Rebecca Sharpless on Paula Deen, Dora Charles, and the History of Southern Kitchens

The downfall of cooking celebrity Paula Deen reached new heights last week as The New York Times interviewed Dora Charles, the African-American chef behind the success of Deen’s award winning restaurant “The Lady and Sons.” Deen has proclaimed their relationship to be that of “soul sisters,” but Charles explains it much differently.

Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens by Rebecca SharplessIn an Op-Ed piece appearing in this week’s The New York TimesRebecca Sharpless, author of Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960, traces the long and troubling history of  black cooks and their white employers. Specifically, she juxtaposes Charles and Deen’s story with another celebrity chef, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and her personal cook, Idella Parker.

Ms. Parker, like Ms. Charles, provided the means for her employer to shine as a food expert, cooking for Ms. Rawlings at her home in the village of Cross Creek, Fla., throughout the 1940s.

Ms. Rawlings, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel “The Yearling,” brought New York literati and Hollywood stars to her orange farm to enjoy fine meals of the freshest local ingredients. In 1942, she published “Cross Creek Cookery,” a compendium of her favorite local recipes, like “Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie.” The book made her one of the country’s foremost food celebrities.

When she published her memoir a half-century later, Ms. Parker recalled her participation in producing the cookbook. “Many of the recipes in the book were mine, but she only gave me credit for three of them, including ‘Idella’s Biscuits,’ ” she said. “And of course it was me who did most of the cooking when we were trying all the recipes out. All I ever got from the cookbook was an autographed copy, but in those days I was grateful for any little crumb that white people let fall, so I kept my thoughts about the cookbook strictly to myself.”

Her full article, “The ‘Soul Sisters’ in the Kitchen,” can be can be read on The New York Times online edition. Sharpless delves further into the history of the challenges facing black women in the cooking industry:

Of course, white employers typically believed that their cooks loved them and cooked for them out of that love. When Ms. Deen claimed that she and Ms. Charles were “soul sisters,” she fell squarely into the tradition of declaring an employee to be just like a member of the family.

But black employees, like Ms. Charles, have always realized that the marketplace was squarely at the center of the relationships. They struggled to negotiate favorable hours, wages and working conditions, and turnover was frequent. Some cooks did stay for decades with the same families, as Ms. Charles did with Ms. Deen, but they were the exception rather than the rule. And racism permeated the homes of Southern employers, with the employees segregated into the kitchen with separate eating utensils.

Rebecca Sharpless is associate professor of history at Texas Christian University. She is the author of Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 and Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices: Women on Texas Cotton Farms. For further reading, check out a blog post covering Sharpless and Vannessa May’s  discussion of the 2011 film The Help.