Thursday 19 January 2012

A New York Minute in a Savannah Storm

     "So here was my humble little cookbook settin' out on a table.  It sold for $16.95.  We sold about twenty-five copies in the first month.  We had 4,975 left to go.
     One day a violent rain came up just out of the blue, and a woman from New York just happened to be walking down the street with her boyfriend.  When she got to my place it started lightening and thundering.  The woman stepped into my restaurant to get out of the rain.  She had never heard of me, the restaurant had not been recommended to her.
     Ever heard of a word called synchronicity?...well, God was making sure that Paula had a whole lot of synchronicity working that day."*

     When Paula Deen moved to Savannah, Georgia in the 1980's, she had one set of divorce papers, two teenage sons and $200 in her pocketbook.  For a short time, she worked as a bank teller.  However, after being robbed at gunpoint, she developped agoraphobia and was house-bound for a few years.  She found therapy in her kitchen, cooking recipes her Grandma taught her to make twenty years before.  By 1989, she started making sandwiches for downtown businessmen which her two sons would deliver, enabling her to stay at home.  Her catering business, "The Bag Lady", flourished.

     Within two years, Paula outgrew her kitchen and was hired at the Best Western where she opened a small eatery called "The Lady", treating her guests to her homestyle hospitality and Southern cuisine.  By 1996, she opened a bigger restaurant called "The Lady and Sons" in downtown Savannah, with her sons as fellow cooks.  Her chicken pot pies, barbecue sandwiches and "Grandmomma's Fried Chicken" became the talk of the town.   

     It was at The Lady and Sons that fate intervened.  Paula decided to publish a cookbook with her guests' favourite recipes in it in 1997.  Since she was so accustomed to doing things for herself, she self-published the cookbook, using a printing company in the neighbourhood.  She laid out copies in the restaurant dining room and the cookbook started to sell, albeit at a snail's pace.  One Savannah day, a thunderstorm came to town bringing with it a New York editor named Pamela Cannon.  She liked Mrs. Deen's cooking so much that she phoned about a week later to ask for a few copies of her cookbook. The chef obliged sending her the cookbook by mail.  Paula was promptly offered a $5000 dollar advance book deal, but being a keen businesswoman, she countered with a $7500 figure to which the editor agreed.  Random House published the book and the rest is history.

     Today Paula Deen has published several cookbooks, a magazine and a memoir.  In 2003, the southern cooking queen starred on a cable network cooking show and has since had other cooking shows.  And it all started with a New York publisher dining in a Savannah restaurant during a thunderstorm.

* It Ain't All About the Cookin', Paula Deen, 2007.

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