“A Real Southern Cook: In Her Savannah Kitchen” by Dora Charles with Fran McCullough, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25, 272-page hardcover
Dora Charles, who worked for Paula Deen for 22 years, from her original Savannah, Georgia, restaurant to Lady & Sons, has written a very personal cookbook. In it, she tells stories about all the good cooks in her family, going back to the days of slavery, and how she began cooking at the age of 6.
In the book’s introduction, she writes that she’s taught more than 60 people to cook, but the only recipes she wrote down were some large-quantity ones for Deen’s restaurant.
“Usually I just eyeball the food to death, feel it, and taste, taste, taste. My grandmother trained my eyes, my ears, my hands, and my taste buds and taught me to layer in the flavors, and to cook slow, with a lot of love.” If you can do that, she writes, you will really know how to cook, except for baked goods, which require precision.
She says she wants to share with her readers — especially the younger generation — why it’s important not to lose a connection to home-cooked food.
“There really is a joy in cooking,” with the pleasure coming from “the tasting, the sharing, the passing along,” she writes.
She divides her recipes into 10 chapters, beginning with what she calls morning food and ending with desserts. In between is a chapter about “some things you have to know how to make to be a good Southern cook,” such as pan-fried chicken, cornbread, biscuits and fried green tomatoes.
There are also chapters with recipes for dinner, such as smothered pork chops; others for church suppers and picnics; and one with recipes for special meals, such as pot roast, dressing and Sunday roast chicken with herb butter.
Her version of shrimp gumbo is nothing like that served in south Louisiana. Hers, she writes, is a lighter version, “one that’s not as thick or gloppy as the old New Orleans-style gumbo.”
Charles’ cookbook is illustrated with beautiful full-color photographs and is filled with recipes that Southerners love. But readers need to remember her recipes also reflect a definite sense of place — Savannah’s South.
And, Charles is offering recipes for her family’s “make-do” cooking, such as biscuits made with Bisquick and Sprite; a tomato pie that calls for 2?3 cup mayonnaise; and stewed tomatoes seasoned with sugar and Lawry’s Seasoned Salt. But, some recipes also seem to have been influenced by co-author Fran McCullough, a cookbook author who apparently introduced Charles to Kerrygold butter and helped her with recipes.
The book doesn’t say why Charles, who Deen often called her “soul sister” and of whom Charles mostly speaks fondly, left Deen’s employment.
However, Charles spoke up with her own claims of discrimination after a white manager at a Deen restaurant sued Paula Deen in federal court, claiming sexual harassment and racial discrimination. The racial claims eventually were dismissed by a federal judge; the rest of the suit was settled out of court.
Cheramie Sonnier is a food writer and columnist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter, @CheramieSonnier.