Paula Deen’s Cook Tells of Slights, Steeped in History
By KIM SEVERSON
SAVANNAH, Ga. — Dora Charles and Paula Deen were soul sisters. That’s what Ms. Deen called the black cook from the start, even before the books and the television shows and the millions of dollars.
For 22 years, Mrs. Charles was the queen of the Deen kitchens. She helped open the Lady & Sons, the restaurant here that made Ms. Deen’s career. She developed recipes, trained other cooks and made sure everything down to the collard greens tasted right.
“If it’s a Southern dish,” Ms. Deen once said, “you better not put it out unless it passes this woman’s tongue.”
The money was not great. Mrs. Charles spent years making less than $10 an hour, even after Ms. Deen became a Food Network star. And there were tough moments. She said Ms. Deen used racial slurs. Once she wanted Mrs. Charles to ring a dinner bell in front of the restaurant, hollering for people to come and get it.
“I said, ‘I’m not ringing no bell,’” Mrs. Charles said. “That’s a symbol to me of what we used to do back in the day.”
For a black woman in Savannah with a ninth-grade education, though, it was good steady work. And Ms. Deen, she said, held out the promise that together, they might get rich one day.
Now, Ms. Deen, 66, is fighting empire-crushing accusations of racism, and Mrs. Charles, 59 and nursing a bad shoulder, lives in an aging trailer home on the outskirts of Savannah.
“It’s just time that everybody knows that Paula Deen don’t treat me the way they think she treat me,” she said.
The relationship between Mrs. Charles and Ms. Deen is a complex one, laced with history and deep affection, whose roots can be traced back to the antebellum South. Depending on whether Mrs. Charles or Ms. Deen tells the story, it illustrates lives of racial inequity or benevolence.
Jessica B. Harris, a culinary scholar whose books have explored the role of Africans in the Southern kitchen, said Ms. Deen and Mrs. Charles are characters in a story that has been played out since slaves started cooking for whites. “Peering through the window of someone else’s success when you have been instrumental in creating that success is not a good feeling,” Ms. Harris said. “Think about who made money from the blues.”
Ms. Deen ran a restaurant in a Best Western hotel when Mrs. Charles, newly divorced and tired of fast-food kitchens, walked in and auditioned by cooking her version of Southern food. Ms. Deen hired her immediately.
Their birthdays are a day apart, so they celebrated together. When Ms. Deen catered parties to survive until they could open the Lady & Sons, Mrs. Charles hustled right beside her.
“If I lost Dora, I would have been devastated,” Ms. Deen wrote in her 2007 memoir, “It Ain’t All About the Cooking.”
Early on, Mrs. Charles claims, Ms. Deen made her a deal: “Stick with me, Dora, and I promise you one day if I get rich you’ll get rich.”
Now, Mrs. Charles said, she wished she had gotten that in writing. “I didn’t think I had to ’cause we were real close back then,” she said.