If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve forgotten what tomorrow is. That’s right, knucklehead, look at the date again. It’s Thanksgiving! Why in the world are you online right now? You should be on a plane or a major highway by now, heading to a four-day weekend of carb-loading and drunkenly reminding your family to mind their own goddamn business. I’m going to take a shot in the dark here and assume you haven’t even thought about what you’re eating for the big meal. Yeah, call it a lucky guess. Even if you planned ahead and remembered to buy a turkey and a few supplies, that’s a long way from a finished meal. Whether you’re expecting a house full of guests or it’s just you and the television, there’s nothing sadder than a Thanksgiving feast of microwaved leftovers. Well hold on, don’t throw up your hands in defeat just yet. I’m here to help. Because you were smart enough to visit Vanity Fair today and not, say, Slate or Vulture or Gawker or one of those “your Thanksgiving mess isn’t my problem” websites, you may be able to salvage the holiday after all.
Thanksgiving is about one thing and one thing only, and that’s gluttony. So who better to offer some last-minute cooking tips than the Queen of Butter, the Dame of Deep Fried, the High Priestess of Cardiovascular Disease. I’m talking about, of course, Paula Deen, the Emmy-winning Food Network host, author, and come New Year’s Day, Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade in Pasadena. If you’ve ever seen the 63-year-old southern icon in action, you know that even watching her cook is enough to raise your cholesterol. She goes through sticks of butter like some people use breath mints. Her best-selling cookbook, Paula Deen’s Kitchen Classics, was voted one of the “unhealthiest” books of the decade by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. If that doesn’t sound like the true spirit of Thanksgiving, you’ve probably been doing it wrong.
I called Deen while I was in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia (pronounced Jaw-juh), ironically as I was sitting in a hotel room located directly across the street from her restaurant, The Lady & Sons. I’d hoped she’d be able to meet with me in person, but although we were both in her hometown at the same time, she had a prior commitment to attend her niece’s wedding. As it turns out, this just made our conversation all the more hilarious and surreal, especially when she admitted that she was multi-tasking, plucking her eyebrows as we talked, occasionally pulling too much and yelping in an adorable southern drawl “That hurts, y’all!”
Eric Spitznagel: Let me explain the situation to you. My wife is pregnant.
Paula Deen: Oh my goodness! Congratulations!
Thank you. Actually, a lot of my friends and family are going to find out with this interview.
(Laughs.) That’s great. Is there anybody you want me to call and break the news?
Quite possibly. Anyway, because my wife is knocked up, I offered to do the cooking this year. And honestly, I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.
Don’t you worry, honey. I’ll talk you through it.
Let’s start with the turkey. I’ve got a 15-pound bird in the freezer, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to forget to let it thaw before Thanksgiving morning. Just how screwed am I?
I’m afraid you’re in trouble. But there are grocery stores that have emergency turkeys for people like you, who might not realize that they have to thaw their turkey for several days in advance. You can just run out and buy a fresh one that’s not frozen.
You mean someplace like 7-11? I’m not sure what’s open on Thanksgiving.
Oh sweetie, I don’t think you’re going to find any turkeys at the 7-11. You have to take a little bit of responsibility to go while the grocery stores are open.
What else do I need to cook this thing? I’ve got the Simon and Garfunkel spices — the parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Do I need more than folk-pop spices?
Well if you’re just going to roast it in the oven, it doesn’t need a whole bunch. Put an onion in the cavity, and maybe a clump of thyme and rosemary, if you like the taste of it. Just fill that cavity with the spices you like. But the only seasonings you really need are salt n’ pepper. You want to salt n’ pepper it real good.
Salt n’ pepper? So you’re suggesting that I use rap spices instead of Simon and Garfunkel spices?
(Long pause.) Riiiight. (Laughs.) Honey, I don’t know nothin’ about no Simon and Garfunkel.
You’re saying keep it simple. Stick to salt n’ pepa. “Come and give me some of that yum yum.”
That’s right! But you know, if you want to do it easy and quick, you can always just fry it. I’ve always had fried turkey for Thanksgiving. The only thing is you don’t want to fry it frozen, cause it will explode on you. And then you’ll wind up at the burn center at the hospital.
I don’t see any scenario in which I fry a turkey and don’t end up in the burn center.
It’s not that hard! You just need the right equipment. If you don’t have a turkey fryer, you can use a gas burner and a deep pot. And you need the part that sits down inside the pot, like a colander, so you can lift it out. I like to fry a 12 pound turkey. Any bigger than that and it gets more difficult. You fry it for three minutes a pound, and then add an extra five minutes. So if it’s a 12 pound turkey, it’ll take… what’s three times 12? 36? So 41 minutes to fry it. Isn’t that amazing? A roasted turkey is going to take several hours. But in 41 minutes you can finish the main part of your meal. That’s a serious time saver.
Exactly how drunk can I be during the cooking process?
Oh honey, I wouldn’t get drunk at all. You want to do this sober.
Even on Thanksgiving? I thought it was socially acceptable to be hammered all day.
I’m not really a drinker, but I have no problem if other people want to get an early start. What’s important to me is the cooking, and I need to be sober for that. You don’t want to be too toasted if you’re around all those hot stoves.
Even if you don’t drink, you still serve booze to your guests, right?
Oh honey! We have the most expensive bar in our house. For my husband and I not to be drinkers, there’s nothing that you could come in our house and ask for that we couldn’t serve you. We may not know how to make it, but we have all the ingredients.
Do you have a favorite Thanksgiving cocktail, something to take the edge off too much family togetherness?
A few weeks ago, we did a private dinner to raise funds for Safe Shelter here in Savannah, and we invented a new drink called Magic Juice. It was tequila, pineapple juice, and something else. Cranberry juice! And it was goooood, honey. It was goooood. I was chugging it down and telling dirty jokes.
I’ve seen you flirt with Jay Leno. You don’t need liquor to tell dirty jokes.
(Laughs.) I know I don’t!
Magic Juice sounds delicious, but I’m guessing after a few of those, my internal censor would be gone. I’d end up saying something to a relative that I’d regret the next day.
Y’know, that’s always scary. Some people drink and they get rich, brave and invisible. You kinda hold your breath. You’re waiting for them to run over and say, “You know, you really are a bitch.”
Do you have ground rules for a family throw-down? How do you keep a Thanksgiving argument civil?
I just don’t go there. In my mind, none of us are perfect, and I head up the list on that one. I’ll keep peace at all cost, even if I choke to death on my tongue.
Let’s get back to the cooking. What about side dishes? I love mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberry sauce and all the trimmings, but I’m also lazy. What can I do that’s fast and easy? Is it okay to just run down to the gas station and pick up a fistful of taquitos?
Well sure you can!
What? I was kidding.
There’s lots of great stuff you can pick up at the gas station. I have a friend who gave me a great recipe called Krispy Kreme bread pudding. He was hosting a dinner and he forgot to make dessert, so he ran down to the local curb store. He picked up some day-old Crispy Kreme donuts, a can of fruit cocktail and a can of condensed milk. He went home and invented Krispy Kreme bread pudding, and let me tell you, honey, it’s out of this world. And it all came from the curb store. You can do wonders with a little imagination.
I want at least one of my side dishes to be a satirical commentary on the hypocrisy of Thanksgiving. Something that reminds my guests about the slaughter and persecution of the Native Americans.
(Long pause.) You mean like a politically correct dish?
Yeah, sure, in a way. I was thinking more of a Thanksgiving dish that you’d be proud to serve Noam Chomsky. Is that too much symbolism to ask of food?
In our family we always have cream corn at Thanksgiving, and corn was a big staple of the Native Americans. So I do homage to them through my corn.
I heard that the original Thanksgiving included lots of seafood, like mussels and oysters. Should I try to incorporate those ingredients?
It depends where you live. Here in Savannah, we make two different types of dressing. We have our regular dressing and our oyster dressing, because we can go out and dig for our own oysters. We can get them super, super fresh.
I’m from Chicago. Our shrimp tastes like rubber erasers.
(Laughs.) I bet they do. I think you’re out of luck, honey.
Do you have a Thanksgiving recipe that’s made entirely out of butter?
Just butter? I don’t know. I guess you could unwrap a stick of butter and pour a bottle of jam over it. That might be tasty. But I wouldn’t want to serve it to my family at Thanksgiving.
You are the Butter Queen, right?
Yeah, I have been called that. I do love butter. I don’t care what you’re fixin’, butter makes everything taste better.
I’m assuming your butter enthusiasm has nothing to do with the movie Last Tango in Paris.
I don’t think so. Do they eat a lot of butter in that film?
Well, they don’t eat it exactly.
What did they do with it?
(Long pause.) Uh… I don’t think I know how to explain it without embarrassing both of us.
Is it something dirty? (Laughs.)
You could say that, sure.
Does it have something to do with how your wife got pregnant?
Actually, no. You have the wrong… It’s a different, you know… It’s lower down on the… (Long pause.) Wow, this is amazing. You’ve actually turned the tables on me. I’m flummoxed!
Well honey, you’re the one who brought it up.
Here’s what I can tell you. Marlon Brando used butter in a slightly more intimate way than you do on your Food Network shows.
Ooooh. Well I will definitely check that out.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to awkwardly change the subject.
If you need to.
Vegetarians! Every Thanksgiving gathering has at least a few. How do we feed them?
Thank goodness everyone in my family will eat most anything. They don’t have a lot of restrictions. Down south, even our vegetables have some pig hidden somewhere in it. A vegetable isn’t a vegetable without a little ham hock. I think if you’ve been invited to someone’s house, you eat what they serve you. Even if you leave hungry, you be gracious enough to eat what they’ve prepared.
What if a vegetarian guest brings some god-awful green bean casserole? Are you obligated to eat it?
Oh goodness no. If there’s something special they want, by all means they can bring it. It doesn’t mean I have to eat it. But I would certainly put it on the table if it made them happy.
If there’s a vegetarian at the table, nine times out of ten they’ll bring up the unsanitary and abusive conditions at turkey farms. Is there a tactful way of discouraging them?
I’d just tell him to shut up. I don’t want to hear about it. They say if you ever go to a poultry farm, you’ll never eat chicken again. Well, that’s why I’m not going to a poultry farm. Because I don’t want to quit eating chicken.
The White House pardons a turkey every Thanksgiving. Have you ever done that?
Pardoned a turkey?
Or any animal.
Oh gosh, every day of my life I pardon my dog. He still enjoys a good poop and a good meal. As long as he likes those two things, he’s going to stay around. He’s blind as a bat, he can’t see for shit. But as long as he gets some enjoyment from life, I’ll keep him around.
Is there an animal so adorable or precious that you’d feel guilty about eating them?
The thought of eating rabbit and squirrels doesn’t appeal to me. And that was on our table quite often as a kid. In your uppity restaurants, they serve a lot of rabbit. But I just can’t help but think of Peter. And deer, I can’t go there, because of Bambi.
So if it was an anthropomorphic character in a children’s book or a Disney movie, you lose your appetite?
I do! I don’t care for the taste of it. Not that I’m a vegetarian. Not at all. I think God gave us these things for our survival. He didn’t put us here and said, “O.K., eat dirt.” He surrounded us with things that we could survive on.
And the things he didn’t want us to eat, he made extra cute.
Yes, that’s exactly right. (Laughs.) That’s funny!
I’ll get you started on a recipe: I’ve got a half a cup of mayonnaise, half a cup of sour cream, three sticks of butter, and a cup of grated parmesan cheese. What meal can I make with this?
Oh honey, that’s easy. You could take that a couple of different ways. You could make a wonderful hot artichoke dip, or you could mix it all up and rub it over chicken.
Just listening to you say that, I think my blood pressure rocketed.
You know what’s funny? People always make jokes about my health. But the other day, I picked up my prescriptions from the drug store, and I went over and sat in the blood pressure machine. The one they have at the pharmacies? My blood pressure was 99 over 48.
What? Come on, you’re kidding.
I looked at somebody and said, “Am I alive?” I also had my cholesterol checked not long ago, and it’s like 137.
Well, that settles it. I need more sour cream and butter in my diet.
It’s genetic, Eric. It’s totally genetic. And despite what people think, I don’t eat fried foods every night. The last two nights, I made huge bowls of salads with grilled chicken and vegetable soup. People think that down in the south, we eat nothing but fried chicken and biscuits for every meal, but that’s not true.
My wife likes to repeat a line she heard on one of your TV shows. Does this ring any bells? “Oh no, it fell in the butter!”
(Shrieks with laughter.) That happens to a lady occasionally. I have the same problem. I’ll be cooking something, and it falls in that darn butter sometimes. I just hate that.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)