September 30, 2013 12:00 PM

When Paula Deen stepped out for her first public appearances on the weekend of Sept. 14 after a scandal-filled summer, she was bursting with pride – and with tears.”These are tears of joys, y’all,” Deen, 66, told a crowd of 1,200 fans at the Metro Cooking & Entertaining Show in Houston, where she demonstrated the art of making a decadent peanut butter cup pie. Though noticeably thinner, she explained, “I’m not dieting anymore. Now I’m just doing portion control. I eat the peanut butter pie once every six months.” Before leaving the stage, she acknowledged her fans again. “If it weren’t for you,” she said, “I wouldn’t be here.”

Now Deen is eager for her next act. Since a judge threw out the racial discrimination case and signed off on a deal to dismiss the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former employee in August, Deen has “gone from crisis mode to rebuilding mode,” says an industry source close to her. “She’s not ready to hang it up. She’s being strategic. She’s not going to just take anything that comes along.”

Many doubt offers will pour in. “The Food Network will never rehire her,” says Allen Salkin, author of From Scratch, a history of the channel that made Deen a household name. “They just can’t afford to gamble on her again.” Branding agency CEO David E. Johnson agrees: “With sponsors, she’s radioactive.”

Deen, who once raked in about $18 million in business partnerships, admits that “some of life’s lessons are very expensive. I paid a lot for them sad suckers. The sad point is if you make mistakes and never learn from them.” Friends say she has. “She may have made jokes she shouldn’t have, but not out of malice. She is apologizing privately for that,” says the insider.

Next up? Deen, who says “the stove is my safe place,” will appear at another Texas cooking demo, celebrate her son’s cookbook Jamie Deen’s Good Food at a party in Savannah and look for the next door to open. “My mother has faced every challenge you can imagine,” says Jamie. “She refuses to be beaten down.”

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