Visit Paula Deen’s home and she’ll tell you to help yourself to what’s in the fridge and to put your feet up. “I like people to feel comfortable,” she says. This southern hospitality endears Deen to legions of fans—as does her unlikely biography. Wed at 18, she lost both parents by 23, and a resulting fear of death led to agoraphobia. She didn’t leave her home for 20 years. The condition eased, and in 1989 she used her last $200 to open a catering service with sons Jamie and Bobby. In 1997 she published The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook, peddled it on QVC and wound up a Food Network hit. Critics call her dishes—rich with mayonnaise, butter and chocolate—unhealthy. “It’s comfort food,” she counters. “There’s a time and a place for it.” When not in the kitchen, Deen enjoys boating with second husband Michael Groover, a tugboat captain. “I’m 60, happily married, doing what I love,” she says. “I’ve never been so happy.” The foodie star spoke with PEOPLE’s Steve Helling to answer your questions.
You always seem so happy and positive. What can make you madder than a hornet in a flash?
CATHERINE SCOTT, Hortonville, N.Y.
You know, I just hate it when someone comes up to me and shoves a cell phone in my face and says, “Please talk to my mother”—or sister, or whoever. I don’t know where the cell phone has been, I’m sharing germs with someone now, and I don’t know what they have.
What’s your favorite home-cooked meal?
KAREN CHEEK, Toccoa, Ga.
Michael’s favorite is oxtails with buttered rice [see recipe]. It’s a romantic dish and definitely something I prepare often.
How did you overcome your fear of leaving home to become the social, lovable woman you are today?
JAN FAIRCLOTH, Oakwood, Ga.
When we go through tragic things, we all have our way of dealing with pain and grief. I felt like if I stayed home, I was safe. But one day, I was 40 years old, my children’s father had moved me [from Albany, Ga., to unfamiliar Savannah], and I said, “Oh, woe is me.” And the serenity prayer went through my head—asking God to help me change things I can, accept things I can’t, and to know the difference. I immediately started getting better—”Suck it up, girl. Get on with your life.”
How do you not pack on the pounds making all those wonderful dishes?
PEGGY LYTLE, Lynnwood, Wash.
It’s all about moderation. You don’t want to eat the way I cook every day.
Many of us thirtysomethings find you unbearably sexy. How do you feel about that?
ANDY ALLISON, Arlington, Va.
Is this for real? “Unbearably sexy”? I didn’t know that I was. But it makes me feel very, very good.
If you were stranded on an island, what two food choices would you like?
GINA DOMBROWSKI, Garfield Heights, Ohio
That’s easy. A baked potato and butter. I could eat a baked potato every day for the rest of my life. Maybe a little steak too. Wait, that’s three things. Okay, just the butter and the potato. But, wait: Butter isn’t a food; it’s a condiment. Gee, this is hard.