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.