Hail to the Chef

Atlanta journalist Jim Auchmutey interviewed President Carter many times during his career. The most memorable happened 17 years ago in Jimmy and Rosalynn’s kitchen.

I thought Jimmy Carter knew something about everything, so it surprised me when he admitted he didn’t know what a pecan tassie was. And him a native of South Georgia, where pecans are almost as plentiful as his trademark peanuts.

Allow me to explain.

News that President Carter was entering hospice care made me think back to all the times I interviewed him as a reporter and editor with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. Almost all of those encounters occurred at the Carter Center in Atlanta or over the phone or at Habitat for Humanity building projects. Only once did we speak in Plains, where the Carters will eventually rest side by side on the grounds outside the ranch home they have occupied for more than 60 years.

The reason I was allowed into their private quarters? Paula Deen. Yes, the Butter Queen. Seriously.

It was 2006, and Deen was riding high as one of the most popular personalities on the Food Network. Like Carter, she was from southwest Georgia, growing up down the road from Plains in Albany. She had long admired the president and had featured him on her TV cooking show a few years before. But this time, for another taping, Carter invited her to his home. He knew it would promote tourism in his hometown. The producers asked the Atlanta newspapers whether they would like to send someone to witness the spectacle — which is how, after the requisite security checks, I ended up inside the Carters’ kitchen.

I should explain that this was several years before Deen was publicly embarrassed when she gave a 2013 deposition in a lawsuit brought by an employee of her wildly successful Savannah restaurant, the Lady and Sons. In that proceeding, she admitted to using the n-word. Several damaging stories later surfaced — one involving her appearance in a skit that included something like blackface — and she lost her Food Network platform and most of her sponsors.

Much of her family had come along: Brother Bubba; Aunt Peggy; sons Bobby and Jamie; and husband Michael. Almost everyone had cameras. The family wanted souvenirs.

But in the winter of 2006, all that unpleasantness was ahead of her. Paula Deen was a red-hot celebrity who wanted to cook with the former president, and he enthusiastically agreed. But as I watched the production that day, I wondered whether Rosalynn Carter was as eager. Sometimes, it seemed, the former first lady had doubts about the sinful things Deen wanted to feed her husband.

From the writer's archive
From the writer's archive

The taping had been rescheduled twice, and Carter almost missed it again. At 81, he was still remarkably active. Within the past few days, he had traveled to Palestine to monitor elections, returned to Plains to teach Sunday school, flown to London to make a speech, and been delayed two hours on the return flight.

It was getting dark when he walked in the front door carrying a briefcase, a topcoat draped over his arm, and feigned surprise at the frenetic scene inside.

“Is this my house?” he asked, marveling at the lights and crew members crammed into his den and kitchen.

Deen laughed. “Do you think Miss Rosalynn’s having a stroke about what we’re doing to her kitchen?”

“Do you think Miss Rosalynn’s having a stroke about what we’re doing to her kitchen?”

Carter ducked into his bedroom to freshen up. As the crew finished its set-up, I examined the kitchen. It was small and unpretentious, with walls papered in blue flowered print and the house’s original 1961 cabinets repainted white. At the end of a U-shaped run of counters, a window over the sink looked out on an overgrown holly. The appliances were sensibly Middle American: Kenmore dishwasher, Spacemaker microwave oven, GE side-by-side refrigerator trimmed with magnets (one for peanut butter, naturally) and a couple of beer can openers so rusty they might have dated to the era of Billy Beer. Among the photos on the fridge: Rosalynn catching a fish and Jimmy swinging a hammer with Habitat.

Deen, who had recently built a house in Savannah, figured that about 20 of the Carter kitchens could fit into hers. “It’s ob-scene,” she said, pouring syrup all over that last syllable.

In the middle of this picture of domestic ordinariness, Deen stood out like a neon lightning bolt, from her silver hair and blue eyes to her turquoise top and pink slippers. Much of her family had come along: Brother Bubba; Aunt Peggy; sons Bobby and Jamie; and Deen’s husband, Michael, a tour boat captain with a white Hemingway beard. Almost everyone had cameras. The family wanted souvenirs.

In a few minutes, Carter reappeared wearing more down-home duds — jeans, plaid flannel shirt, scuffed boots and a big silver belt buckle forming a horseshoe around the initials “J.C.”

When the cameras rolled, Deen added another accessory, a custom-made apron that said “Hail to the Chef.”

“You are so handsome I can’t stand it,” she told him, laying it on thick.

Deen had heard that the Carters liked fowl, so she built a menu around a South Georgia classic — smothered quail over grits — with English peas on the side (“from a shiny can,” she said). The finale: miniature tarts called Pecan Toffee Tassies, the sort of rich dessert Deen was known for.

Carter had never heard of a tassie, so Deen explained that it’s a bite-sized tart. He looked pleased to learn something new.

As they started a pot of grits, Deen mentioned that she had eaten lunch at Mom’s, a local meat-and-three that Carter enjoyed.

“It was pork chop day,” she said.

“I had lunch on the plane coming back from London,” he said. “It was what they called chicken salad, bu       t it wasn’t like any chicken salad I’m used to.”

The president still looked disappointed.

As they got the quail ready to cook, Carter regaled Deen with stories about how his family ate when he was growing up on the farm during the Depression. They had grits twice a day, using the congealed leftovers to make fried grits for breakfast.

Then they talked about his White House years. “On our first day there,” Carter said, “the chef asked us what we liked to eat, and Rosalynn told him that we liked Southern food. He was from the South himself, and he said he was just going to cook what they cooked for themselves. So that’s what we ate at the White House: the servants’ food.”

During a break in the shooting, Carter kept his eyes on the task at hand: fixing dinner. He was in the middle of a conversation when he noticed a crew member walking toward the kitchen. “Could you stir those grits and make sure they don’t stick?” he instructed. “You might have to add some water.”

Among the onlookers was a quiet woman in a blue windbreaker, Mary Prince, the Carter’s housekeeper and cook for more than three decades. She had worked with them since they were in the Georgia Governor’s Mansion and she began as a prison trusty who had been convicted of shooting a man during a quarrel. A model prisoner, she was later paroled.

The Carters were healthy eaters, Prince said, and liked all kinds of fruits and vegetables and fish and game. She made big batches of collard greens and cornbread for them and usually prepared them a light lunch of soup and sandwich. The Carters cooked for themselves at night and on Sunday mornings, when they made pancakes — a family ritual that started decades ago.

“Mrs. Carter is a great cook,” Prince said.

I asked what she thought about Paula Deen’s cooking. She had no opinion because she had never seen her on TV that she could remember.

“I work during the day,” she explained.

After the break, Deen poured the English peas into a saucepan and asked Carter if he liked salty food.

“Yes,” he replied, a hint of sadness coming over his face, “but I don’t get enough.”

“Miss Rosalynn looks after you,” Deen consoled him, “and we’re glad for that.”

The former first lady was indeed a watchful nutritionist. As she joined her husband and Deen for the next segment in the breakfast room, her copy of the Tufts University Health and Nutrition newsletter stared down from a bulletin board like a posting of the Ten Commandments. The proudly plus-sized Deen welcomed the petite lady of the house with a sassy observation.

“She’s such a tiny thing,” she said.

After they made the tassies, the three repaired to the den for the last scene. Deen sat between her hosts on the sofa with serving trays in front of them on the coffee table, as if they were getting ready to watch TV.

Deen wanted to know whether Carter liked the grits. He nodded enthusiastically. “I think they need more butter,” she said, repeating her culinary mantra. Mrs. Carter begged to differ. “Mine have plenty of butter.”

As they ate, she asked the Carters whether they had ever entertained any visiting heads of state with unusual dietary requests.

“The most peculiar diet we ever ran across was the prime minister of India,” Carter said. “He ate no meat, nothing that came from an animal. He ate nuts and some kind of fruit.”

Mrs. Carter crinkled her nose. “Those nuts smelled bad.”

“And that’s all he would eat,” Carter continued. Then he hesitated. The smelly nuts made him think of something. “I don’t know if we can say this on your program, but he drank his own urine.”

“Get out!” Deen exclaimed. “Why would he do that?”

“For health reasons,” Carter said.

Deen wanted to know whether Carter liked the grits. He nodded enthusiastically.

“I think they need more butter,” she said, repeating her culinary mantra.

Mrs. Carter begged to differ. “Mine have plenty of butter.”

It was the same way with the tassies. Jimmy loved them, but Rosalynn thought they didn’t have to be so sweet. As they sat there on the sofa, I imagined Paula perched on one of his shoulders whispering, “Indulge yourself, you deserve it,” while Rosalynn sat on the other warning, “Watch your blood sugar, Jimmy.” They were like the proverbial angel and devil dueling over the president’s A1C — only I wasn’t sure which was which.

After dessert, Deen heaped on more sugar. She took the Carters by their hands and looked at each of them. “Y’all are so sweet and special to me,” she began.

Her eyes shifted to the TV camera. “I’ve had the privilege of sitting here with some of the most wonderful people in America. They never forgot where they came from. And they do everything in their power to be their brother’s keeper. I’m truly sitting right next to the greatest humanitarian walking the face of the Earth today.”

With that, she delivered her sign-off — “best dishes from our house to yours” — as a houseful of kin and crew applauded.

But Deen wasn’t quite through.

“Jamie, Bobby, Bubba,” she called out after the camera stopped, “do y’all have something for Mr. Jimmy to sign?”

After the taping, I had a few minutes to speak to Carter about his food memories. I laid my recorder on the coffee table between us, and his blue eyes widened. I was using an early iPod with a recording jack, and he had evidently never seen such a thing. Ever the engineer, he asked, “How does that work?” I started to walk him through it before I realized I was spending our limited time on a gadget tutorial instead of an interview.

“Sir, would you mind if we got back to food?” I said, and he dutifully got back on the topic.

On the next day, we talked about another subject, something that had come up in the news: Coretta Scott King had died. She was 78 and had passed away in her sleep at a clinic in Mexico where she was seeking treatment for cancer. Her body would soon be flown back to Atlanta for what promised to be a large and emotional send-off. Carter, the second Nobel Peace Prize winner from Georgia, would certainly attend the funeral of our first Nobel Peace Prize winner’s widow.

After he finished the second day of taping for the Deen program, Carter met with reporters and TV crews to talk about Mrs. King and her family’s significance in his rise to become the first president from Georgia. I forget exactly what he said, but I remember what I was thinking after I filed his quotes with the newsroom.

During his 1976 campaign, Carter made an ill-advised comment about how the federal government shouldn’t interfere with the right of Americans  to preserve the “ethnic purity” of their neighborhoods. Ethnic purity? At a time when many in the Democratic Party establishment were skeptical of Carter, a comment like that made them wonder whether he had Klan robes in his closet. It was probably the most dangerous moment in his primary campaign.

Carter apologized, of course, but he didn’t regain his footing until Mrs. King’s father-in-law, Daddy King, called a press conference in downtown Atlanta’s Central City Park to vouch for the former governor’s good intentions. I was there watching it as a journalism student at Georgia State University.

I thought about that day when Paula Deen’s unfortunate comments and actions came to light a few years after she taped that show at the Carters’ home. Carter defended her at the time, pointing out that we’ve all said things that were regrettable and sometimes hurtful. Maybe he was speaking from a sense of Christian forgiveness. Maybe he just liked Deen. Maybe he was remembering the time he said something he instantly regretted, something that almost sunk his ambitions.

Whatever it was, Jimmy Carter, Coretta Scott King and Paula Deen are forever linked in my memory: Georgia’s only president, the first lady of the Civil Rights Movement, the diva of all things rich and flavorful — three brightly colored threads of the South woven into the tapestry of two days in Plains, Georgia.

Author Profile
Jim Auchmutey

Jim Auchmutey spent almost 30 years as a writer and editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in stories about the South and its history and culture. He was twice named the Cox Newspapers chain's Writer of the Year and was honored by the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards, the Associated Press and the Sigma Delta Chi journalism society. Jim has written extensively about food. He has co-authored two cookbooks, including Smokelore, about the history of Southern barbecue, and The Ultimate Barbecue Sauce Cookbook. He lives in Atlanta.

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