A buttery Southern belle goes blue for the casino crowd

by Brian Clarey

Paula Deeb’s crabcake sandwich comes with a criss-cross of peppered bacon, remoulade, fresh greens and cheese atop a house-made roll. (photo by Jill Clarey)

Paula Deen is an icon. An institution. A legend. A dot-com.

Or so I’ve heard.

As a restaurateur in Savannah, Ga., she turned a homekitchen business into Lady and Sons, one of the most popular eateries in a town known for its Southern cooking. As an author she’s published five cookbooks since 1997 and a magazine, Cooking With Paula Deen. As a TV star she began on the Food Network’s “Paula’s Home Cooking” in 2002 and parlayed it into three more shows and numerous other appearances on entities like “Iron Chef America” and special broadcasts, and even a movie role, as Orlando Bloom’s aunt in Elizabethtown.

And though I know all these things about Paula Deen, I have never seen her show or eaten her food. But I figure I get it — she’s some sort of Southern Martha Stewart. Or so I thought.

But she’s definitely big time. Which is why Harrah’s Cherokee Casino tapped her for a signature restaurant at the mountain resort in western North Carolina, Paula Deen’s Kitchen, which debuted with a ribbon-cutting this weekend by the woman herself, followed by a live show at the casino’s event center, the proceeds from which went to buy a digital mammography machine for the Cherokee Hospital on the reservation.

There Deen stood in front of the restaurant, posing for photos and answering fans’ blurted questions. She made her name, after all, as the quintessential Southern hostess. And the meal served to the media aptly demonstrated her culinary ethos: chicken noodle soup or wedge salad; crab cake sandwiches, chicken pot pie or cheesy meatloaf with braised collards; strawberry shortcake or Bag Lady doughnut holes with warm ’nilla puddin’.

Deen, known for, among other things, her enthusiasm for real butter, may do Southern comfort food better than anyone else on the planet right now, save for a few old-school, octogenarian grandmothers out there, stubbornly rolling out dumplings and hand-chopping slaw. But she brings a bit of flair to the table as well, turning antebellum standards into something approaching haute cuisine.

The pot pie, for example, is ladled into a soup bowl and then topped with a lattice of delicate puff pastry. The meatloaves are single-serving size. The strawberry shortcake is served via a sweet buttermilk biscuit layered with what is absolutely the finest whipped cream I have ever tasted.

In short, Paula Deen makes the kind of food that makes you want to call your mama.

On the large stage of the event center a few hours later, Deen was as gracious and energetic as she is on television — in fact, the set was designed to look like a TV cooking show, with a studio kitchen, a bank of couches and a dining room table set off to the side.

Most of the arena’s 3,000 or so seats held Deen’s fans, genteel Southern women for whom she represents the epitome of graciousness and hospitality — or so I thought. Judging by her live performance, Paula Deen is one bawdy broad, and her show was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time.

Amid shouted questions from the audience, thinly veiled innuendo and outright blue material, Deen introduced her son Bobby, her husband Cap’n Mike, her brother Bubba, her Aunt Peggy, Bubba’s daughter and even his girlfriend, who she pulled out of the audience.

In what felt like Sunday supper at her house, she called herself a “slot slut,” made an oral sex joke and regaled the audience with the tale of a goat named Thumper, “the stinkingest-ass goat I ever met in my life.”

She almost lit her chef afire and downed a shot of Jack Daniels.

She told a joke about a polar bear being kicked in the icehole and described the fried Oreo cookies at her restaurant as being so good that they “make your tongue wanna slap your brains out.”

Like her food, Deen was full of surprises and delicious charm. And like all good Southern women, she knew when to cut the banter and pull the heartstrings a bit.

Towards the end of the show, she brought a wheelchair-bound man on stage to propose to his girlfriend, saying afterwards, “We have just witnessed love in its purest and truest form.”

Then she made a comment that made her oldest son blush on stage like a latesummer tomato.

wanna go?

Paula Deen’s Kitchen Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Cherokee