By Tom Poland
When you see glistening oyster beds what comes to mind? An oyster roast? A mucky, perilous place? A driveway white with sun-bleached shells? Well, some folks see art. Here we have a beautiful bust, what could be a Roman gladiator wearing armor plate made of glorious shells or the Emperor of Tabby rising through oyster banks to claim his place in architecture.
There’s more to oysters than eating.
That’s why folks around Wilmington Island marshes might do a double take. For when Earth’s orbit bestows autumn upon the land, Georgia marshes give up their green. The air chills a tad and winds ghost over marshes, rippling across golden spartina like billowing wheat fields. Winds whistle through gray rock-like clusters, and salt air quickens the pulse. Autumn. It’s an ideal time to seek bounty along the riverbeds, and a most recognizable woman ventures onto the razor-sharp shells. Bucket close by, she rakes and digs oysters, and she takes her licks.
“We left a trail of blood, honey. Oyster shells are so sharp, and they are not very sanitary. So, when you cut yourself you have to be very careful.”
Yes, very careful when you’re Paula Deen, and that’s one way Georgia oysters end up in her home. Their future? Aunt Margaret’s Fried Oysters? Oyster bisque? Maybe, maybe not. Whatever their fate, Paula’s hand-gathered shells won’t be recycled. Not at all. Over six weeks, she’ll use those ivory-gray shells to sculpt and bejewel a bust. “It’s like putting together a puzzle, getting all the shells to fit,” she said.
Getting things to fit. You could say that’s what life’s about too. Putting together the puzzle called life has proven momentous for this Georgia girl who was landlocked once upon a time. But she’s down on the coast now, down on the salt, and her passions include cooking, sculpting, painting, and “anything with a heartbeat.” She loves animals. She loves ’em so much she even raised a baby squirrel, “Earl D. Squirrel.”
Her dogs, Gus, Max, and Lulu attest to her love for animals. They’re in a good place today and so is their mom. Said Paula, “God does not miss blessing me a day. God blesses me every day.” And her passage to this good place and time? Courage, family, and a heritage of good cooks charted a course like few others.
So, what’s a typical day like for Paula Deen?
“Honey, there’s no blueprint. I love to get up just to see what’s going to happen. See what God’s got in store for me today.”
No typical day is right. Explore estuaries along and beyond the Wilmington River, and you might spot a silver-haired woman on the oyster beds. Check out Evine, the shop-at-home network, and you’ll see that silver-haired lady holding up fluffy biscuits to die for. When you’ve had such an uncommon life journey, how could there be a typical day.
The pecan capital of the United States, Albany, Georgia, sits smack dab on U.S. 19, once a snowbird passage to Florida. It was on Highway 19 that Paula Deen’s grandparents diverted some of those Yankee dollars. There they operated River Bend, a little resort featuring a restaurant, motel, cabins, skating rink, and pool. Back then little Paula Ann Hiers’s beloved swimming holes were that pool and the Flint River. “It was pure heaven, that River Bend,” she said. “I lived in my swimsuit and roller skates. You better believe I wore both at the same time.”
Skatin’ and swimmin’. Sounds idyllic. About the time she turned six, her mom and dad bought a business across the road from River Bend. “Daddy had a gas station across the street and a little bitty gift store. We lived in that store. Open the door and you were in our kitchen. All we had was the public restrooms, so we had to go bathe in that nasty ol’ Men’s bathroom because it had a shower, and I hated it. Just hated it. As she wrote in her memoir, It Ain’t All About the Cookin’, “Paradise was done and finished for little Paula Hiers.”
Well, paradise wasn’t done and finished … it was waiting somewhere over the horizon. The day was coming when the electric cries of boat-tail grackles would replace South Georgia’s singsong cicadas. Paula’s life trajectory would take her coastward but she couldn’t know that growing up, and like a lot of kids she had that longing, that wanderlust we’ll call it, for the sea that haunts landlocked souls.
“Every chance we got as high school teenagers we wanted to get to Panama City. Get to Panama City. We were 3.5 hours away.” She pauses, thinking back … “I was born in the southwest corner of Georgia, in Albany, farmland, in the middle of peanuts and pecans.”
Nothing’s worse than growing up landlocked once you’ve had a taste of the sea. When woods and fields surround you, the beach seems a million miles away. Some of us made do with a lake, pool, or river. The only thing sure to reach the sea was that river. For me it was the Savannah. For Paula, it was the Flint.
It’s 234 miles from Albany, famously pronounced all-benny, and its Flint River down through Savannah to the Wilmington River. Not a bad drive, say, four hours. The passage takes one just north of the Land of the Trembling Earth. Some journeys are not what we’d choose for ourselves, however. Some journeys make us tremble. That twisting river, Life, it’s a river where fears wait beyond the bend, fears that can paralyze us.
A Miracle In Savannah
Paula suffered agoraphobia early in life. This anxiety disorder makes you fear and avoid places or situations that might induce panic and feeling trapped, helpless, or embarrassed. She fought it off, however, and in the mid 1980s went to work at an Albany bank. Then one Friday she worked a branch in a rough area. That day a bank robber wearing a green mask held a gun to her head and she relapsed. So, when Paula Deen’s husband moved her and the boys to Savannah 30 years ago, it wasn’t a happy time. “I thought my life was over. It. Was. Over. I was on the tail end of a 20-year ride suffering from agoraphobia. When he moved me here, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll never see my little bit of family or friends, cause I’m not leaving the house.’ ”
Paula retreated to her bed for two months, then one day something wondrous took place. “It was like a miracle, Tom. I can take you to the little house over there on East 60th Street and show you right where I was standing when the Serenity Prayer went through my head.” It was a prayer Paula had heard for years but that morning it clicked. “It made sense what I was supposed to be asking God for, so that morning I accepted my mother’s death, my daddy’s death, my death. I said, ‘Ok, God gave you today; there are no guarantees of tomorrow. You go out and live it, girl.’ ”
For 28 years Paula had been wed to her children’s father but she realized she couldn’t fix what was wrong. (God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change …) “I started trying to figure out how I could stand on my own two feet. How I could make my own decisions.” Her husband gave her $200 for her income tax return and she started a business called the Bag Lady. “My sons pitched in, and the rest is history.”
Paula refers to these changes in fortune as God winks. “We have been so blessed you know, and for my children to follow me. You see sons following their fathers all the time, but you don’t usually see them following in their mother’s footsteps.”
Cooking and the kitchen proved therapeutic those twenty years Paula was on that ride. “Some days I was a functioning agoraphobic, like you hear of a functioning alcoholic. But those twenty years I fell in love with my kitchen, and of course I come from a line of fabulous Southern cooks. Grandmother and Grandfather Paul, my Aunt Peggy’s mother and daddy, were in the restaurant and lodging business, and my grandmother was one of the finest Southern cooks you’d ever meet. She made my granddaddy his first real dollar with her food. She taught me so much of what I know. I’d say, ‘Ok, Grandma, show me, teach me—everything.’ And she was a woman of substance, just like my Aunt Peggy.”
As her agoraphobia faded, Paula ventured out. “I’d go farther and farther and a little farther. And I just fell in love with Savannah. She’s such a romantic city. Savannah has it all. She’s got your arts, your education, your history, and of course the beaches. It’s really got it all.”
From the kingdom of peanuts and pecans she found herself in the city of gardens and twenty-two green squares. She found herself as our fellow Georgian, James Dickey, wrote, in a place where “the food is wonderful and unique: she-crab soup, red rice, shrimp or oyster pilau.” Paula had reached the sea.
Today, she lives alongside the Wilmington River, a tidal river, and tidal rivers surge and ebb, and rise and fall as the moon pushes and pulls on the tides—just like life. She named her house “Riverbend” as a tribute to her grandparents for where would she be without family. Aunt Peggy stepped in and took her mother’s place. And back when Paula was building her business, at the eleventh hour Aunt Peggy let her use a CD as collateral to finalize the lease on her restaurant in Savannah’s historic district. “While I was at the Best Western I saved every penny I could and I saved up $20,000 to be able to get us downtown because I felt like our food is a part of our history, and I felt like my restaurant needed to be in the historic district.
“I’ll never forget my Uncle George called me. He was the rock of our family, a self-made man, an incredible man. ‘Ok, Paula, your Aunt Peggy is going to let you borrow a $25,000 CD for the bank to hold for collateral.’ I paid it off in a year. So, even though she never gave me any money directly, she allowed this to happen because without her, I don’t think they’d ever gone along with me. She’s my mentor, she’s my hero.”
A Mad, Driven Woman
Looking back on it all, Paula remembers when she had just three pair of shoes. “When I was on East 60th Street, I had tennis shoes, black flats, and black heels. I was 42 before I realized that nobody was going to come bring me anything.” She looked around where we were sitting. “Honey, I never dreamed that when I took that $200 I would have wound up here. Aunt Peggy has never given me a dime but I’ll tell you what—she helped make this possible because when I was in the Best Western I spent five of the hardest years of my life. I was required to cook three meals a day seven days a week. My sons were by my side. They worked hard everyday, and without them wouldn’t be where we are today.”
The hard work paid off, and today, art joins cooking as one of Paula’s passions. “There’s a lady in town—the “Shell Lady,” who shelled our gas lanterns on the patio, and I went to her house because my magazine was doing a story on her. I thought ‘I can do that because it’s easy.’ So, one day, my husband, Mike, took Aunt Peggy, me, and Bubbles (sister-like friend Susan Greene) out to an oyster bed. We were like pigs in the sunshine, honey. I just had on tennis shoes. I didn’t think to take any gloves. I was stupid, but I’ve done a lot of stupid things. I love using the oysters that I rake. I just love sculpting and it is therapeutic, honey. You forget everything except the next shell you’re going to put on.”
Paula loves to paint too but is quick to say she’d rather be a chef than an artist. “I’m not good at it. One of my best friends here, Donna Foltz, paints beautifully, and she wouldn’t leave me alone. She said, “I want to teach you to paint, Paula.’ She taught me a little bit, what I could absorb, and I just love it, but it’s not one of those things that come easy to me.”
Easy or not, painting has been good for Paula. In 2016, she joined President Jimmy Carter in Plains for an art class taught by Atlanta painter, James Richards. The fundraiser, “Painting, Paula, and a President,” raised funds for Friends of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site and the Plains Better Home Town program.
Wildlife catches her artist’s eye. “One year for Jamie’s birthday I gave him a painting of a bream. And that bream turned out so beautiful.” As she talked, the chef in her surfaced. “One of my favorite fish to eat. Lots of bones but you have to know how to eat them.”
She painted a portrait of Earl D. Squirrel before she let him loose, and she sent me an impressionistic image of a watercolor, an abstract of white flowers and foliage. It’s a flower she painted with President Jimmy Carter. It raises possibilities … lilies … the plumage of egrets … a wedding bouquet … a funeral arrangement, perhaps. On different days I see different things. That’s art. I asked Paula if she’ll use her art to illustrate one of her cookbooks. Laughter like shattering glass broke out … “Oh I doubt it, but wouldn’t that be fun. I am not talented and I really have to work at it. The shelling, though, is just so easy and so natural.”
And Earl D. Squirrel? His story deserves telling. “A baby squirrel fell out of a tree, and a worker knocked on my door, ‘We found this little baby. What do we do with it?’ I said, ‘Oh, you give him to me.’ And I raised that squirrel, and I called him Earl D. Squirrel. He knew his name and when I’d call him, he would come. I went to Pet Smart and got some good mother’s milk, baby food, and fruit and I’d feed him that.”
Paula set Earl free. “I was so sad. One day I opened the doors and I just set him down out on the back porch and said, ‘Well, he’s gone.’ I got on the sofa and fell asleep and the next thing I knew Earl was on the sofa. So, he didn’t leave, but the next time—boy, I didn’t want to let him go I loved him so much—I took him out by the pond and he scampered up the tree and I haven’t seen him since. When I go out, I say, ‘Earl D. Squirrel! Earl D. Squirrel!’ ”
The River Bend Ahead
Hopefully, Earl is out there somewhere, Meanwhile, that river called Life rolls on and Paula is in a good place. “My furniture line is still very successful. My magazine is alive and well. I’ve got the number-one most watched show on Evine, the shop-at-home network. We’re building multi-million dollar restaurants all over the country, so, yes, I’m in a good place. God does not miss blessing me a day.”
She even has her own brand of pet food. “Someone got in touch with me—they knew how I feel about dogs, animals, and my cat, and said, ‘We’d love to come up with a dog food for you.’ Well, that fizzled out.” Then Paula met a man at a dog show. “He’s the second-largest dog food purveyor in the US and I really liked him, so we reformulated the dog food and it is the best—Paula Deen’s Home Cooking.”
There’s a lot more Paula Deen wants to do. “I would love to be a voice in an animated movie, the voice of a Southern crab—a Southern crab!” Her grandchildren would get a kick out of that, of whom she says, “I’ve got so much to live for … my grandchildren.”
She’s working on a Christmas book for 2019. “It’s been about ten years since I did my last little Christmas book and it was a huge seller; that’s what I’m working on.”
But what about the woman herself? Success hasn’t really changed her, has it? No, the little Paula Hiers that swam in her grandparents’ pool and the Flint River is still with us. She’s gracious and genuine and you can thank her parents for that. “My mother was very quiet and ladylike. My daddy had this huge over-the-top personality and a laugh that was contagious. I remember one day I came in from school and they had company. I didn’t speak to anybody. I just went straight to my room.”
Her dad made her come back into the room and speak to the guests.
“I made terrible grades in high school but I had one helluva good time. I’d bring home Fs, and Daddy would say, ‘Oh honey I know. I had a hard time with math, too,’ but the one thing he told me was, “Girl, I will get you if you’re ever unkind to anybody or if you think you’re better than the next man because you are not.’ He could forgive those bad grades but not bad manners or treating someone unkind.”
She paused while petting the dog that had just jumped into her lap … “You know, I truly care about other people. It’s not an act.”
During our interview Paula told me she would be leaving immediately afterwards to go to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. Her very sick brother, Bubba, was there. That escaped my mind at the interview’s end, and I asked her if my sisters Brenda and Debra, and family friend, Teresa, might meet her. We were all vacationing at nearby Tybee Island, and they were out on Wilmington Island Road waiting to pick me up.
“Absolutely,” she said. “Tell ’em to come right in.”
She spent an hour with them.