Dining and Drink

The original TV chef

The improbable success of Carson Gulley

Ever since I can remember, food has fascinated me. When I was a young child, my parents frequently took me out to eat—to the kinds of places you didn’t take kids. I collected menus and received a subscription to Gourmet magazine on my 10th birthday. It was inevitable that I would want to learn how to cook. My father instigated it when he gave me a meat thermometer and a dollar and told me to take out the Sunday roast before my mother overcooked it. But what would become a lifelong passion began with Carson Gulley and his TV show.

A decade before Julia Child’s “The French Chef” first aired on PBS, chef Carson Gulley, assisted by his wife, Beatrice, hit the local airwaves in 1953. “What’s Cookin’” not only dispensed recipes but also demonstrated culinary techniques. I can still recollect watching in awe as Gulley effortlessly deboned an entire turkey.

Chef Gulley’s success story was an improbable one. Gulley was African American, born in rural Arkansas in 1897. His parents wanted him to become a teacher. He followed their wishes for a while, but teaching soon bored him, and he gave it up to become a dishwasher. Before long, though, he was cooking in kitchens in Kansas City, Florida and New York. As head chef at a St. Louis college, he worked summers at Essex Resort Lodge in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. There, in 1926, he met Donald L. Halverson, the director of dormitories and commons at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Impressed with Gulley’s talents, Halverson hired him on the spot, thus launching what would turn into a 27-year tenure for Gulley at UW–Madison.

As was the case for most people of color in that era, the Gulleys found that Madison was no refuge from discrimination. After Carson and Beatrice were turned down for housing in several neighborhoods, Halverson built an apartment for them in the basement of Tripp Hall.

Carson Gulley is best remembered for his fudge-bottom pie that the UW Food Service ultimately named after him. There is some contention about who introduced this specialty to campus.

Some credit Lewis Marston or Maurice Combs, both chefs at the Memorial Union in the late 40s. Having sampled the original when Gulley was chef at the Maple Bluff Country Club, I can attest it had no equal—nor did any of his other pies.

Carson Gulley loved herbs and spices which he collected for more than 20 years. His cookbook published in 1949, was appropriately named “Seasoning Secrets.” Its extensive first chapter is devoted to the use of seasonings, including monosodium glutamate, which he calls “a modern cooking miracle.” The apex of his career was starting his own business, a restaurant and catering service. It opened amid high hopes on Sept. 15, 1962, and featured lavish buffets on the weekends. Sadly, however, Gulley’s dream came to an untimely end when he died only six weeks later. In 1966, the UW honored him by naming its new building Carson Gulley Commons, the first building on campus to be named after an African American.

Dan Curd is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine. His Relish column appears monthly.


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