Not even 30 minutes after my interview with Chef Tim Kilcoyne, owner of the Scratch food truck, my phone rang; the display read, BLOCKED. It was 6:30 p.m. PST, and I was outside on the patio, relaxing after the one hour call with Tim, and mentally preparing my dinner. I’ve been planning to grill a London broil this week, and had come up with a few recipes for last night’s dinner. I contemplated letting the call go to voice mail, but was curious; I never receive calls from blocked numbers. Little did I know that call would completely derail my dinner plans altogether.
I heard the familiar sound of voices, then a woman’s voice, in a Southern twang, “Is this Chris? Chris Ford?”
This must be a telemarketer, I thought immediately. Instinctively, I looked back at the display and thought I’d just hang up. Then I thought I’d see what she was trying to sell. Why not? I was just relaxing anyway, and it could be an entertaining distraction. So, I said, “Yes. This is Chris,” and what happened next exceeded any expectation of entertainment value.
“Well, it’s Paula… It’s Paula Deen calling!”
I was surprised, to say the least. I still couldn’t believe I received a call from a blocked number! OK, just kidding. “Surprised” doesn’t even come close to describing it. I certainly wasn’t expecting a call from Paula, while I was relaxing on the patio on a Tuesday evening.
“Chris, my family and I will never forget for as long as we live what y’all have done for us,” she said. “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.” Then I thought, wow, I’m just relaxing on my patio, talking to Paula Deen!
For the next hour and a half, we talked like old friends, catching up. After a little more than an hour, Paula realized how long we had been talking, and apologized for keeping me so long. She probably also realized that she met her match in the gift of gab. It took us the next half hour to say goodbye.
We talked about everything from cookware to BBQ sauces and, of course, butter. Paula says that her Sweet Citrus Zest Butter “will knock the pajamas right off of you in the morning.” We talked about Texas and Savannah, and the upcoming Metropolitan Cooking and Entertainment Show in Houston then Dallas this month, cooking competitions, The Bag Lady Foundation, reality TV, restaurants, MasterChef, family, Jamie’s new cookbook, her new puppy, peacocks, iPads, Facebook and just about everything in between, all while her brother, Bubba snacked on a turkey drumstick with a little too much pepper in the background. And I congratulated her on her magazine’s, Cooking with Paula Deen huge success in being voted the Hottest Food Magazine on Ad Week’s Hot List Poll. Yes, we even talked about butter wrappers.
Hoffman Media, the publisher for Cooking with Paula Deen has stood by Paula throughout the controversy that surrounded her this summer. Paula said she feels spoiled by her loyal supporters and was thrilled to see that Cooking with Paula Deen had won nearly 50% of the votes in the poll.
At some points during the conversation, I laughed so hard, there were tears in my eyes and I felt that I’ve known her all my life. Paula never saw herself as a celebrity or a star, and she really didn’t know what it was that her fans loved so much about her. “I think I remind people of someone they love,” she told me. “At least, that’s how I like to think of it.”
What stood out to me was that Paula is clearly well on her way to going back to being Paula. She said, “It’s all behind me now, and I’m getting back to doing what I love.” She’s excited about the upcoming Metro Cooking Show in Texas this month. She told me how much she loves Texas and the people there. “Yes, you do have a ton of fans in Texas, Paula,” I said.
“I really wouldn’t call them fans, Chris. They’re friends… friends I haven’t met yet. I really feel that way,” she told me. I have no doubt that’s precisely how she feels. The once young, determined single-mom who worked tirelessly and became a household name is still a Southern Lady. She’s still determined to dedicate herself to helping the less fortunate, and has tremendous aspirations for The Bag Lady Foundation. Throughout this challenging period in Paula’s life, she said that her faith hasn’t wavered. ”Through all of this, my faith has not wavered one drop – not one drop,” she told me.
Then she said, “I know that God has this in His control and one day, He’ll reveal to me what I’m supposed to do. He didn’t take me this far to cast me from His arms, and that’s the one thing I know for sure.” What’s most important to Paula is having her friends and family around her, but she told me that she has an unmeasurable gratitude for her fans… I mean, the friends she hasn’t met yet. “I will never, ever, ever be able to convey what I feel for my friends I have not yet met. And they give me the strength to get up every day.”
She told me that she checks in on the We Support Paula Deen, Couponing for Paula, Stitches ‘n Dishes Facebook pages, and reads our blogs daily. “Bubba and I, and Michael, Bobby, Jamie and the entire family can’t thank you and all of our friends enough,” she said. “I read the letters, and it gives me strength. We appreciate everyone and the support so much. More than any words can describe,” she told me.
That’s the one thing Paula asked of me. She said if I wanted to post something about our conversation, let it be her and her family’s gratitude for all the support and love people from all walks of life across the country have given over the last few months. Nothing was more important than expressing her appreciation.
Throughout that 96 minute call, and all the varied topics we talked about, we always came back to people – friends and family – and how important they are to Paula. It was friends and family who were there for her when she started her first business, The Bag Lady, and they’re with her to this day. It’s friends and family that she’s most grateful for in her life, and it became evident to me that she wouldn’t trade them for the world. You can take the endorsements, the contracts, the product lines, and the TV shows away from Paula Deen, but you’ll never get her to part with her family, friends, and even the friends she hasn’t met yet.
Since July, the “friends Paula hasn’t met yet” (AKA devoted fans) have sent empty butter wrappers to the companies that severed ties with her this year. To date, an estimated 35,000 – 40,000 people across the country have sent the slippery parcels through the mail – many regularly collecting and mailing the wrappers. The Butter for Paula website continues to encourage supporters to send wrappers, participate in social media discussions and sharing on Facebook and Twitter, and support businesses that sell her products. The We Support Paula Deen Facebook page has swelled to nearly 612,000 fans, and continues to grow while Paula maintains strong ratings in media.
Unfortunately, Food Network whose viewer numbers have significantly dropped this summer, Walmart with plummeting earnings reports, Target who’s facing a racial discrimination lawsuit, and a certain Atlanta attorney who will soon face sanction can’t say the same. And while Paula may have turned down an invitation to be a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, her popularity in viewer polls has soared, and the magazine has 27,000 new subscribers. Most importantly, as Paula says with a smile in her voice, “I’m feeling good.”
Now, it’s time to get into the kitchen. I’ve still got a London Broil to grill.