Paula Deen, the popular Food Network star with a renowned restaurant, a lifestyle magazine, two cooking shows and a host of cookbooks to her name, says that food has always been the focus of life in her family.
"Food was very, very important; it was a big, big part in our life," Deen said. "And I think it does play a tremendous part for Southerners, because that's how we tell you we love you, through our kitchen and the gifts that can come out of that room."
Deen was born in Albany, Ga., and learned to cook from her grandmother, who operated a hot dog stand near the Atlanta airport.
"I am proud to be a Southerner," Deen said. "I think Southern hospitality is very… I don't think it's just a term. I think it really exists. You can come to Savannah, and the people are so sweet and so nice."
Deen says her first food memories come from her grandmother's kitchen when she was just a toddler.
"Grandma was a wonderful Southern cook," she said. "There was just nothing that she couldn't cook."
Not surprisingly, Thanksgiving in the Deen household is a family affair. She says it's her favorite holiday "because it's just about food, family and friends: my three favorite 'f' words."
Growing up, Deen says there was a strong emphasis on that Southern hospitality.
"There was one thing my daddy wouldn't tolerate in any shape, form or fashion, and that was being unkind or rude to somebody," she said. "That was just very important to my folks. And as it turns out, that was a legacy that he left me that money can't buy, is how to be able to treat people, because in my line of work, it was my greatest desire to have people come in and feel good about being there… It has to be sincere 'cause you can't fool folks."
Deen got married at 18, and says she "didn't know how to boil an egg." She started cooking when she realized her mother wasn't going to come over and cook for them. Her mother passed away when Deen was 23, but she says their close relationship impacted how she relates to her own children through cooking.
Paula Deen: Portrait of 'The Lady'
Deen's sons Jamie and Bobby -- "two of the sweetest boys in the entire world," she says -- run the family restaurant, The Lady & Sons in Savannah, and are frequent guests on her Food Network shows, "Paula's Home Cooking" and "Paula's Party."
"I love being in the kitchen with my boys," Deen said. "It's fun. It's a lot of fun when we're home doing it and there's no customers out there saying 'where's my food, where's my food?' I can truthfully say that being in the kitchen in a restaurant is a whole different arena from being in the home kitchen."
"They've got good hearts; they're good inside," she added. "And one of them finally made me a grandmother, which I didn't think was ever going to happen… Jack was 2 [years old] in August, and he is the most precious little boy I have ever seen."
Perhaps inspired by her grandson, Deen published her first children's cookbook, "Paula Deen's My First Cookbook," in October.
After struggling with agoraphobia and enduring a difficult divorce, Deen was a 42-year-old housewife raising Jamie and Bobby on her own when she started her first business in 1989.
"It had dawned on me that, you know, God had made me just as capable as he had a man. I really didn't have to have anybody to take care of me, and there was no reason why I shouldn't step up to the pump and take that responsibility over and I did. I lay in bed and I would dream about how could I help myself? How could I help my children?" she recalled.
"So I said, well if you got a talent Paula, it's definitely in front of your stove. So I started dreaming about ways that I could do that."
Deen opened The Bag Lady, a small catering company, with a cooler and $50 worth of groceries, and her business grew by word of mouth.
"The food was so good and so fresh," she recalled. "I touched everything; I did every bite myself, and it had to be perfect. So I found out my talent was through making people smile and what came out of my kitchen."
After outgrowing her home-based business, Deen opened her first restaurant, called The Lady, eventually relocating and opening The Lady & Sons in 1996.
A Deen Family Thanksgiving
To Deen, southern food is all about love… and proper seasoning.
"It sounds so corny and cliché, but we put a lot of love in our food," she said. "We really, really do. Plus, did I mention butter? And ham hocks? Oh and don't forget the salt and pepper. Oh, and bacon grease. You know, we don't hold back on the flavors… when you come to The Lady and Sons, you shouldn't have to pick up salt, pepper or hot sauce, unless you just like it extra hot. We're just not afraid to season our pots."
For years, Thanksgiving meant working hard in the restaurant -- one of the busiest days of the year when Deen said they'd work to "make families happy that walked through our doors." Now, she says, it's about spending time with family and friends, and giving back on a larger scale.
"I'm real excited to go back home to Savannah because I'm going to be delivering 25,000 pounds of protein to our food bank," she said. "That's a lot of food… I always said, you know, I want to feed the world, I want to feed the world. Obviously my little restaurant wouldn't hold the world, but now I've got the opportunity to feed more than just the people that visit our restaurant, and that gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside."
Though she loves a traditional turkey and dressing, Deen says for a different twist on Thanksgiving dinner, she suggests Cornish hens -- a favorite of her husband Michael. (CLICK HERE for the recipe)
"If you don't want to prepare it for Thanksgiving," she says, "you may want to think about it for Christmas. It'll be a perfect Christmas meal."
And of course, Deen says that no Thanksgiving would be complete without stuffing.
Spectacular Thanksgiving Stuffing
A few of her secret ingredients? Rice, saltine crackers and "a good, old country sausage." (CLICK HERE for the recipe)
"That sausage is going to release a wonderful flavor throughout our stuffing, and it's going to be great with those little birds we have in the oven," she said.
"You know, I understand that a lot of people, especially up north, put fruits and nuts in their stuffing, which is good, but for myself personally, I love an old-timey savory dressing."
"Onions and bacon cooking up just makes your kitchen smell so good," she added. "In fact, one day I'm going to come up with a room deodorizer that smells like bacon and onions. It's a fabulous smell."
Deen says this year she's thankful for many things, especially for the "second chance" she was given in her life.
"I say all the time that I've been over blessed. God has been so good to me. I've got a fabulous family. I've got good friends. I've probably got the best working team, who is like my extended family that you could ever find. And I'm so thankful for a second chance because I really blew the first one. I am so thankful. "