Dora Charles admits she's ready for a new chapter in her life. A chapter filled with questions about her life rather than questions about her former employer, Paula Deen.
But in her new cookbook, "A Real Southern Cook in Her Savannah Kitchen," which came out Sept. 8, Charles writes briefly about her relationship with Deen, so it's hard to not bring up questions about their relationship.
Charles was Deen's former employee for 22 years. Their close relationship began with the small restaurant at the Best Western in southside Savannah to private catering gigs around town up to the now-iconic The Lady & Sons restaurant downtown.
She refers to Deen as her "soul sister" and writes that the two were born one day apart and celebrated their birthdays together.
The stories in her book mentioning Deen are mostly happy ones about playing pranks and trying to teach Deen to dance in the kitchen, but those happy tales begin to fade as Charles writes, "When Paula became a national celebrity, things at the restaurant started to change."
When asked what happened, Charles hints that the kitchen lost its once playful tone. Rather than listening to music and singing while cooking, the kitchen took on a more serious tone. Charles says people in charge said the kitchen was to be a quiet place.
When asked what she considers a "happy kitchen," Charles says her grandmother taught her to cook when she was a little girl and she also taught her that food tastes better when you have a joyful place to cook.
"My grandmother, she was a God-sent woman, and she played the radio all the time and she always had it on the gospel channel. She'd be in there singing ... When I started cooking on my own, I would get in there and play the radio and sing my favorite songs and ... dance and I would bring the kids in there, too. We just have fun while I'm cooking and sweat it all out.
"... Having fun puts a little love in the pot. I enjoy cooking and when the family comes over to eat, they go, "Oh my God, this is good ... Cooking is how I show I love them."
In her book, Charles writes that she enjoyed her time with Deen, but leaving The Lady & Sons was good for her.
"I had been unhappy for a long time; it was really time to go. God works in mysterious ways and he just showed me things. When God says it's time, it's time. I have no regrets."
And now she tries to look on the bright side of life. She says when Deen learned about her book deal with the successful publishing house Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, she sent Charles flowers to congratulate her. "I was hoping she was sincere about it," Charles says. "I just took it as her trying to be sincere ... and I sent her a thank you card."
But Charles can't help but laugh when asked what she thought when she learned Deen's new book, "Paula Deen Cuts the Fat," was to be released the exact same day as her own.
"Fran (McCullough) called to say, 'Well, Paula's got a book coming out the same day.' I didn't sweat it at all. Whatever God has for me is for me and the same for Paula."
McCullough is the writer for Charles' book. Charles dropped out of school around ninth grade and admits she has trouble reading and writing.
"I told the story. (Fran) is a really good writer, so she wrote it out for me. I explained it and she knew what I was saying. She put it into words, and I read it back and if it was not what I meant, I would tell her, 'That's not me. Those words they aren't mine.' And we would fix it."
She says the process took about two years and began after The New York Times came down to interview her in 2013 after Deen
had admitted in a lawsuit deposition she made racist remarks. A judge later dismissed the suit.
And while Charles says she doesn't have any regrets, she does say she hasn't done much since she left her job at The Lady & Sons. She is hopeful the publication of her book will lead to new opportunities and possibly another book.
"A Real Southern Cook in Her Savannah Kitchen" isn't just a list of recipes and a collection of styled food photos. It reads almost like a mini-memoir with the beginning of Charles' life starting with her breakfast menu and ending with stories about her grandchildren and dessert. Along the way, readers learn about Charles' childhood, growing up with no mother and raised by her grandmother on East Duffy Street. She relates stories of her family to traditions and places important to her Southern heritage as well as her connection to Savannah.
And she gives her own secrets and tricks of the trade to make everything from the perfect biscuit to the best fried chicken.
The book is dedicated to her father, a man who couldn't read or write. She says he would have been very proud of her.
"I don't think he would have thought I would go far. It's not that I wasn't a good child; I just didn't have a very good start.
"... I never thought I would have come that far."
Charles says she still lives in Garden City and she keeps busy these days helping her daughter raise her grandchildren.
"I give them advice to stay in school. I was blessed to get by in life, but it was not easy. It was hard dodging the fact that you can't read or spell well on an application. It would take me an hour or so to fill out an application, to spell and find the words. I would have to take someone with me to help, and that wasn't easy. So I advise them to go to school and get their education and go to college."
And she also has advice to young women in Savannah who may find themselves struggling like she did.
"If they have a dream, I say go for it. Wherever you are at, do the best you can. And be happy.
"... Also, I would never just up and quit before you have another job. Stabilize yourself first or it will only get you further into debt.
"... Going for your dreams might seem impossible, but nothing is impossible ... Put God in head of your life and he will see you though; I'm a witness. And always do the best you can even if you don't like what is going on around you."
And Charles says she is proud of what she has accomplished in life, but she is most proud of her daughter and her grandchildren.
"Even before the book, I thank God for the struggle I had. I held it all together and I still have a roof over my head. I could have been someone out there that fell apart and didn't have anything. I'm proud of myself for being who I am and I grateful for God for the love he put in my heart.
"For what little I have, I am thankful for it."
DORA CHARLES' RECIPE FOR POTATO-CHIP CHICKEN FROM "A REAL SOUTHERN COOK IN HER SAVANNAH KITCHEN"
Serves six or more
This recipe sounds like it might be a joke, but it's really dynamite. Chicken drumsticks with a potato chip crust - what could be bad? Crunchcrunchcrunch, with tender, succulent chicken under the crunch. After I tasted it at my friend Dorothy Lee's house, I had to get the recipe. It's fun to make, fun to eat, and as addictive as potato chips. And, of course, kids just love it.
You have to use rippled potato chips, and not low-salt or no-salt. Then you'll salt it all again - but don't worry, it's not too salty in the end.
12 chicken drumsticks, rinsed and patted dry
1 teaspoon Dora's Savannah Seasoning
1 (9.5-ounce) bag rippled potato chips
2 teaspoons salt
Â½ cup self-rising flour
2 large eggs, beaten with 1 tablespoon water with a fork
1. Set the oven to 425 degrees and adjust the rack positions to the upper and lower thirds.
2. Massage the drumsticks with the Savannah seasoning and set aside.
3. Put half the potato chips into a food processor, along with 1 teaspoon of salt. Grind into medium crumbs, about 15 seconds, stopping at least once to stir up the chips. Put the crumbs in a large, shallow dish and repeat with the remaining chips and 1 teaspoon salt. Add to the bowl.
4. Now things get a little messy, so put down some newspaper on your counter. Put the flour in one large shallow dish and the beaten eggs in another. Make an assembly line, with the potato chip crumbs at the end. Have ready two baking sheets with racks perched on top.
5. Dip one drumstick in the flour to cover, shake well, and dip it into the eggs, turning to coat. Then, finally, the drumstick goes into the potato chip crumbs - press them in so the drumstick is well covered, and set it on the rack on one baking sheet. Repeat these steps with the remaining drumsticks.
6. Bake the chicken for 20 minutes and rotate the baking sheets. Bake for 10 to 20 more minutes, and then test one drumstick at the thickest point with a skewer. If the juices run clear, it's done. If not, keep cooking and testing every 10 minutes until the juices run clear.
7. Serve hot or warm.
Tip: You can use 12 chicken thighs instead of drumsticks if you'd rather. The cooking time is the same.
DORA'S SAVANNAH SEASONING
Makes about 2/3 cup
I keep this basic spicy seasoning mix in a little jar by the stovetop - I use it that often. It's good with almost everything, from eggs to chicken to pork and even some vegetables, and you can save yourself a little time making it up ahead.
Always taste what you're cooking once it's gone in, because you may find you need a little more of one or two elements to bring up the flavor.
1âD3 cup Lawry's Seasoned Salt
1âD4 cup salt
2 scant tablespoons granulated garlic or garlic powder
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
In a small bowl, mix everything together very thoroughly. Store the seasoning in a tightly sealed glass jar. It will keep for up to three months.