Keep Calm and Fry a ChickenAn honest-to-goodness Southern food virtuoso gives a couple of kitchen novices a lesson in the joy of cooking. Amy Paige Condon takes notes | Photography by Teresa Earnest
Meet Our GuestsDora Charles For more than 22 years, native daughter Dora filled our bellies with heart-and-soul food—first at The Bag Lady then at The Lady and Sons. Her cookbook, A Real Southern Cook in her Savannah Kitchen (HMH), was released in 2015. Emily Jones You know Emily’s voice as the host of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s local “Morning Edition.” She’s also a graduate of Brown University and the Columbia Journalism School, and once hosted the alt-rock Retro Lunch program at WBRU as her DJ alter-ego, Domino. Gabrielle Ware As the all-platform journalist for GPB Savannah and host for “All Things Considered,” Gabrielle has reported on everything from Savannah’s crime rate to Gullah-Geechee culture. A Midwesterner by birth, her family’s roots run deep in the South. She graduated from Auburn University.
Typically in this column, we drink. We use two of the most lasting hallmarks of Savannah’s identity—cocktails and colorful conversation—to illuminate a subculture, to teach us something new about ourselves. We’re serving up something different for our annual food issue, however. We wondered, what would happen if we threw a seasoned Southern cook in with two recent come-heres and invited them to make a meal together? We expected some hijinks, lots of questions and a few minor burns when we teamed GPB Savannah’s Emily Jones and Gabrielle Ware with cookbook author Dora Charles. We were going to fry some chicken, after all. But, what surprised us was the depth of communion that occurred from the moment we began chopping vegetables to when we finally sat down to eat. Dora sets us up first by putting on salted water to boil, then peeling a pound of Idaho potatoes for her Gone to Glory Potato Salad. As she cubes the tubers in small, near-uniform pieces, she soaks them in cold water so that they don’t turn brown. Dora doesn’t like to use a potato peeler. Emily chops the celery into a fine dice, which she’s doing like an expert after Dora shows her a technique of splitting the stalk into sections with the tip of a sharp knife, then cutting the slender segments crosswise into tiny crescents of fresh green. Savannah Magazine: You use russets instead of red-skinned potatoes. Why is that? Dora Charles: They seem to suit my tastes better. I just don’t like the skin on potatoes in my salad. I use the same potatoes my grandmother used. They might not have been russet; she grew her own potatoes, of course. Emily Jones: So that’s the closest you’ve found to that flavor? Dora: Yes, they are. SM: Your grandmother taught you to cook at the age of 6, right? Dora: I watched my grandmother cook all the time. She loved coffee. She was a great baker. And I would just watch and watch. One day I asked her, “Can I cook?” And she said, “Make me a good cup of coffee, and I’ll teach you how to cook.” I knew I had that mastered, because I watched her and learned. And I always sang that Maxwell House song from back in the day, and I would sing that song when she made her coffee in that pot, and it would perc. That’s when you knew that coffee was ready. I knew exactly how she liked her cream and sugar—she used that Carnation cream in a can. When she tasted it, she enjoyed that first cup of coffee I made for her. SM: So you were already a pro. Dora: I was on my way. The first thing she gave me to make was brown gravy. Emily: That’s hard. Dora: That’s what everybody says. But, it wasn’t that hard for me when I did it. I made too much. I made so much gravy, and I was so nervous about it. I didn’t want her to think I didn’t know what I was doing. So my sister and my brother, they dug a hole for me in the back yard, and we buried the gravy as I was making it. (We all break down laughing.) It kept getting real thick, but she was watching TV in the living room. So as I got enough out, it turned out just right. Was seasoned just right. And when she tasted it at dinner, she said, “Perfect.” She never knew—Oh Lord, forgive me—she never knew. SM: You became the chief gravy maker. Dora: I still am to this day. She explains that the secret to good gravy is to work it slowly. “Add only scant oil to the flour,” she says, describing how she seasons the flour and oil only after they’ve mixed well and the taste of the flour is gone. By this time, Emily has finished chopping the celery. Dora approves of Emily’s technique, then grabs a white onion for Emily to get started on while Gabrielle gathers video evidence of the lesson. Emily: Gabby, how sensitive are you to onions? Gabrielle Ware: I haven’t chopped an onion in, probably, years. Emily reveals an extreme sensitivity to raw onions—to the point she has to move across the kitchen before her eyes spill over. Dora takes over the onion chopping like a boss, demonstrating how she peels away the first tough layers and rinses the onion under cold running water. The cold water helps prevent crying, she says. Photographer Teresa Earnest offers that she holds a slice of white bread in her mouth and that it really works. “But the bread tastes like a raw onion after,” she grimaces. “I hold two matchsticks between my two front teeth,” I offer. Dora laughs and shakes her head. Her nails are expertly manicured in varying shades of pastels, just like Easter eggs. “You can soak the onions in ice water, too,” she advises as she slices the onion so thin it looks like a gossamer veil, then comes back through and cuts crosswise. Dora: If you make it small enough that they can’t see it, then they can’t say they don’t eat onions—like my grandson. It’s one of the best seasonings. Emily: It’s kind of mind-blowing how tiny you’re cutting those pieces. Dora says she never uses a food processor. Our conversation drifts to the virtues of gas over electric stoves. SM: You worked with Paula Deen for 22 years, right? Did you start when it was The Bag Lady? Dora: I did. SM: You mention in your cookbook trying to teach Paula Deen to dance. Dora: It was so funny. Oh my goodness, I never seen nobody with no rhythm at all. When we would be having a busy day and we slowed up, we would just start dancing … and I don’t know how she’d do it, but … (Dora counts out a rhythm and sways her hips while Gabrielle catches it on camera) and my best friend would be on the other side, and we’re tearing it up, and Paula’s knocking into us. (Laughter.) You can sense Dora has fond memories of her years working alongside Paula and that she takes great pride in having helped build a business. SM: How many people do you think you’ve taught to cook? Your cookbook says 60. Dora: It’s got to be more than that. My whole family, my best friends. One of my friends, her man kept saying, “I want Dora’s food.” It was almost embarrassing. So, one day, she came to me and asked me to teach her how to cook, because, she says, “I’m tired of my man wanting Dora’s stuff.” She got so good, she ended up working for us at Paula’s. SM: Emily and Gabby, what foods are particular to your families? Emily: I’m from New Jersey—near Philadelphia, nothing to do with The Sopranos. (Laughter.) Most of my family is pretty solidly English, but my mom’s side of the family is German and there’s a fair amount of spaetzle to go with pot roast from The Silver Palate Cookbook. I’m often the chopper for the family. Gabrielle: I’m from the Midwest, but my family is from the Deep South—so it was soul food in the house. My mom makes the best collard greens. Maybe I’m biased, but… Emily: Not at all. Certainly not. Gabrielle: She makes ridiculously good candied yams. SM: What does she do to them? Gabrielle: Umm … here’s the thing. (Laughter.) I never really learned my mother’s techniques for things. Now I want to know, but as a girl I never wanted to learn any of that. She’s such a good cook, and I feel like I missed out. Teresa Earnest: Have her write down the recipes in her own handwriting so you’ll have a keepsake. We talk about other cherished family recipes: Emily’s grandmother’s pumpkin chiffon pie, sand tarts and cheese dream. Gabrielle’s mother makes peanut butter candy—not brittle—but with cornflakes and peanut butter. Teresa: We had that in elementary school! Emily: If you could make that and bring it to the office, I’d be okay with that. Dora shows us how she cuts up peppers for both the potato and bright pepper salads. The peppers join the onions and celery in a holy trinity, awaiting their dispersal into various dishes. When the potatoes are fork tender, we drain them in a colander in the sink, then let them cool. Someone sets up Dora’s phone to play gospel music, so we work with the sounds of a choir in the background. It’s one of the most joyful moments I’ve ever experienced in a kitchen full of people moving in all different directions. Teresa: I love how relaxed you are in the kitchen. I’m a very frenzied cook. Dora: I am. When I get in there, I’m just ready to cook and to have fun with it. SM: It’s totally second nature to you? Dora: It is. I stay calm so I can get it done. If you panic, it’s over with. We tell her she needs her own cooking show. She says she wants to open her own restaurant and is just biding her time until she finds the right place. With all of the vegetable prep done, we get started on panfried chicken. Dora fills her grandmother’s cast iron skillet about halfway up the side with vegetable oil then heats it over medium-high heat on the stove. She takes chicken pieces, which have been seasoned and have been bathing in buttermilk in the fridge, and places them one by one in a bag filled with self-rising flour. Every few moments, she holds her hand over the pan to test its warmth. Finally she tosses in a few drifts of flour to see and hear how they sizzle. Dora: It’s ready. She shows Emily and Gabrielle how to gently lay the drumsticks, thighs and wings away from them in the skillet. They are a little wary of the hot oil, but take their turns. We discuss the finer points of cooking oil, Crisco and lard. Dora prefers lard. “I think you get more out of lard, it holds better, and it can be used again. It might give off a little more crisp,” she says, adding that she often throws in saved bacon grease for deeper layers. “If you have canned goods and are short on time, you could add a little bacon grease to give it the flavor of fresh beans.” The sparkle and crackle of the chicken frying heightens our appetites. While Dora finishes up the potato salad by hand mixing all of the ingredients together, I make the pepper salad, following her recipe to the letter. Soon, the chicken is done, and we lay out the feast. After making our plates, we sit at the dining table with glasses of iced tea. Just before we dig in, we pause and say grace. Then, we savor every bite. It’s the quietest moment we’ve shared all day. Special thanks to Jane Townsend and David Levy for use of their kitchen.
Bright Peppers SaladServes 6 I love the happy colors of bright bell peppers, so I decided to create a whole salad with all different colors, sparked up with some red onions and fresh green herbs. It’s gorgeous to look at, great for any season and seems to go with anything else you’re serving. It can travel perfectly and sit on a buffet table for hours. You can use just red, yellow and orange peppers, or add a green and even a purple one if they’re in the market. They all have slightly different tastes, so more colors are not only more beautiful, they also make the flavors of the salad a little more interesting.
- 5 bell peppers of many colors, cut into thin slices
- ½ medium red onion, cut into thin half moons
- 2 tablespoons champagne vinegar, rice vinegar or other mild white vinegar
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and ground black pepper to taste
- A large handful of chopped, mixed fresh herbs of your choice: parsley, dill, chives and/or min