Rebecca Sharpless: The "Soul Sisters" in the Kitchen

tags: NYT, Rebecca Sharpless, Texas Christian University, Dora Charles, Idella Parker



Rebecca Sharpless, an associate professor of history at Texas Christian University, is the author of “Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960.”

FORT WORTH — DORA CHARLES and Idella Parker, two black Southern cooks, were born nearly a half century apart and likely never met. But if they did, they would be soul sisters.

Ms. Parker, born in 1914, would understand Ms. Charles’s story of cooking for Paula Deen, whose downfall over charges of racism got a little steeper last week, when Ms. Charles detailed her own fraught history with the celebrity chef. She would understand the fabulous food drenched in butter and sugar, the 15-hour days on tired feet, the wages insufficient to pay for health care. She would understand the famous boss with romantic notions of the South and its cuisine.

What Idella Parker might not understand is how conditions could have changed so little since she left the kitchen of her generation’s Paula Deen, the author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, in 1950. Ms. Charles’s and Ms. Deen’s conflicting accounts about their relationship loudly echo the experiences of generations of African-American cooks and their white employers.

Since the arrival of Europeans and Africans in the South in the early 17th century, black women have labored in kitchens controlled by white women, melding foods from three continents into a distinctive regional cuisine. And many of those white women have long taken credit for black women’s work, whether through their acclaimed “Southern” hospitality, their popular books about party hosting or their fortunes made from selling the food cooked by black women in taverns and restaurants....



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