Michel: We need another Carson Gulley

Michel: We need another Carson Gulley
Carson Gulley, center, moved to Madison in 1926 and eventually became head chef of the UW residence halls.

Unless you’ve eaten at Carson’s Market on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus or watched local cooking shows on television in the 1950s, you’re probably unfamiliar with the name Carson Gulley. Born the son of Arkansas sharecroppers in 1897, Gulley moved to Madison in 1926 and eventually became head chef of the UW residence halls. Among his many achievements was being the first African American to star in his own local TV program.

It is fitting to remember Gulley during Black History Month, ninety years after the local celebrity chef put down roots here. It’s a wonder he stayed. On two occasions, local residents signed a petition to keep him from living in their neighborhood. In 1932, petitioners got him ousted from his rented apartment on West Johnson Street. In 1954, residents in a west Madison subdivision were unsuccessful in barring him and his wife from buying a home there. During his years as a campus chef, he lived in an apartment built specially for him in the basement of Tripp Residence Hall. The housing director at the time made those accommodations because he recognized Gulley’s talent and wanted him to remain.

Gulley’s culinary skills were widely regarded. A video by the UW Division of University Housing details how Gulley in 1936 developed a commercial chef course at the Tuskegee Institute, where he was influenced by famed scientist and inventor George Washington Carver. Gulley later taught cooking courses for the U.S. Navy at UW and helped develop a “cooks training school” at UW. In the ’50s, he and his wife were local celebrities through their TV show “What’s Cookin’ with Carson and Beatrice,” which first aired on WISC-TV. It was the first show nationwide to feature an African American husband-and-wife team.

In the cookbook Seasoning Secrets and Favorite Recipes of Carson Gulley, Ralph O’Connor, then-general manager of WISC-TV, took credit for introducing Gulley to audiences. “Carson Gulley is an unquestioned expert who has the happy talent of making his teachings understandable to even the most inexperienced,” writes O’Connor. 

Looking at Madison’s vibrant culinary scene today, we’re in need of another Carson Gulley. 

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to accurately describe WISC-TV. WISC-TV was never called WMTV. WMTV was the NBC affiliate and credits itself with being the first to air Carson Gulley’s TV program, but the cooking show actually ran first on WISC-TV before the program was picked up by WMTV.