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.
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.