Paula Deen’s Cook, Dora Charles, Finally Surfaces
My grandmother was a domestic; variously, she was a housekeeper, a cleaning woman who also had a side business with my grandfather as a laundress. (He had learned a skill: to clean and press suits.) She was also a domestic who may have also cooked for her employers. I remember her Sunday dinners and her holiday dinners, and how she would bake pies from scratch and preserve pickles and figs, and boil crabs and shrimp straight from Canal Villerie, Schwegmann’s, or the French Market. I only wish that she had lived to see me a bit older and ready to receive what she had learned in her lifetime about cooking beyond consulting The Creole Cookbook. She was probably one of the last, on my mother’s side of the family, to live on the land rather than in the city.
This is not to say that all black women are great cooks. A lot of black women only know how to nuke a meal. Or just make macaroni and cheese. They make meals out of boxes. To me, you are really a cook when you take a recipe further than what is written down. You add an ingredient or two, or take one away and replace it with another, and the results can be nothing less than a revelation. Or, to me, you’re really a cook when you cook from memory and from your senses…especially how much of one ingredient to use. No matter. I can do both with certain recipes, and I was largely self-taught. I learned my limits from friends and relatives, and hey, I am still learning. I learned how to start a meal not with just boiling water, but with cutting up onions (of every and any taste), celery, garlic, sweet peppers, and parsley. I know when everyone is digging the meal when there are seconds, thirds, and there are no leftovers.
When this Paula Deen controversy broke out, I was really waiting for the other shoe to drop about the woman. What was that shoe? Simply this: that behind many Southern white women cooks who have a public presence and a public following, there is a black woman chef (or two) who is still underpaid, unappreciated, and unacknowledged for what she contributed to the white woman’s fame. This was true even during slavery, when it was the black cooks who brought their culinary expertise to white plantation kitchens or house kitchens. This is what I and a lot of other black observers believed was the truth about Paula Deen. Myself, I could not abide her. There was a sunny glare about her that spoke volumes of fake and phoniness.
Well, the black woman behind Paula Deen finally emerged today in the pages of the New York Times. Her name is Dora Charles. She is 59 years old, living in a trailer, and wondering what she should do next. And she is not only a victim of Deen’s racism and greed. She is a victim of the paternalism and fear still pervasive in the South in the 21st century as the powers that are set to rob blacks once again of the right to vote, to live where they wish, to go to school and college, to sit on juries, and even of life in the case of Trayvon Martin. This woman worked and lived so closely and personally with Deen, she still thinks of her as a friend though Deen has ripped her off over the years while claiming to “love” her. Just like any black person under slavery. Harriet Tubman was right: she could have brought thousands more blacks out of slavery if they had only realized that they were slaves.
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.”
I can see why Deen would talk about her woes strictly in terms of someone trying to take away “her” livelihood, and is leeching off her after 20 years of so-called beneficence. Not if you made that money off what this woman created, and gave her only handouts compared to the millions you banked. It should have been fifty-fifty. Of course, Dora Charles only had a ninth grade education, so Deen could afford to take advantage of her. In hindsight, Charles admits that she should have put Deen’s pronouncements about getting her fair share in writing.
Now get this: when Lisa Jackson initially filed the lawsuit against Paula Deen, Jackson introduced Charles and Ineata Jones and another employee to her EEOC attorney, S. Wesley Woolf. They joined her in filing complaints of discrimination against Paula Deen.
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.”
I repeat, less than $10 per hour. Another article says that it was more like $6, which is more in line with McDonald’s.
Why would this be an insult? Because it comes from the time of slavery. I’ve read of black slave children being summoned by bell to eat at a trough like farm animals, without plates, bowls or tableware. This is unlike, for example, someone in the West ringing a bell for some hired hands to come eat. Those hands got paid. Getting cast-off, hand-me-down clothes and the worst parts of the pig is not payment. Deen got another cook to ring the bell, Ineata “Jellyroll” Jones, but Deen also wanted Jones to dress up as a mammy figure.
Ms. Jones was also in charge of making hoecakes, the cornmeal pancakes served to every guest. Ms. Deen had designed a station so diners could watch them being made. At both jobs, Mrs. Charles and other employees said, Ms. Deen wanted Ms. Jones to dress in an old-style Aunt Jemima outfit.
“Jellyroll didn’t want to hear that,” Mrs. Charles said. “She didn’t want to do that.”
In her statement, Ms. Deen said she had never asked anyone to dress like Aunt Jemima. Nor, she said, has she referred to Mrs. Charles and others using a racially offensive term for a black child, as Mrs. Charles claims.
A photograph of Ms. Jones ringing the bed was later made into a postcard which was sold at Deen’s restaurants.
However, Deen and her family decided to end-run the complaint by offering Dora Charles a $71,000 a year position as a quality control manager as well as a bonus and an offer to repair the roof of her mobile home. So Charles went back to work for this money as well as to make contributions to the company retirement fund, and did not pursue further action on the lawsuit.
Meaning, once business stabilizes and the suits are over, so is Dora Charles, although she and others are quietly speaking to Jesse jackson’s Operation PUSH and its attorneys about another suit. Wanna bet how valuable that retirement fund in Charles’ name truly is? Or whether her five-figure job will last all the way up to retirement at 65? I’ll bet there is no health plan in the Deen culinary empire. In these parlous times, she is the grandmother of four and raises and supports all of them.
It’s not that Deen did not treat Charles as special, but that is not the same as having equality in the relationship, which was both personal and financial.
There were perks and kindnesses. Mrs. Charles attended Ms. Deen’s wedding. Sometimes Mrs. Charles appeared on the television shows as part of her day job. She also performed on Ms. Deen’s signature cruises, taking vacation time to do so, though her expenses were paid. She sometimes received clothes and other free goods that came along as Ms. Deen’s star rose.
Everything except being brought in as an equal partner in the relationship. Which makes me wonder, who really owns those recipes in the cookbooks and on the videos? Whose hands and fingers got messy lining up the ingredients and burned testing them out?
Charles was also photographed in the background on the cover of at least one of Deen’s cookbooks. But Charles did not really rise along with Paula Deen. Yet she still calls herself Deen’s friend, though her “soul sister” doesn’t speak to her any more.
“I still have to be her friend if I’m God’s child,” she said. “I might feed her with a long-handled spoon, but, yeah, I’m still her friend.”
Yeah, right. I also note that the Deen empire originates at Savannah, Georgia, which is also the area from where the nation’s only black Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, hails. I can see where he gets his ethos, and why he yearns for a paternalistic, less equal time in American history. One would think that those particular times are over, but they aren’t. The past is never past, it is present right along with us. It threatens to bring us all back to the future.
- Paula Deen Left ‘Soul Sister’ Behind (theroot.com)
- Paula Deen Racism Details Revealed: Former Cook’s New Allegations Of Discrimination, False Promises and Low Pay From Celebrity Chef (VIDEOS) (hngn.com)
- Paula Deen Asked an Employee to Dress Up Like Aunt Jemima and Other New Racist Accusations (celebuzz.com)
- Paula Deen Under Fire For More Racial Allegations (celebnmusic247.com)
- Paula Deen Allegedly Ordered Her African-American Cook to Dress Like Aunt Jemima (complex.com)
- Paula Deen Wanted Her “Soul Sister” And Chef To Dress Up Like Aunt Jemima (dlisted.com)