In his book “My Delicious Life With Paula Deen,” Michael Groover, the famous Southern chef’s husband, shares the dirt on what brought the two of them together. An excerpt.
Chapter two: So, this wild, white-haired gal comes rushin’ into my backyard
What do y’all call a cow with three legs? Lean beef What do y’all call a cow with no legs? Ground beef What do y’all call a bull playin’ with himself? Beef stroganoff
When I first met Paula, I wasn’t thinkin’ of marriage. I’d recently come off a long and tough marriage, and I felt like I’d been rode hard and put up wet. I’d just given up on anything serious with any woman on the planet. I’d pretty much made a vow, matter of fact, that I didn’t want to marry again and I’d be happy to live the rest of my life alone with my children.
Actually, I was just standin’ around outside, mindin’ my own damn business, in my own damn backyard. Fact is I’d been banned from smokin’ in the house by my daughter, Michelle, and she’d made me go outside whenever tobacco was involved. Paula likes to tell this story a different way. She says that I was just hangin’ out doin’ nothin’ like a crazy, old vagrant, but I was actually smokin’ and talkin’ on my cell phone. Then I noticed these two tiny, sorry-lookin’ black-and-white dogs who were mighty busy poopin’ all over my lawn.
Lessee, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. You know, I was definitely interested in meetin’ different people, and I sure hadn’t given up on the women part of people, but as I mentioned, gettin’ serious with a woman and certainly marriage was out of the question.
When I had a woman friend over to my house, I didn’t even like to see an overnight bag. No one was gonna stay there that long. My idea of a long-term relationship was about an hour. Actually that might be stretchin’ it a little.
I particularly liked women over forty. As one poet pal put it, “They don’t swell, they don’t tell, and they’re grateful as hell.” Actually, I liked all women, but the ones who were older seemed to like me more.
So when I met this white-haired gal who come galomphin’ onto my property yellin’ her dogs had gotten loose, I got interested. Probably the initial thing that really had me excited about Paula — the first thing that caught my attention anyway — was her eyes. God, they were this gorgeous, deep, early mornin,’ sparklin’ sea blue eyes — I’d never seen anyone with eyes like that. And her enthusiasm and energy were contagious. She didn’t know me from a hole in the wall, but she was talkin’ fast and grinnin’ and apologizin’ for the dogs — and, well, I could hardly catch my breath: She was so all woman.
Where had she come from? Unfortunately, I knew. They’d built some pretty fancy condos right next to my house, the one in which I’d raised my kids, and Paula lived in those condos I call the Projects. When they started buildin’ them, my brother Nick and I had hired a lawyer to try to stop the Projects, or at least to make ’em less obnoxious. They’d already had to stop at my house because I wouldn’t sell ’em my lot. So we compromised: The builders put up fewer units and they built an eight-foot-tall stucco fence so I wouldn’t have to look at the buildings. That was where Paula had chased her runaway dogs — around the condo wall to my house.
I’d never seen Paula before in person, but I remembered where I’d seen her picture: I recognized her from her photograph in the cookbooks she’d written. I’d even given one of them as a gift; we are all into Southern cookin’ around here in Savannah.
Years later, Paula told me that if I’d continued to look as scraggly as I did that first day, with my beard long and unkempt, she probably woulda never married me. I told her that if she really looked like Aunt Bee from Mayberry like she did on the cover of The Lady & Sons, Too!, her second cookbook, there’s a good chance I woulda never married her either.
Anyway, so I’m in the backyard, and these two little dogs come up to me. I’m a huge animal lover — me and the dogs hit it off right away, way before Paula came around. So I was pettin’ the dogs, playin’ with ’em, and Paula ran up and said, “I’m so sorry.”
She was wearin’ jeans, an apron, and a baseball cap over her gray hair and was screamin’ “Stop! Sit! Stop!” to the dogs, who paid not a bit of attention to her. I noticed her accent. I really liked it; it was an interesting accent, a little more Southern than most. You don’t have to go too far out of Savannah and you’ll get a little more of a twang, and when you go to southwest Georgia, it’s even more pronounced. Or unpronounced. Or somethin’. They add more syllables. She looked me right in my eyes with those incredible piercing blue eyes and said she was sorry that the dogs were poopin’ in the yard and she would clean it up. I remember she mentioned she was writin’ a new cookbook and didn’t get out much because she was so busy. To be neighborly, I said, “Well, maybe you ought to take a break one day and we could go out for a drink or somethin’.”
“Yeah, okay,” she said. She didn’t seem too enthusiastic and apologized again for the poopin’ dogs.
I said, “That’s okay, I like dogs. It’s people I’m not sure about.” What I meant by that is in two minutes you can mainly tell whether you can trust a dog or not, whether they’ll bite you or not. And sometimes, with people, it’ll take a lifetime and you still don’t know if they’ll bite you.
Naturally, Paula didn’t understand where I was comin’ from with that brilliant pickup line, so she grabbed the dogs and took off runnin’, thinkin’ I was a nut. And since I wasn’t, I was a little disappointed she’d left.
I thought I’d never see her again, so I didn’t give it another minute’s thought and went back to my smokin’. Later on in the week, I happened to mention to my brother Nick that this zany woman who I thought lived over in the Projects and was writin’ a cookbook had popped onto my land. He said he thought a lady from town who owned a restaurant — he’d eaten there and liked it — lived next door to me. I told him I thought that might be the woman with the incontinent dogs, but I wasn’t sure.
Probably two weeks later, I was out smokin’ in my yard again and Paula shows up chasin’ the dogs again! And naturally the dogs and I had already said our hellos — we’re buddies by this time. Paula ran up, same thing. “Well, I’m sorry my dogs are poopin’ in your backyard again,” she said. “If you have a bag or somethin’, I can clean it up. Please let me.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
Then, makin’ conversation, Paula asked me how long I’d lived there and this time she also asked if I knew anything about boats. Then, the deal closer for me — she told me she had a new boat. She said she’d just bought this boat. She knew how to operate the CD player real well, but could I possibly show her how to crank the boat itself up?
Well, askin’ me if I know anything about boats is like askin’ Paula Deen if she knows how to cook chicken. You know, I’ve never had a real job on land. I been out workin’ on crab boats, snapper boats, any kind of boat you can imagine my whole life. I had the feeling she’d investigated me a little, although she’ll deny that to her dyin’ day. Anyway, she thought I knew enough about boats at least to teach her how to start hers up.
That’s how the fire started.
It was more than intriguin’ for me to meet an excellent cook who owned a restaurant, who was writin’ a sweets cookbook, and who owned her own boat. My kinda woman. It’d been a coon’s age since I met a woman like Ms. Paula Deen. Try never.
I said to myself, Oh, gosh, this may be the perfect woman.
Look — I figured I’d met somebody who not only has her own boat, but, you know, has a job (she mentioned her restaurant) and she wants to work and loves it. Well, that was the work ethic I have. You also could tell that this woman who burst onto my property was not a follower, she was a leader, afraid of very little. Every man dreams of havin’ a partner who pulls in the same direction.
I was interested. Against my best judgment and against my carefully worked out plans, I found myself interested.
Did I mention that I thought she was gorgeous? And her legs — whoa.
So, since we were real neighbors, it was only right to make a date for me to go look at her boat. The next day, I went over to the Projects. I cranked the boat up while she watched carefully, went and fueled it up, and then we went for a ride. We went around Wassaw Sound, which is about three or four miles from where we lived. The water was very rough, and we were just jumpin’ those waves and Paula was laughin’ hysterically — you know that laugh. She just loved that boat ride and so did I. We headed back into the most beautiful sunset you ever saw, and pretty much, you know, life changed from that moment.
But I didn’t know it then and she didn’t either. I have to say, lookin’ back, it was definitely not love at first sight for Paula, and maybe not for me either, but I was sure intrigued. I was powerfully intrigued. Later, she said the ride had seemed passionate for her, very sensual — that heavin’ water and all that bangin’ around on the boat. Turned her on, would you believe? Well, I didn’t feel that kind of passion, having been on bangin’ boats a whole lot, but as we walked back to her apartment, I was startin’ to feel maybe what she felt on the boat.
It wasn’t in the cards for that day.
But she invited me to come in, which I did. It was a little awkward. I think we both felt we needed an icebreaker, and then Paula showed me these crazy little books she had on the table. They were called What if? books and they asked you questions like What if you had to spend a year on a desert island, what would you take with you? Paula said she’d take a potato plant. I said I would take a boat so I could come get her and her potato plant and get us all home. Okay, they were kinda neat little books, but I probably got tired of what if a lot faster than she did.
So we began talking what ifs a little bit and, you know, she started flirtin’ a little. What I didn’t know was that Paula was comin’ off a long, bad relationship and she was hungry for plain old niceness in a man, hungry for honesty.
I could do that, even though I didn’t know her circumstances.
I told her I loved my motorcycle and she told me that she’d never ride on my motorcycle. Hmmmmmmm, not a great start. Later I learned her daddy was hurt in an accident, and she sure didn’t like fast-moving vehicles. Then she said — I can’t remember what prompted it — that she also would never kiss me. Paula’s a great flirt, you know.
Later on, after the kiss finally happened, she admitted that all she wanted to find out was what was goin’ on under my mustache and beard: did I, for instance, have teeth? She wasn’t sure.
I told her I’d make the bet that eventually, she’d ride my motorcycle and give me a kiss. She said no way José.
It was time for a real date.
Turned out, after we talked a bit more, I found that Paula was on the Atkins diet — you know, the one where you can suck on a stick o’ butter and eat bacon wrapped around your steak and still be on the diet. That should have given me my first clue about this woman.
So I said to myself, If I asked her out, where do you take somebody like Paula Deen to eat? This is gonna be pretty tough.
Then I had an idea.
“Would you like to go out to dinner?” I asked. “But there’s one stipulation — it has to be your favorite place.”
I felt pretty safe there, figurin’ it would be prob’ly be the kinda frou-frou food I wasn’t real crazy about. I was gonna let her pick so she’d be happy and think I was a sport. So she says, “Well, have you ever been to The Huddle House?”
As I said, Paula’s my kind o’ gal. The Huddle House is like a waffle place and they sell breakfasts mostly. Paula could get two eggs and a pound o’ bacon and still stay on her Atkins diet. So I said, “Yes, I’ve been. Is that where you wanna go?”
She said, “Yes, I’d love to go there,” and I said to myself, Well, this won’t be near as hard as I thought it was gonna be.
So we went to the Huddle House, and did a lot more talkin’ than eatin’. One of the first things that drew us together, and probably still does, is how we feel about our kids. So we talked a lot about them and it was growin’ on me that this was an interestin’ woman, a real woman, maybe someone that I’d been searchin’ for all my life. And, oh gosh, that laugh of hers — it was infectious. Still is.
I always love to hear Paula laugh.
Even when we first met, she wasn’t a nobody. She already had her own restaurant, The Lady & Sons, had published her second cookbook and was workin’ on a third. After we married and she became really famous, someone introduced her as the Queen of Southern Cuisine. I said, “You know what you call the queen’s husband, don’t you? You call him the king.”
It’s good to be the king.
Excerpted from “My Delicious Life With Paula Deen,” by Michael Groover. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.