Rumors swirled more than the wine in a thousand glasses. Would Paula Deen join her sons, Jamie and Bobby, in the cooking demo scheduled at Sunday's Grand Tasting Village at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival? People were whispering that Paula was still on the fence about appearing at the signature event (hence the "Deen Family" moniker).
When festival founder Lee Brian Schrager took the stage, however, all doubt was erased. Schrager explained that since he couldn't possibly introduce every celebrity chef, he stopped doing any introductions but this was an exception. He said that when "we were planning the festival this year there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted Paula at the festival this year." He added that he remembered the first time he saw Paula Deen cook on television. "I remember what she was making, a blueberry tart, what she was wearing, a pink blouse" and that "we must have this crazy lady at the festival." Schrager then introduced Deen, "back where she has always been and back where she should be."
With that, the Deen family came out. Paula, looking slim in a blue caftan to match her eyes, got an instant standing ovation from the crowd that spilled out into festival. "Hello y'all," she drawled as adoring fans shouted out, "I love you Paula." "I love y'all, too," the Lady replied.
As a woman screamed out "butter," she said "I want butter."
"You look good," said another. "Thank you honey, I feel good," she replied.
Then, Deen took a moment to get serious and address the elephant in the room: Her lawsuits over alleged racial and sexual discrimination and subsequent admission last summer that she'd used racial slurs. "I want to say something on a real serious note. I feel like I could really talk to y'all and tell you what's in my heart," she told the crowd. "What I want to say to y'all, we have come off of a very hard summer. If anybody did not hear me apologize, I want to apologize for those who did not hear me."
Speaking to her fans, who kept on shouting words of encouragement, Deen said that the cards and letters she received were appreciated. "I've got so many friends. You're all my friends," she said before asking her husband Michael Groover to come up to the stage. "You just sit in this chair like a good boy." Also in the audience was her aunt Peggy, Bubbles from her television show, and her new daughter-in-law Claudia.
In what became more revival meeting than cooking demonstration, a carried away fan shouted, "we want you back, Paula" to which Deen replied, "I'm coming back. I'm not a quitter."
And with that, Paula Deen went into full warp drive as she and her sons prepared chicken and dumplings for the crown, made bawdy jokes and cackled that rich, joyous laugh.
Cobalt eyes sparkling, she introduced her good friend Robert Irvine, who could be seen waiting in the wings. Irvine, who was involved in his own controversy several years back when the chef embellished some facts on his bio, told Paula, "don't do it again" before the clearly rehearsed (yet still wonderful) moment. As Deen announced, "Y'know, I truly am ready to get back in the saddle," Irvine assumed the horsie position.
Instantly, a thousand iPhones were trained on the stage as Deen straddled the muscular Irvine and everyone's favorite meme was repeated:
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Deen, who was not granting interviews at the festival, just inked a $75 million deal with Najafi Companies to form Paula Deen Ventures, an umbrella company to oversee her restaurants, cookbooks, product endorsements, and any future television shows. If her comeback moment at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival is any indication, that's money well spent.