Well-Known Lafayette Native Chef Pays Respect to the Unnamed Deep South Curators of Cuisine
By C.F. Jolivette
Lafayette native and chef, Carolyn Shelton, has charmed kitchens and television studios alike over her near 50-year career. She’s been in the company of Phil Donahue, Dick Gregory, Sylvia Chase, and late New Orleans food icon and personal friend, Leah Chase. She is known as a chef, television/radio personality, author, speaker, and a manner and etiquette coach for youth in the South. Her reputation in these facets has brought her to the sides of some of the world’s giants in food, culture, and entertainment.
Shelton claims she got most of her culinary knowledge from her mother, Angelina Zeno, and her grandmothers. In her early professional days, she worked as a flight attendant and left that career to pursue a working life as a Chef, Restaurateur, Chef Consultant, and Cookbook Author. Her writings are distributed from Southern kitchens to worldwide bookstores. Her works include Angelina’s Zydeco Okra Cookbook, Zydeco Blues and Gumbo, and Carolyn’s Creole Cajun Celebrity Cookbook among others. Her book Coffee, Tea or Watermelon: Life as a Flight Attendant speaks of her days working for an airline. “I might be on the beach in Maui or Honolulu having Mai Tai’s, but I knew that if I really wanted to eat good, I had to come home,” she says.
Well-known corporations have teamed up with Shelton to appear on her cooking shows, videos, and CDs. Hamilton Beach, Kitchen Aid, Le Creuset, Lodge Logic, Louisiana Fish Fry, Louisiana Seafood Board, Reco, Snake River Farms, Staub, Starbucks Coffee, Swissmar, Tabasco, are just a few. Her latest work is 47 Years in the Back of the House. It’s a special tribute to the unsung African-American heroes who worked tirelessly in home kitchens, plantations and in cafeterias throughout the deep South for hundreds of years with little to no compensation or acknowledgment. 47 Years in the Back of the House is a collection of twenty-five stories that highlight the contributions of the lesser or unknown names in history that Shelton describes as, “The unacknowledged black folks working in the back of the house.” She adds excitingly, “We don’t even know all their names or all their contributions but this book is dedicated to them.”
Aside from the book, Shelton’s overall mission is to teach, educate, and remind the next generation of African-Americans that they made major contributions to the culinary world. Some of the lost names have been recovered in recent history and depicted in film and literature, even fictitiously, including the 2009 book The Help, followed by a film by the same name in 2011. Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Greane, for example, was a slave in Tennessee, who was recently posthumously credited with teaching the trade of whiskey distillery to Jack Daniels nearly 300 years ago. The Brown family, which owns and controls the Jack Daniels brand within its expansive portfolio, boasts a $12 billion dollar net worth. The Jack Daniels company then set up the Nearest Greane Foundation in honor of Nathan Greane and to ensure his name is never forgotten.
Stories just like the above mentioned along with Chef Shelton’s desire to see light shed upon these hardworking, forgotten characters and undervalued work serve as the inspiration for 47 Years in the Back of the House. She aims to pay homage to those who she says, “Died poor, faced unbelievable racism, but stirred those pots, browned those rouxs and created those hidden treasures from the back of the house in places like Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.” She adds, “I want to be clear that this is not an angry book, though, and I am not an angry person. My mother didn’t raise the kids like that…and another thing: you can’t make an angry Gumbo! This book is about love for those people.” The book will be available for purchase in November at www.47years.com and also has story features on various chefs like the aforementioned Leah Chase and the lesser-acknowledged Mrs. Narcisse, who worked in the cafeteria of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette well into her 80’s. “That’s called work ethic and I want the next generation to understand what it takes and that it can be done.”