there. And after I spent mega bucks starving back to my Albany High School yearbook photo weight, they ogle Paula’s voluptuous body as if it were made of pure cream – perhaps pure bourbon – or both. My brother-in-law, JD, (no periods, please, because that’s his name not his initials) spends happy hours spread out in his big leather recliner watching the Food Network on his 56” flat screen, high definition television set. He has even been known to miss a few NASCAR events in favor of Paula’s Home Cooking to hear blue-eyed Paula yell out, “Hey, Ya’ll!…” My Cape Cod nuclear engineer son-in-law has every one of her cookbooks and proudly brings “Not Yo Mama’s Banana Pudding” (made of instant pudding, condensed milk, cream cheese, and Cool Whip) to every family feast.

So what’s a girl to do? Well, first off, say how very proud I am to come from the same Podunk hometown as the irrepressible Paula Hiers Deen Groover who, as everyone knows, fought a whole host of demons including poverty, abuse and agoraphobia to become the cooking and marketing queen of the universe – way past that uptight New England lady, Martha Stewart. I’m sure there are other lessons somewhere in all this as well, but I’ll have to wait to ponder them – maybe between my Feng Shui design session and Tandoori cooking class. “Onward and upward,” as my Mama always said!

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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