My mother, a fine Southern cook, would have felt right at home in Dora Charles’s kitchen, where buttermilk biscuits are made from scratch and a can of bacon drippings sits near the stove.
Dora was only 6, when she began cooking at the elbow of her grandmother in Savannah. She first learned to brew a good pot of coffee. From there, she moved on to cooking smoked pigtails, fried chicken and a “mess o’ greens.” Dora Charles learned how to create pies out of whatever was growing in the nearby woods and fields and to coax flavor from lesser cuts of meat. People called it “make do” cooking, she said, because you had to make do with what was on hand.
She learned “to cook by ear,” not recipes. “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 you really know how to cook, in your bones.”
The culinary world met Dora, 61, when she was the cook-manager for Paula Deen, working in her kitchens for 22 years. One taste and she could tell whether or not the black-eyed peas or the grits measured up.
When the Deen team imploded, Dora set out to preserve her family and regional traditions by writing a cookbook. The newly baked volume was served up last month and is entitled A Real Southern Cook: In Her Savannah Kitchen.”
Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt brought in the best cookbook writers to help interpret Dora’s recipes, which she had never before reduced to exact measurements. “I taught 60 people to cook, but I didn’t hand them any recipes,” she said. Dora preserves not only her family traditions, but a part of Southern culture with such favorites as Baked Red Rice, Gone to Glory Potato Salad, Catfish Stew, Savannah Hoecakes, and Next Day Fried Greens.
Dora’s Scrumptious Bacon is mouthwatering—a mixture of 1/3 cup light brown sugar, 1/2 tsp. cayenne, and some black pepper pressed onto one side of a pound of thick-sliced bacon and baked (sugar side up) for 25-30 minutes. But her pound cake recipe caused me to gasp. It calls for a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, eight eggs, and a cup of sour cream. I’m sure it’s delicious.
The book is sprinkled with tips on seasoning and cooking techniques, such as: add a pinch of sugar to tomatoes, peas, and beans; add a couple tablespoons of sour cream to pancakes; and cook food slowly so the flavor can bloom.
You can read portions of her cookbook on Amazon. The writing style makes it an easy read. You feel like she’s giving you the recipes personally with all the asides you need for making a dish. Below is a simple kitchen staple she uses to enliven egg and vegetable dishes and to sprinkle over chicken or pork before cooking.
- 1/2 cup Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 2 scant Tbs. granulated garlic or garlic powder
- 1 Tbs. ground black pepper
Store in a tightly sealed glass jar. (Note: Lawry’s Seasoned Salt contains no MSG.)
Trivia Bit: When I first read about Dora Charles, the name sounded so familiar. Then I remembered I was thinking of Nora Charles. I’ll lose most of you here, but she was the wealthy heiress played by Myrna Loy and wife of detective Nick Charles, featured in 1940 novels and movies of the The Thin Man.