The Neelys talk success, family, and their new cookbook.

click to enlarge Gina and Pat Neely - SHELLY STRAZIS

Pat and Gina Neely, of Neely’s Bar-B-Que and the Food Network shows Down Home with the Neelys and Road Tasted with the Neelys, are currently on a 17-city tour promoting their new cookbook, Down Home with the Neelys: A Southern Family Cookbook (Knopf, $27.95).

The tour brings the Neelys back home for two booksignings this weekend. They spoke to the Flyer from Los Angeles.

How’s the tour going?

Pat: It's going incredibly. Memphis should be extremely proud. Everywhere we go, there are people screaming and yelling like we're rock stars. Gina and I are just really delighted that so many people are so appreciative of not only Down Home with the Neelys on Food Network but the great cookbook that’s out now.

Gina: All of them are saying they can’t wait to come to Memphis.

What’s your food philosophy?

Gina: I look at food in a lot of ways. Yes, we need to eat, but also it's something that's good for our soul and it has a way of brightening any day no matter what you're going through.

What's the highlight of this whole Food Network phenomenon?

Gina: Showing people a different lifestyle. We’ve gotten to a time when everybody's so techy, working two jobs, and rippin' and runnin'. Everything is fast-paced. Our show represents slowing it down a little bit and spending time with your family.

Pat: [Paraphrasing a Paula Deen line in the cookbook’s foreward]: Gina and I weren't looking for television. Television found us. The basis of Down Home with the Neelys show, Down Home with the Neelys cookbook, is food -- great Southern comfort food, dishes that everybody in Memphis grew up around.

The casseroles, the green beans, the grilling, and all the barbecue are in our book. What we add that is so different from the traditional cookbook is that we are telling stories. For the first time, people, even in Memphis, will read what Pat's childhood life was like, what Gina's childhood life was like. Too often people in Memphis only know us as the barbecue family who run successful restaurants. They think that’s it's always been that way.

With our cookbook, you get into details. You learn how Gina and I truly got together, the lives that we lead, about our two daughters, Spenser and Shelbi, and where it all came from. It all came from our grandparents and our parents and our aunts and our uncles. The dishes that they cooked, they passed down to us, and we plan to pass on to our children.

Talk about putting the cookbook together.

Gina: We started about a year and a half ago. Knopf approached us at the time we were doing Road Tasted. Pat and I did chapters everywhere. The book is in both of our voices, and it was really fun because it brought back a lot of fond memories.

Pat: The book now that's it's complete, I look at it in three stages. The first stage was Gina and I deciding we wanted to write a cookbook and putting together the proposal for the publisher.

Then once it was accepted, stage two was physically writing the cookbook along with a fabulous writer Paula Disbrowe, who helped us put all our thoughts and all that we had written together on paper.

As Gina alluded to earlier, we were doing the cookbook while we were filming Road Tasted with the Neelys. We'd be sitting in the back of a car or in a back room in between segments writing our stories, and along with that, incorporating recipes into our stories. There's a recipe there that's for a meal Gina cooked for me when we first got back together.

And now we're in the final stages, which is promoting and selling the book, and that's why we're touring 17 cities. We’re typically doing two booksignings a day. We were on Good Morning America last week. We're doing Bonnie Hunt in the morning, and in a lot of the cities, like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York, we're doing the early-morning shows.

What's great about it is that throughout this whole tour, not a day goes by that Memphis isn't mentioned, so I think we're equally proud to represent Memphis and promote our wonderful city. We miss Memphis right now.

There's a recipe on the Food Network site for deep-fried deviled eggs. Really?

Gina: Now you know people in the South will fry everything. Deviled eggs are such a staple. What Pat and I try to do is take dishes that are traditions to us or mean a lot to us and do a "recipe remix." We take those dishes and we try to change them up a little bit to make them a little more fun. We thought, deviled eggs are always fun to eat and are little and dainty, but they're just deviled eggs. Why don't we try frying them? So we did a thing with panko and deep-fried them, and they were amazing.

Pat: The fried deviled egg isn't in the cookbook. We have a barbecue deviled egg. All these guys keep asking us, How do we come up with these recipes? It’s very simple. You can take a casserole and do so many things with it, whether you put lobster meat in it or barbecue. We do a macaroni-and-cheese we top off with bacon and potato chips. The same goes for potato salad, regular salad. The same goes with grilling. Coming from Memphis, you know we'll barbecue or grill anything. That's how we come up with recipes, and our minds are constantly churning to come up with new and different recipes. A lot of recipes that are on our television show are not in the book and vice versa.

Easily, the number-one word to describe you is "personable." Is there anything about yourselves that would be surprising to find out?

Gina: Probably that we're really like that. We get it a lot: You guys aren't always like that. I say, yes, we are. We are very personable people. Pat and I are similar that way. We're very outgoing.

Pat: Gina's absolutely right. One of the things we've enjoyed on this tour is that we get to meet the people who watch us. We tell them that you get to see us every day, but we don't get to see you. So, it's a lot of emotions and hugs and kisses when it comes to meeting people.

I think if there's one thing that people would be shocked to find out, that even though now our lives have been pushed upside-down, and we're traveling a lot, filming a lot of shows, and doing a lot of personal appearances, Gina and I still enjoy getting in the kitchen -- when the camera crews are not there -- with our daughters and cooking delicious meals.

As a matter of fact, we plan to get back home this week because our daughter's graduating eighth grade. We're coming in the middle part of the week for her graduation. We're breaking from the tour to be there to celebrate with Shelbi, and you can bank on one thing: We're going to have a house full of people to celebrate Shelbi's graduation because that's just how we do it. Even though we're busy, it hasn't changed us one bit. We're still Pat and Gina Neely.

Memphis barbecue: What besides Neely's are your favorite barbecue joints?

Gina: I was going to say what we get at home, but that still doesn't count because that's still Neely's.

Pat: When I first opened the business 21 years ago, I thought it was important to taste your competitors to gauge where you were. Then I was told by some of my mentors in the restaurant field, people like the late Thomas Boggs, don't worry about what other people are doing. Concentrate on what you're doing. I have to honestly say I’ve never eaten at Corky's, Cozy Corner, the Bar-B-Q Shop, A&R, Central Bar-B-Que. From what I hear, they have some great barbecue, but I've never gone to another barbecue restaurant.

I went to the Rendezvous back when Mr. Charlie [Vergos] was there because I admire him, admire what he did for downtown Memphis. But I didn't eat the barbecue. I ate the sausage, which I really enjoyed.

I will tell you this: The best barbecue in Memphis is not at one of the restaurants. It's in somebody's backyard. It's that guy who's got three slabs of ribs and has slowly cooked them, and basted them, and he’s taken his time to prepare them for his family. To me, there's not a barbecue joint in the city that can touch Leroy or James over there who's in his backyard with a big black smoker.

When we're out of town, people say, Let's take the Neelys to a barbecue place. That's the last place we want to go. I want to go and taste regional foods.

You were out of town for the barbecue fest. How could you?

Pat: We missed it. Isn't it awful?

Pat and Gina Neely booksignings: Friday, May 22nd, 7 p.m., at Barnes & Noble at Wolfchase Galleria Sunday, May 24th, 2 p.m., at Kroger at 676 Germantown Parkway in Cordova

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