Giving It Her Y’all

Paula Deen brings a new message of healthier cooking to Orlando.

With 18 million copies of her 14 cookbooks sold and two successful shows on the Food Network, Paula Deen has gone far beyond celebrity status and become a food icon.

At a recent event sponsored by Florida Hospital to launch its Healthy 100 campaign promoting a healthier lifestyle, more than 2,000 fans filled the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre to see their cooking idol, this time in a new light.  When the 5-foot-5-inch silver-haired dynamo walked onto the stage, the place erupted in applause. And when Deen asked, "Who here has diabetes?", a loud cheer rose from the room as if she had name-checked the Magic.

"How much time do we have?" she asked. "Thirty minutes—it takes me 30 minutes just to say 'Hey y'all.'"

She has blessed us with deep-fried macaroni and cheese wrapped in bacon, and deep-fried lasagna. She has championed Krispy Kreme bread pudding and fried butter balls. But now Deen is on a new mission.

In 2012, the darling of the battered Snickers bar set announced that she'd been diagnosed with type 2, adult-onset diabetes three years earlier. It’s a non-curable condition that requires a diet low in animal products and sweets if it is to be managed, and for a celebrity chef whose middle name could have been Butter-and-Sugar, this was a blow. "I was in denial. I couldn't face it. My idea of moderation," Deen says, "was, if I wanted four pieces of fried chicken, I'd only eat three."

She became a paid spokesperson for the drug company Novo Nordisk, which asked her to make favorite Southern recipes more diabetic-friendly. The website Diabetes spotlights Victoza, the diabetes drug that Deen both uses and represents, and features Southern recipes adapted by Deen and her sons, Bobby and Jamie, for lower carbs and calorie counts.

Deen lent a boost to Florida Hospital’s Healthy 100 campaign.

Florida Hospital's program offers lifestyle guidelines, including low fat, sodium and cholesterol menus, and 16 local restaurants are offering Healthy 100-approved dishes, including Panera Bread, Cocina 214, The Tap Room at Dubsdread and Infusion Tea. The full list is at

Watching the 66-year-old Deen in the onstage kitchen set is like being at the taping of a sitcom. She wanders to the edge and calls out to Peggy Smith, a professional Deen impersonator, and stares into an empty refrigerator looking for oil. "Here's how you control your diet," she says in an accent straight out of Georgia. "Don't keep no food."

Deen hasn't always been this nonchalant in public. "I suffered 20 years with agoraphobia," she says. Her kitchen became a refuge after several family tragedies. "I fell in love with cooking, and it brought me back out to the world. Thank goodness I wasn't into gardening—I couldn't make a livin' hoein'."

Baddum bum, y'all.

Joseph Hayes

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