SAVANNAH, Ga. —
Dora Charles and Paula Deen were soul sisters. That’s what Deen called the black cook from the start, even before the books and the television shows and the millions of dollars.
For 22 years, Charles was the queen of the Deen kitchens. She helped open the Lady & Sons, the restaurant that made 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,” Deen once said, “you better not put it out unless it passes this woman’s tongue.”
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The money was not great. Charles spent years making less than $10 an hour, even after Deen became a Food Network star. And there were tough moments. She said Deen used racial slurs. Once she wanted 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,’ ” 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 Deen, she said, held out the promise that together, they might get rich one day.
Now, Deen, 66, is fighting empire-crushing accusations of racism, and Charles, 59, nursing a bad shoulder, lives in an aging trailer home on the outskirts of Savannah.
“It’s just time that everybody knows Paula Deen don’t treat me the way they think she treat me,” she said.
The relationship between Charles and Deen is a complex one, laced with history and deep affection, whose roots can be traced back to the antebellum South. Depending whether Charles or Deen tells the story, it illustrates lives of racial inequity or benevolence.
Jessica Harris, the culinary scholar whose books have explored the role of Africans in the Southern kitchen, said Deen and Charles are characters in a story that has been played out since slaves first 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,” Harris said. “Think about who made money from the blues.”
Deen ran a restaurant in a Best Western hotel when Charles, newly divorced and tired of fast-food kitchens, walked in and auditioned by cooking her version of Southern food. Deen hired her immediately.
Their birthdays are a day apart, so they celebrated together. When Deen catered parties to survive until they could open the Lady & Sons, Charles hustled right beside her.
“If I lost Dora, I would have been devastated,” Deen wrote in her 2007 memoir, “It Ain’t All About the Cooking.”
Early on, Charles claims, Deen made her a deal: “Stick with me, Dora, and I promise you one day if I get rich, you’ll get rich.”
Now, 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.
That is where the two women’s stories diverge. Deen, through her publicity team, offered a statement denying all of Charles’ accusations: “Fundamentally Dora’s complaint is not about race but about money. It is about an employee that despite over 20 years of generosity feels that she still deserves yet even more financial support from Paula Deen.”
What is more, the document states, Deen “provided guidance and support through the many ups and downs of Mrs. Charles’ life.”
Investigators for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition have spoken to Charles. Robert Patillo, a lawyer for the coalition, visited Savannah in June and July to interview Deen’s restaurant employees, including Charles, who still works at the Lady & Sons.
The 20 or so others Patillo spoke with were divided on the conditions for black and white workers. Some said there was bias against blacks, while others said the Lady & Sons was a terrific place to work.
The Rainbow PUSH report said, “There was evidence of systemic racial discrimination and harassment at the operations.” But, it went on to say, “There is limited evidence of direct racism or racial discrimination” by Deen.
Charles says she is not expecting any money from Deen, especially not now. “I’m not trying to portray that she is a bad person,” she said. “I’m just trying to put my story out there that she didn’t treat me fairly and I was her soul sister.”
Certainly, power imbalances based on race exist in other parts of the country, but without the same historical resonance or familial love as in the South, said Hodding Carter III, a public-policy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the spokesman for the State Department under President Carter.
“It’s very hard for either one to come out and say the truth about the racial implications because it doesn’t seem so bad to either party,” Carter said. “What would you think if you spent 20 years with a rich family and all you got to was a trailer? But it’s not like everybody around her was making a ton of money, either. At the Deen house, it’s, ‘Man, we were doing good by her.’ ”
There were perks and kindnesses. Charles attended Deen’s wedding. Sometimes Charles appeared on the television shows as part of her day job. She also performed on 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 Deen’s star rose.
Charles’ family and friends got jobs with Deen, including Ineata Jones, whom everyone called Jellyroll. She couldn’t read or write much, but she could cook. She ended up as close to Deen as Charles was.
Deen used Jones for restaurant theater. At 11 a.m., when the doors opened at the Lady & Sons, she stood in front and rang an iron dinner bell, something she had asked Charles to do as well. An image of Jones doing just that was turned into a postcard sold at Paula Deen stores.
Jones was also in charge of making hoecakes, the cornmeal pancakes served to every guest. Deen had designed a station so diners could watch them being made. At both jobs, Charles and other employees said, Deen wanted Jones to dress in an old-style Aunt Jemima outfit.
“Jellyroll didn’t want to hear that,” Charles said. “She didn’t want to do that.”
In her statement, Deen said she never asked anyone to dress like Aunt Jemima. Nor, she said, has she referred to Charles and others using a racially offensive term for a black child, as Charles claims.
Jones, who makes $10 an hour, said in a telephone interview that she had only positive comments about Deen and declined to speak further for this article.
Deen offered a legal document Jones signed on July 6 saying she had not been discriminated against, nor, as others claimed, had she heard Deen use racial slurs.
In 2010, Lisa T. Jackson, a white manager working at Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, the restaurant Deen set up for her brother, Earl Hiers, known as Bubba, voiced claims of racism and sexual harassment in the Deen empire.
Her complaints form the basis of a federal lawsuit winding through the court system. Deen’s deposition, in which she admitted to using a racial slur, led to devastating losses in her fortunes as several marketing partners, including four casino restaurants, the Food Network, her book publisher, Wal-Mart and the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, stopped working with her.
Jackson, in her own deposition, said she was surprised to hear Deen use a racial slur, especially because she appeared to love Charles.
“It was like, how could — you know, how could she say something like that?” said Jackson, who now lives in Atlanta.
Jackson told Charles that she was paid less than others who helped run the kitchen and who had not been there as long. Those people were white. Jackson introduced her to S. Wesley Woolf, the Savannah lawyer who would go on to file the suit.
Woolf helped Charles and three other employees file complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The agency will not make public the results of those complaints.
Around that time, Jamie Deen, the son who now runs the flagship restaurant, put Charles on a salary of about $71,000 a year. Whether that decision was connected to the EEOC complaint remains in dispute. Jamie Deen says it was not. He gave her a bonus and the title of quality-control manager. He even said the family would fix a rotting floor in her mobile home.
And, documents show, he reminded her to keep contributing to the company retirement plan, which Paula Deen says she set up with Charles in mind.
So Charles went back to work, using the money to catch up on bills and help care for her four grandchildren. She did not press things in court because, she said, she did not want the mess.
“I didn’t have nobody to stand behind me,” she said.
Lawyers on both sides of the suit are stockpiling statements.
“It’s just such a complex drama,” said Marcie Ferris, a professor who coordinates the Southern studies program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It points to the fact that race is at the heart of Southern food and you can’t avoid it.”
Charles realizes that her time with Paula Deen is over, and that she will soon leave her kitchen. But the relationship will always be there.
“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.”