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Posted at 11:31 AM ET, 12/ 8/2009

Talking Out of School with.... southern cooking guru Paula Deen

By Valerie Strauss

Here is another in an occasional series of conversations about education I am having with people from different walks of life. Earlier I spoke with Attorney General Eric Holder, musician John Legend and legendary producer Quincy Jones and Zac Efron.

Paula Deen is a self-made success story who learned the secrets of Southern cooking from her Grandmother some 30 years ago. She had no idea at the time that the love for Southern cooking her grandmother instilled in her would lead to a life-long career. Newly divorced and with only $200 to her name, Paula packed up her two sons and moved from Albany, Ga., to Savannah. There she started her own catering business called The Bag Lady, where she prepared fresh lunches to sell to downtown businesses and doctors’ offices. The rest is history. You can learn more about Paula Deen's cooking show on the Food Channel here and about her at her website here.

Q) You’ve had an unusual education, haven’t you? You more or less educated yourself as an adult.
A) Well, yes, you could say that. I didn’t go to college.

Q) Let’s start at elementary school. Do you remember it?
A) Oh yes. I was born in Albany, Georgia, in 1947 and started first grade in Albany. I had an old old old lady, Miss Hooks, as a teacher. She looked to be 100 and she wore those black lace-up shoes, just like you think of school teachers. And I came home every day and said, ‘Mom, Miss Hooks hit me across my hand.’ She had a ruler. She would come hit you with a ruler on your hand, and I just hated that.

Q) What did you do to get hit?
A) I suspect I was talking. (she starts to laugh). Wouldn’t that be your bet?

Q) What about second grade?
A) I stayed half a year in first grade in Albany and then we moved to River Bend... I went to a little school... I stayed until the first grade. It was a little country school, when I think back to it, it was almost like ‘Little House on the Prairie. ” ... My mother and daddy owned a gas station across the street.... We moved back to town and I started fifth grade at Magnolia Elementary and went all the way through high school, graduating from Albany High School. But the night they passed out diplomas I only got a certificate. I had to go back to summer school to get another half a credit. Then I got my real diploma.

Q) Why did you have to go back to summer school?
A) I was very social, Valerie. Academics weren’t my drug of choice. I preferred dating and lunch, being in beauty contests and hanging out...

Q) Where there any subjects in school you liked?
A) No, not really. I liked P.E. (physical education) and I always made a ‘A’ in that because I was physically strong. I think I failed every subject I ever took.

Q) You got your degree, so you didn’t really fail.
A) I remember telling daddy that math was my weak subject. I didn’t study. I never cracked a book. There’s no telling what I could have done if I had been driven to do that. I remember coming home for the fourth time saying ‘I failed algebra’. I hated it. I just didn’t like it. I remember saying, ‘Daddy, I’m so sorry but I just don’t understand math.’ And do you know what he told me? He said, ‘That’s alright angel, I had a hard time with math too.’ My parents were very understanding. I guess they knew what kind of person I was. But there was one thing my daddy would not tolerate me failing.

Q) What was that?
A) On how to treat people. If I walked into a room and didn’t say hello... Rudeness was not allowed. Dumb, that was okay. (she laughs uproariously) My daddy gave me a legacy that money could not buy. What he gave me was one of the biggest contributors to my success.

Q) And that was...?
A) How to treat other people. How to interact with other people. That can take you a long long way. You can attract more bees with honey than vinegar.

Q) I’m not sure kids hear enough about that in school today.
A) I don’t think so.... To me it is important that people feel good about having spent time with you. It’s very simple and elementary.

Q) You have shown a lot of smarts in your career even though you didn’t go to college. How did you become so successful?
A) I was blessed with the ability to reason. have good common sense and I can think my way out. And of course today I have myself surrounded by very smart people. The first thing you need to do when your commit yourself to going into a business is, ‘Don’t surround yourself with dumb people.’ Don’t be intimidated that they are smarter than you. You have to surround yourself with smart people and then listen to them.

Q) Was getting a good education something you stressed to your own children?
A) I have two sons and two step-children, and my brother has always been very good about sharing his daughter... My boys were not so driven when it came to school. Michael’s [her husband] oldest child got a degree in nursing and is a nurse today. Michael’s son graduated from military school and went to work on the docks with his family. Hopefully one day he will become a docking pilot.
My own children were not interested in school, not one drop. I tried to encourage them, but... They were much smarter than their mother, but they didn’t get hit by the academic bug either. You know how some kids know what they want to be and do by the time they are in junior high? Well, my children didn’t. Jamie said he wanted to be a writer and author. I said, ‘Son you would starve to death.’

Q) You are riot! You crack me up.
A) Now he has a chance to write. He writes on our website and he reads one book after another. He has a huge library. I remember I would get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and he would be in the bathroom with a night light reading. And I would just have to make him go to sleep. So I think that is why I was driven, Valerie, when I started this business at 42 years old. I had not given my children an education and it was so important I give them something that would allow them to soar. ... I didn’t know how far I could take his thing, but I knew if we were good at what we did it would supply them with a living. They didn’t realize it until 10 years down the road, after I dragged them into the business.

Q) How old are your sons now?
A) Jamie is 42, Bobby is 39.

Q) Do you like to read too?
A) I used to but I don’t anymore because my eyes--as you get older--reading is harder on your eyes. I don’t hardly read anything anymore. But I used to love romance novels.

Q) Do you have a favorite book?
A) My favorite book of all time was a book that I read in my early 20s, ‘A Woman of Substance.’ I just loved that book... Later in life I started reading Mary Higgins Clark. I l love her books because they are simple easy reads. You can get into the story very quickly. I have two, four, six, eight books sitting by my bed. Do I read them? No.

Q) What are they?
A) I have ‘Cancer Shmancer’ By Fran Drescher; ‘Ruby’s Diary;’ Mary Higgins Clark’s ‘Deck the Halls and The Christmas Thief;’ another Mary Higgins Clark book, ‘Just Take My Heart;’ ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife;’ ‘Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns and Other Southern Specialties;’ Lee Bailey’s ‘Country Weekends.’

Q) What advice would you give a young person who wants to go into the food industry?
A) They should be working hard in school. I wish I had an opportunity to go back. ... I would tell somebody who loves the kitchen to soak up any kind of knowledge from your grandmother, from your mother, your aunts, anyone whose skills you admire in the kitchen. I always tell young people this is a very hard way to make a living. My first seven years, I didn’t think I was going to live to talk about it. My hours were 16 to 20 hours every day seven days a week. I was exhausted.
I would also tell any young person that as soon as you are old enough to get yourself a job in a restaurant. A personal kitchen is totally different from a commercial kitchen. That’s a real way to test yourself and see if this is something you would really be interested in doing.
Because reality can be hard.

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 8, 2009; 11:31 AM ET
Categories:  Talking Out of School  | Tags:  Paula Deen, Talking Out of School  
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