"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.
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.
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. "