Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
You might remember the name Dora Charles from headlines in the weeks and months of Paula Deen’s very public fall from grace — beginning from the moment the former Food Network star was accused of permitting an atmosphere of racism and sexism to flourish in one of her restaurants.
Charles, whom Paula once called her soul sister, eventually confirmed that she had witnessed racism in Deen’s flagship restaurant, the Lady & Sons, and that for many years, she made as little as $10 an hour, despite often cooking side by side with Paula.
But the chef, who worked for Deen for 22 years, has much more to offer than her memories of a celebrity chef. Since leaving Paula’s employ, Dora Charles has moved on to create her own culinary legacy, beginning with her very first cookbook, A Real Southern Cook: In Her Savannah Kitchen.
“I see this food as a tribute to those who came before me, who worked so incredibly hard for so little,” Charles writes in her book, which honors recipes that came from a culture of survival and necessity.
In a New York Times profile, Charles is described thusly:
“Ms. Charles, 61, is descended from sharecroppers and, before them, slaves. She owes her skill to the practiced hands of nimble cooks who could create pies out of whatever the children brought back from the woods, and satisfying meals from animal parts rejected by white plantation owners.
“The lunch she is about to set on her table in this suburb of Savannah is a modern expression of the scarcity branch of the African-American culinary family tree. Some people simply call it make-do cooking.”
Incidentally, A Real Southern Cook will debut September 8, the same day as Paula’s latest cookbook, Paula Deen Cuts the Fat. Charles says that she remains grateful to Paula for her years of help and guidance, and that the right food can always bring people together.
“A lot of people don’t realize that Southern country food is pretty much the same for both black people and white people,” she tells the Times, recalling a moment when she was asked to outline the difference. “Except most black cooks are more concerned with seasoning.”