While waiting backstage for Paula Deen to arrive for her photo-op before the New York Times' TimesTalks titled Paula Deen: Butter, Baby! at the NYWFF, we got to talking with her publisher's photographer who's been on tour with her on many occasions about the nature of Deen's audience. Many of whom are quite fanatical! Apparently, just as our quick peek at the crowd slowly filing into the auditorium indicated, most of her events really are at their heart an exceedingly polite mosh pit of 50-year-old women.
"OMG!" we say, "Do people pass out, like at a Michael Jackson concert?" "No!" "Wait, but do people cry, like at a Michael Jackson concert?" "Not that I've seen," she says, shaking her head, though she then volunteers that Deen's formidable bodyguard once had to pluck her out of a crowd while she was on assignment with them at an event. He noticed she was being crushed by the aforementioned 50-year-olds in the mosh pit and rushed onto the stage, grabbed her arms and just pulled her up—and all of a sudden she was on stage too, looking out onto a sea of middle-aged fans pushing each other forward, pushing ever closer to get as near as they possibly could to their queen.
Kim Severson asks if, after having such embarrassing things happen to her as getting hit by a ham and having her pants fall down in public, she's ready for the humiliation of talking to the New York Times, and she says, "My elastic is very tight in my britches, Kim." Then pats her boobs repeatedly and adds, "My pads are in place." Severson: "The last time I went to the beach two girls from Greenpeace tried to roll me back into the water."
A discussion of over-sharing turns into one of under-sharing: women who hold onto their recipes and refuse to pass them along. Deen: "I don't understand that. I don't get it. I think some women do that in order to get their children to their house. I have heard of mothers that won't give their children the recipe because they want them to go there for it." Severson says she thinks that "for some women, particularly older women, it's a position of power," and mentions that Beard Award winner Willie Mae Seaton of New Orleans has been teasing people for years with the promise of sharing her famed fried chicken recipe without ever actually doing it and is now sadly no longer capable of passing it on.
Deen says her producer says "Here, kitty kitty kitty kitty!" to her because "getting me to settle down is like herding cats... I think I'm that AC/DC stuff." The portion of the crowd which isn't too old/too conservative/too young to get the reference goes wild.
After a long, incredibly frank and very moving discussion of her twenty-year battle with agoraphobia, she explains she turned to cooking because the kitchen is "a peaceful place, where you can just get lost in your dishes." She travels 40% of the year and hasn't cooked at her restaurant The Lady and Sons in a long time—the staff actually prefers that she doesn't visit, because every time she does the entire dining room gets disrupted. So now she limits her visits to the shop beside it.
Why her recipes are old-school: "Why'm I gonna screw around with other ways when granny got it perfect?"
Severson's question of the day: "How do you feel being a person who goes "Butter!" and everyone goes "Oooooooo"? Oh, the power that you have!"
She drives a Lexus but doesn't carry a credit card and likes to keep cash in her handbag, because after living through poverty always having cash in there it makes her feel secure, though she says she doesn't know how much money she earns: "If you ask me what I made, I can look you in the eye and tell you I don't have a clue. I'm the bag lady."
Deen supports food banks because "the food banks give people a helping hand without robbing their dignity." At one point in her life they were so poor they had almost nothing to eat but she was too ashamed to tell anyone or ask for help, and one day her aunt just showed up at her door with two bags full of protein. After saying "protein" she sits and stares into the audience, and is silent and unmoving for what feels like a full minute; it seems like maybe she's trying not to cry. Later she says the reason she's proud of her line of holiday hams is that she and Smithfield donate some of the hams to food banks; food banks don't usually ever get any protein, other than beans, and so her hams flew off their shelves.
After discovering that there are children who don't eat on weekends because the only time they get regular meals is at school, Deen got involved with an organization called Blessings in a Backpack that sends food home with them on Fridays for the weekend.
Her arm hurts, because she spent the previous night in a casino. Severson asks, "Are you a gambler?" She replies, "I'm a SLOTS SLUT!" and says she once won over $150,000 in a single pull at her favorite casino.
Three awesome things about Paula Deen, in ascending order of awesomeness:
3. Her self-published run of her first cookbook was 5,000 copies, which is a pretty large order for a self-published book from a then-unknown author—but it sold out immediately and original copies in mint condition can go for up to $2,000 on eBay.
2. She doesn't ever do product endorsements and will only create branded lines. After conferring with her manager, she admitted to having once turned down an offer from... I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! (You have to admire the chutzpah of the marketing genius that thought that offer up.)
1. According to her most recent physical, her cholesterol is 137. (She showed the audience the bruise on her arm from where her blood was taken, so it must've been very recent.)