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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This may be the one of the few weeks of the year that we get a kind of free pass from the national preoccupation with dieting - that is, unless you follow Food Network star Paula Deen. She's raised a big tent for folks who like the idea of live and let live. But as NPR's Allison Aubrey learned, her fans aren't just drawn to her cheese grits with extra butter, there's something much more elusive that they're after.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: I spend a lot of my time interviewing people who are trying to make us and the food we eat healthier. And then there's Paula Deen. When I heard she was coming to town the image I got in my head was a deep-fried cheesecake. She actually does that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUBREY: So, who is this woman?

PAULA DEEN: Now, the first dish I'm going to start with this morning is spicy cinnamon cake.

AUBREY: This is Paula from an episode of her TV show. She's wearing her pajamas and cooking from her home in Savannah. She loves all this stuff we're supposed to be eating less of.

DEEN: For this recipe, I going to need butter, sour cream, eggs.

AUBREY: She finds a way to sneak mayonnaise into recipes and she's a fan of tricks to keep things simple, such as adding instant pudding.

DEEN: And one more ingredient that's going to make this real, real moist...

AUBREY: Sour cream. So, is it these easy-peasy recipes...

DEEN: It has a wonderful, wonderful flavor.

AUBREY: ...that compels thousands of her fans to buy tickets and wait in lines to see her perform live?

RONA SCHWARTZ: Oh, believe me, it's going to be great. Everybody's going to be so excited, going absolutely insane.

AUBREY: Paula fan Rona Schwartz drove from Philadelphia down to the Metropolitan Cooking Show in D.C. earlier this month to see her live.

SCHWARTZ: I can't wait. I mean, she's just got that great smile. You just can't help but fall in love with her. You just can't help it.

AUBREY: I was hearing this over and over and over again.

LINDA FORTANATA: She's awesome, she's sweet, she cute, she cooks everyday food - I can relate to her. From Linda Fortanata to Michelle Morgan...

MICHELLE MORGAN: She makes this amazing apple pie.

AUBREY: Apple Pie, really? Doesn't everyone have a yummy recipe for apple pie? But as the spotlight came on, all eyes followed Paula's entrance on stage.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The queen of Southern cooking, the number one lady you came to see...

AUBREY: It started to dawn on me: it's more than the recipes. Paula, with her big blue eyes, and her snowy-white hairdo, she gives people a connection, a soulful connection they're looking for.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And her fifth year here in Washington, D.C., Paula Deen.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

AUBREY: Within moments, Paula's laughing and telling stories as she does on her TV show. She talks about her two sons and about meeting her second husband.

DEEN: I remember when Michael and I - well, a few months after we'd been seeing each other - I got up and I fixed him breakfast.

AUBREY: As Paula talks, James Hample says it feels like she's speaking just to him. It's as if each of the 2,000 people in the audience have pulled a chair right up to her kitchen table.

JAMES HAMPLE: She's so homey, and, like, she makes me feel like I'm in grandma's kitchen. Like, she just, like, I just want to hug her.

AUBREY: At one point, she invites the whole audience to come along on her annual winter cruise. Julie Cook, who's been, says it's a hoot.

JULIE COOK: She'll sit down, and probably pick off your plate. But people get to know her intimately. She learns people's names and become friends with them.

AUBREY: Charisma aside, the part of Paula Deen's personal story that many diehard fans connect with is her triumph over big struggles, including a bad first marriage and agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that left her afraid to leave her house.

CHRISTINE DUBOIS: It's tremendously inspiring to be a person who can overcome something like agoraphobia.

AUBREY: Food anthropologist Christine Dubois says in an age where conditions such as ADD, OCD, PTSD are part of the national lexicon, the ability to conquer one becomes the 21st century, pull-yourself-up-from-the-bootstraps story that can gives people hope.

DUBOIS: If Paula Dean could do it and become this incredible phenomenon, maybe I should have the courage to overcome my difficulties too.

AUBREY: So, what's Paula's next personal dragon to slay? Well, when I caught up with her after the live show, she told me that to compensate for her love of rich food she'd like to start exercising.

DEEN: I've heard that about exercise, that it is addictive.

AUBREY: She told me that her son Bobby is hooked.

DEEN: So, I've got to see if I can get myself addicted.

AUBREY: Well, thank you so much for your time. I really do appreciate it.

DEEN: Thank you. You are so welcome.

AUBREY: Thank you.

DEEN: You're cute and I like those little ear screws.

AUBREY: Oh, she's got me. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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