1. The “Queen of Soul Food,” Sylvia Woods (1926-2012) grew up in Hemingway, SC and came to New York in 1944. In the 1950’s, she started working in a small Harlem restaurant. The day she walked in there was the first time she had ever been in a restaurant.
In 1962, Sylvia bought the restaurant, funded in part by her mother, who mortgaged her farm. Always a family business, Sylvia’s Restaurant grew from six booths and a few stools to a complex that seats 450. It’s now a NYC tourist destination, and has welcomed a number of famous people, including Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, and many political figures–
President Obama, with Rev. Al Sharpton. Note the bottle of Sylvia’s brand hot sauce on the table.
Former President Clinton spoke at Sylvia’s memorial service.
One of the specialties at Sylvia’s is their version of barbequed ribs. They’re not actually barbequed in the traditional sense of being cooked over smoke. Rather, they’re braised in vinegar. Kenneth Woods once demonstrated the essential steps on “Soul Food Paradise” on the Travel Channel
Sylvia slicing ribs, c.1979.
The Woods family has also developed a line of nationally-marketed food products, including hot sauce and a number of canned vegetables.
I started this blog with Sylvia Woods because she encapsulates the social and culinary forces behind what we call “soul food” today.
When Sylvia was growing up in South Carolina, there was no such thing as “soul food,” just as there is no “Chinese food” in China. It’s just “food.” Chef Stephanie Tyson, from Winston-Salem, NC, has said that her grandmother called it “Sump’n-ta-eat.” The great Edna Lewis called it “country cooking.”
The kinds of food we see featured on President Obama’s table above–fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread, sweet tea, and the ubiquitous bottle of hot sauce–are all iconic “soul food” dishes. But their history is complex. “Soul food” could be defined as a variety of southern cuisine, but southern cooking itself represent a complicated blend of West African, European, and Caribbean elements, all shaped by the kinds of food available in the south, especially in the days before refrigeration and rapid transportation, and by the hands and tastebuds of the African American cooks who were predominantly responsible for preparing the food.
That’s the culinary side of the equation. But that food didn’t become “soul food” until it was brought to the north as part of the “Great Migration,” the period from roughly 1915-1970, when large numbers of African Americans left the south, motivated by the cruelties of Jim Crow and the possibility of better economic opportunities. Sylvia Woods was part of that social movement, of course, settling as thousands of others did, in Harlem.
Of course, food is never static. As circumstances change, so does the food. Up north, for instance, we take it for granted that cornbread will be made from yellow cornmeal, whereas devoted southern cooks would insist on white cornmeal. Down south, “barbeque” means slow-cooking meat over smoke (and for purists, only with wood), but up north, such as at Sylvia’s, it may be stretched to include braised ribs, cooked in an oven at a relatively high temperature.
So why should a white guy in Iowa care about soul food? Is it sufficient to say that it tastes good? I grew up on legit homecooking. My mom dutifully set out a meat-potatoes-veggie meal almost every night of the week. And now I’m at that age where I can appreciate that, and miss it. But there’s also some truth in the stereotype that white folks (especially us northerners) don’t know how to (or just won’t) season our food. After many years of devouring Mexican, Italian, Chinese, and other cuisines, I realized that my own homecooking would need more flavor. And of course, that’s what soul food is all about.
Adrian Miller, the contemporary soul food scholar, has written, “If African Americans can excel at making French and Italian food, whites should be free to cook soul food as long as the cook gets the taste right.” I’ve taken that as my license to plunge in and add soul food dishes to the repertoire of dishes I can cook tolerably well.
Here’s a takeout plate of food I made a couple of months ago for my church’s fundraiser for the local food bank: Well-seasoned meatloaf, with macaroni and cheese, collard greens, a corn muffin, and some banana pudding for dessert.
But again, that’s the culinary side of the equation. On the social side, I think us white cooks who get into soul food also have an obligation to learn and lift up the history of that food. Otherwise, I have this uneasy feeling that we’re just engaging in more “appropriation” (a nice word for “stealing”) of African American culture. And we’ve done enough of that.
On the other hand, there’s also been a tendency among some African Americans to shun “soul food” as either unhealthy or a symbol of the sufferings of the past. For those readers, I hope this blog will tell an uplifting story of “How I Got Over.”
At the same time, I think that for everyone, white or black alike, in a time when we think “dinner” comes out of a McDonald’s sack and “homecooking” means throwing a bag of highly-processed something into the microwave, it’s worth promoting and celebrating the art of true homecooking.
So, if this blog drives you to learn more about American history, or if it just drives you into the kitchen, then I’m happy.