Queen of Southern Cuisine
Paula may be rolling in dough now, but her rise to fame wasn't easy. At age 23, Paula says her life was in the pits. She had two young children, a 16-year-old brother whom she felt responsible for and a rocky marriage. Paula had also just buried both of her parents. "There was a time when we lost everything," she says. "We had no car. We had no home."
When times were tough, Paula found comfort in the kitchen. "I spent a lot of time bellied up to my stove," she says. "I had become a pretty good cook." At night, Paula says she would lie in bed and dream about how she could take care of her family financially.
With just $200, Paula started a catering business—The Bag Lady—out of her Savannah, Georgia, home. Her plan was simple: cook her Southern favorites. "I would make these wonderful little meals," she says. "They tasted good, but they looked like hell."
Jamie and Bobby, Paula's teenage sons, pitched in and delivered the meals to local businesses.
When Paula first started her catering company, she says she stood over a hot stove 16 to 20 hours a day, but she never imagined this level of success. Her main objective was much simpler. "What I wanted for us was if we needed to go to the grocery store on Wednesday, we could do it and the check would not bounce," she says. "That was my idea of success."
Paula also believes that God's generosity helped her realize her dreams. "I made a commitment to work," she says. "God blessed it."
These days, Paula thrives in the spotlight, but back then, she was terrified to leave the house. "[My] heart would beat so hard and so fast that [my] arms would go numb," she says. "You thought, surely, this was the moment you're fixing to die."
Paula hid the truth from almost everyone—especially her children. Jamie, her oldest son, says he never knew his mom had agoraphobia. "I just thought she liked to stay in the house," he says.
Some days were worse than others. "Sometimes the fear was so great, I couldn't go out the door," she says. "Sometimes I was able to go to the grocery store."
When Paula was a prisoner in her own home, there was one thing that seemed to help. "Stepping up to my stove would help calm some of my fears," she says. "To me, cooking is therapeutic. … You just kind of forget everything except what you've got going on in that pot."
"The Serenity Prayer went through my head," she says. "I'd heard it all my life, [but] this particular morning I said, 'Wow, that's what I'm supposed to be asking God for.' It made my life so much easier. In fact, that Serenity Prayer does not leave my head. … 'Paula, forget the things that you can't change. Forget it. Let it go.'"
Paula says that when her parents passed away at an early age, her sense of security died with them. "[My brother] and I lost our parents very young," she says. "We [had] this fabulous childhood, very secure. Then, boom, boom…they were dead."
When Paula learned to accept her and her children's inevitable deaths, she says she was able to start living again.
These dishes may not be low in fat, but they're rich with flavor. "I'm your cook, not your doctor!" she jokes.
Paula brought along her signature ingredients—including butter and sugar, of course—to show Oprah how to make her grandmother's pound cake. Although Paula's made this dessert many times, her cooking demonstration suddenly goes haywire!
Watch Paula and Oprah's hilarious baking blunder.
Although they never completed the cake, Paula has a finished product that's ready to taste. "With ice cream, [whipped] cream, strawberries and a little sugar on top…layers of goodness," Oprah says.