It's lunchtime at The Lady & Sons restaurant in historic Savannah, Ga., and owner Paula Deen is bustling from table to table, bantering with diners as she plops hot cheese biscuits and hoe cakes onto their plates with a pair of tongs.
Across the room, Mrs. Deen's younger son, Bobby, wearing an apron and jogging shoes, wipes down tables and sets them with white paper doilies. Back in the kitchen, older son Jamie whisks up more homemade biscuits and pulls others from the oven and brushes them with melted garlic butter.
Sweet, tangy aromas of roasted ribs and red rice waft from the buffet, tantalizing a crowd waiting outside and leaving little doubt that The Lady & Sons' key ingredients - family hospitality and tasty Southern country cooking - are a recipe for culinary success.
Not so long ago, Deen was divorced, unemployed, and struggling with her sons to make ends meet with a home-based lunch service humbly named "The Bag Lady." She rose at 5 a.m. to cook the meals. The boys and their girlfriends ran deliveries by bicycle to downtown offices.
"It was a pig-in-a-poke every day," Deen says of that uncertain time.
Today, the full-scale, family-run eatery is one of the most popular in Savannah, and has attracted the national limelight. This month, Random House released a spiffed-up version of Deen's self-published cookbook, "The Lady & Sons: Savannah Country Cookbook." Recently, the television show "Good Morning America" aired a segment on Deen.
Deen laughs when recounting the "strange" phone calls she's been getting from New York. The spunky redhead is amused by all the attention. One after another, diners approach with cookbooks in hand, which Deen signs with characteristic flair. This time, she chuckles as she writes "Do it Southern-style, girl!"
Deen's rise as a restaurateur earned her the nickname "Steel Magnolia" from John Berendt, author of the best-selling Savannah mystery "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
"Deen is an irresistible example of Southern womanhood," he wrote in an introduction to the cookbook. "She is always appealing and gracious but possessed of an unfailing survival instinct."
Growing up in Albany, Ga., in the 1950s, Deen had ample opportunity to soak in the essentials of entrepreneurship and good country cooking. "My grandmother was just a wonderful Southern cook," she recalls. "I spent hours in the kitchen with her."
Her grandparents' first eatery was a hot-dog stand, where, Deen quips, "my grandmother made my grandfather his first dollar." Later they opened a restaurant. Deen's mother waited on tables, and one day a customer walked in who later became Deen's father.
As a girl, Deen spent most of her time at the restaurant "raiding the candy counter behind the cash register." But decades later in Savannah, when her marriage of 25 years to a car salesman failed, she drew inspiration from her family's trade. With her last $200, she started the Bag Lady.
The lunch business flourished and led to a restaurant, which two years ago moved to its current location in the middle of downtown Savannah. Last year, a Random House publicist walked in for a meal. Impressed, she bought a copy of Deen's homey, self-published cookbook, and two weeks later called from New York with a contract offer. Deen cried out in disbelief.
"I said, 'Get out of town! New York City?!' "
Today, Deen and her 30 employees, including her two manager sons, are busy 'round the clock at The Lady, which last month expanded its hours to include dinner.
Ceiling fans spin above closely spaced, dark wood tables in the one-room establishment, which is as comfortable and unpretentious as the authentic Southern dishes filling the well-stocked buffet.
Southern food "is poor man's food," explains Deen. Dishes are simple to make, hearty, and hold up over time. The presentation isn't fancy. "We just heap food on the plate," she says. Bottles of vinegar-pepper sauce and maple syrup sit on every table.
Fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and lima beans are popular buffet dishes, along with Southern favorites such as collard greens and black-eyed peas. Guests are advised to sop up drippings with hoe cakes - named because they were supposedly once cooked on hoe blades over open fires in the fields - and save one cake to eat last with the syrup.
Desserts, served in bowls, include banana pudding, Aunt Glennis's Blonde Brownies, and the house special - Gooey Butter Cakes.
Where the cooking is concerned, Deen is a hands-on owner who prides herself on leaving little to chance. Back in the kitchen, she samples sweet-potato chips for crispiness, picking out one for her long-time chef, Mello Williams, to taste.
Best of all, Deen says, is the family togetherness at The Lady & Sons. Jamie agrees. "Bobby and I are going to be working in this business and fishing on our off days until we're done," he says with a smile.
Gooey Butter Cakes
I could write a full chapter on this dessert. It is the No. 1 choice in our restaurant.
1 18-ounce package yellow cake mix
1 large egg
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine ingredients and mix well. Pat into a lightly greased 13 x 9-inch baking pan. Prepare filling.
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted
1 16-ounce box powdered sugar
Beat cream cheese with electric mixer until smooth. Add eggs, vanilla, and butter; beat. Add powdered sugar and mix well. Spread over cake mixture. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes.
You want the center to be a little gooey, so do not overbake.
Serves 15 to 20.