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'Mama quality' cements Deen as sweet cooking icon

When Paula Deen walks into a room, the air changes. It smells sweeter, with hints of sugar and sweet cakes drifting about. Her warmth and vibrancy seem to make the lights shine brighter, and those standing close to her smile wider. Undeniably, there's something special about Deen.

"Hey y'all! How's everybody doin'?" she calls, striding into the Publix Cooking School in Alpharetta for a recent appearance.

A Georgia native and Savannah resident, Deen's trips to the Atlanta area are not few and far between. She's in town again today as part of the Paula Deen Live Tour at the Atlanta Civic Center.

Still, Deen prefers to spend her days along the Georgia coast, near the ocean and her family. So much so, she films her Food Network cooking show out of her own home.

"I couldn't see doin' it anywhere but there," said Deen, in her signature soothing drawl. "I've been asked, why don't I go to New York to film my show, but Lordy, I couldn't ever leave Savannah. She's like a part of my family."

Though her accent gives away her Southern roots and her recipes center on favorites from below the Mason-Dixon line, Deen has found her appeal crosses over regions, genders, races and age groups.

"I've got that mama quality," Deen said. "People like that. That mama quality never goes out of style. At least, that's what I'm banking on."

Brianna Yates was the first person in line for Deen's recent appearance, arriving at the cooking school at 1 p.m., some four hours before Deen was scheduled to arrive. With her, Brianna carried a stack of cookbooks, a lawn chair and, of course, her mother. Although she is only 9 years old, Yates is, perhaps, Deen's No. 1 fan.

"I want to be just like Paula when I grow up," Brianna said. "'Paula's Party' is my favorite show. I watch it every week. I love her. She's just, she's just great."

More toward the middle of the line, Sylvia Miles had been waiting for Deen's arrival, also clutching her collection of the maven's cookbooks. A Florida resident, Miles is quick to note that while Deen may fry up finger-lickin' Southern fare, she is not merely a Southern icon.

"Oh sure, Paula is a great cook of Southern food, but she is also just a great cook. Period," Miles said. "She has that kind of personality that appeals to people all across the country, and not just here in the South."

What is it about Deen that has the country, literally, eating out of her hand? Deen herself isn't sure. Perhaps, she said, it's her openness and lack of barriers. Since becoming a household name - thanks to her highly regarded restaurant The Lady and Sons, her various cookbooks and her TV shows on Food Network - Deen hasn't hidden her past. She openly discusses her struggles with agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that confined her to her home for years, and she isn't afraid to reveal her true, often uncensored, self.

"You know, it was a long battle for me, and I had to heal myself. Mostly because I couldn't blow money on therapy. But it's the hard times that make us stronger. I know that is for sure the truth," Deen said. "Other people, they have their troubles, too. If you say you don't, that's just plain ol' bull. If I can share my struggles and help one person, then it's all been worth tellin'."

Had someone told Deen 15 years ago that her humble life would find its way to fame and fortune, she would have laughed. Like many great Southern chefs, she initially learned to cook by watching her grandmother roll out biscuit dough and fry chicken. Later, while she was suffering from agoraphobia, Deen kept her homebound self busy with preparing family meals and concocting new recipes.

Eventually, she divorced her first husband and uprooted her two sons, moving from Albany to Savannah. With $500 to her name, she began The Bag Lady, a mobile sandwich catering shop, to much acclaim. In 1996, she opened The Lady and Sons in Savannah, and in 1999, she launched a relationship with the Food Network.

"It's just, one day, I looked up from the collard green pot, and I saw things were happenin'," she said. "I've worked hard, but it hasn't seemed hard. More than anything, I'm really just enjoying myself. I love when people are having a good time, and good food can do that. It brings people together. I love that what I am doing can bring people together."

SideBar: If You Go

What: Paula Deen Live 2007

When: 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. today

Where: Atlanta Civic Center, 395 Piedmont Ave. N.E., Atlanta

Cost: Tickets range in price from $45 to $65, and are available at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 404-249-6400 or online at www.atlantaciviccenter.com.

Info: Visit www.ladyandsons.com/news.