Farewell to Sylvia Queen of Soul Food and Harlem
By Gloria Dulan-Wilson
For me Sylvia's passing was like losing a member of my family. I've known and admired her and her family since my first eating at her then humble restaurant in 1968. Thanks to a friend, Sam Anderson, who took me there because I was homesick for home cooking, I became a regular diner of Sylvia's over the years.
That friendship and kinship was born of her eternal genteel nature, graciousness, elegance; her love of people, and her wonder food. Even when her restaurant was no more than a small facility with a few benches, plank floors, and a few high stools at the counter, you always felt loved when you walked into Sylvia's.
I was preparing to do a write up of the upcoming celebration of her 50th anniversary of Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food Restaurant. 50 years is a major mile stone, and a gargantuan feat for a teenie little lady who started from very humble beginnings in a beanfield in Hemingway, South Carolina. When I heard about the fact that she had made her transition, I felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach. I was in a state of suspended animation for nearly an hour, as memory after memory of Sylvia flashed across my mind. She had accomplished so much, and was so loved by so many, I wondered how many knew how great a woman Sylvia Pressley Woods really was.
Indeed, there had been many who found it incredulous that she still owned her famed restaurant; many who could not believe that this beautiful woman had the moxy to make such a long term success of her business without selling out. Those were the ones who did not understand the tenacity, dedication, discipline and vision that made, and continues to make, Sylvia's the most successful Black owned and run restaurant in the US (not just New York, folks – others are still trying to catch up).
You walk into the restaurant and you immediately feel welcome. I remember the days when Sylvia, and her late husband, Herbert, used to sit in the back of the restaurant at a designated family table, and observe as people came and went. She always took the time to personally greet visitors – out of state or out of the country; regardless of nationality, race or ethnicity, she was gracious to the core.
Thanks to food columnist, Gael Green's dubbing her Queen of Soul Food in the New York Times, the restaurant became internationally known; bringing tourists from Japan, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, France, Africa, South Carolina, Georgia, Atlanta, Texas, California – you name it, they came. The restaurant became a destination point for tourists. And she did not disappoint.
Tour buses lined up around the block on Malcolm X (Lenox) Ave. not just because of the food, but because of Sylvia's personal stamp of hospitality. But as much as she appreciated the patronage of the tourists, she loved the support of the local community who came again and again to enjoy food at Sylvia's. There were several romances and marriages spawned at Sylvia's because it was so easy to just "be" there.
I remember admiring how patient she was when people asked her to pose with them for photographs, autographs, and just an opportunity to tell her how much they enjoyed the food. I admired how Sylvia and her family – Herbert (her husband) Van, Bedelia, Kenneth, and Crizette, worked together to make the business a success. How she taught her children, grand children and great grand children the value of honoring the customer, how to work together, how to manage the food, service, and business and still have a life. I admired how they worked together, honored their mother, and each other, during the course of their working together. Regardless of the ups and downs, she, and the love of her life, Herbert, managed to maintain their family and their business.
I have sooooo many fond memories of Sylvia. As the former editor of their newsletter, “Sylvia: Nothing But the Good News” - which was started by her eldest son, and my friend, Van Woods, I had the privilege of being involved in many of the events – good and bad – that made the restaurant the great place it is.
If Sylvia was the heart and guiding light of the restaurant, Van was the business expansion guru for the family. But the wonderful thing about it was that his mother gave him full support for his ideas, as long as it did not encumber the original restaurant. The concept of “Nothing But the Good News” came out of Sylvia's concern for so many negative headlines in the news and on TV. Van took up his mother's interest in providing people with the overlooked empowering information that often go unreported in most major publications. It was a great opportunity to really highlight people in the community, many of whom came to the restaurant, and what they were doing to contribute to society.
Other fond moments include Johnnie Cochrane who came regularly to eat at Sylvia's. He always celebrated his birthday (October 2) by having a birthday breakfast there. When President Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008, Sylvia had already commissioned an ice sculpture with his name, image and likeness on it, and had it prominently displayed in front of the restaurant for everyone to see.
For years Fox Five Television used to broadcast live from Sylvia's restaurant on the anniversary of her opening because it coincided with the launching of their news show. Jim Ryan and Lynn Brown, would coordinate with field reporters, and would broadcast live from the restaurant. Sylvia's would close off the street in front of the restaurant, and serve free breakfast to the community consisting of grits, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, biscuits, coffee and juice. Live entertainers, such as Boyz to Men, Lonnie Youngblood, the Silver Belles (former Cotton Club Dancers), among others would perform. In the evening a gala was held under a tent that was erected between the main restaurant and the newly renovated property on the corner – Sylvia's Also. Sylvia and Herbert were always the most gracious hosts. They made sure they honored their staff, people in the community as well as family members who had worked so hard to keep the restaurant a success – Clarence, Moogie, Olga, Ma Mae, Sidara, and other mainstays who have been part of the Sylvia family for decades.
Sylvia's was the unofficial capital of Harlem. Political aspirants held campaign fundraisers there. Strategy meetings to improve Harlem were formulated there. Dignitaries from every stripe made a pilgrimage there - President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev.Jesse Jackson, Dexter King (son of Martin Luther King), James Brown, Diana Ross, among others - the photos that regale the walls of the restaurant are a small percentage of the people who frequent Sylvia's over the past fifty years.
When they were invited to put a Sylvia's Restaurant in Atlanta, GA by then mayor Bill Campbell, I had the privilege of covering the grand opening. Johnnie and Dale Cochrane, Mayor Campbell, former mayor Maynard Jackson were among the dignitaries who attended. But few knew that the grand opening almost didn't happen because the chef did not make biscuits to Sylvia's standards. Sylvia refused to allow the restaurant to open until he got it right. “Those biscuits represent the quality of our food. I will not have him put out something that is not like the quality we give in New York. If he can't get it right, we may have to get another chef.” Which, by the way, is exactly what they ended up doing. It was then that I totally understood why the restaurant in New York was so successful. Her standards for quality control were unimpeachable. People tended to look at that beautiful little chocolate brown lady and think she was a pushover. She was anything but.
In 1999 they decided to inaugurate a Sylvia's Family Cookbook because Sylvia and Herbert said they came from a family of cooks. Sylvia, who was an active member of her church in Hemingway, and a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, often spoke of how popular venison was in South Carolina. They decided to have a family cook off to determine whose recipes would be included in the cookbook.
In driving down to their home town of Hemingway with Sylvia and Herbert in their signature car – a Rolls Royce with the vanity plates “HerbSyl” on the back, we had an ongoing conversation about their life, their love and marriage, and their children.
Sylvia and Herbert wore matching satin jackets with the “Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food” logo on the back. They were a striking design in purple, gold and black. The nearly 12-hour drive took us through many southern communities. At one point we stopped for gas in one southern town. While Herbert Woods was pumping gas, Sylvia and I had gone to the ladies' room and stopped to pick up snacks. As we were checking out at the cashier, a very enthusiastic white woman, upon seeing the Rolls Royce, and Sylvia's jacket came over to her and said: “That's your car out there?” Sylvia responded by saying “Yes”. To which she asked, “Are ya'll somebody famous?” Sylvia started laughing, but did not answer. So I responded, “She is the owner of Sylvia's restaurant in New York City.” The lady got so excited, and ran over to one of her friends, and exclaimed: “I knew it! I tole you they were somebody famous. I tole you!!” She turned back around to Sylvia and said, “Can I have your autograph?”
When we reached Hemingway, SC, it was like royalty returning home. Everybody turned out for Sylvia, not only to participate in the contest, but to great one of their most beloved citizens. I was introduced to Spots, a kind of fish that is so sweet and easy to cook, I found myself easily eating 10 of them at one sitting. We walked around the place where Sylvia was born, and her mother built their first home from scratch. We picked pecans and greeted neighbors. But the main thing we did was sample food for selection for the cookbook. I had never eaten so much venison in all my life. It seems as if there had to have been hundreds of ways to prepare it; as well as sweet potato pie! I had to write a descriptive about the dish, a brief bio on the cook and his or her relationship to Sylvia; and finally the recipe for the particular dish. The research and meticulous attention to detail that went into the book is reflective of how Sylvia did everything.
I will always remember attending Herbert and Sylvia's 50th wedding anniversary, where they renewed their vows at their beautiful, palatial home in Mt. Vernon, NY. It was the first time I had been to their beautiful home. You could feel the love in every room of that palatial home. The vow renewals were presided over by the Reverend Calvin Butts, and was one the most beautiful I've ever attended.
Even when I was residing in Jersey City, NJ, I made it my business to come to Sylvia's if I was in Manhattan, to check in on the family. And when 911 happened, I made a bee line to Sylvia's to make sure everybody was all right. I remember Sylvia saying that she was glad Herbert was not there to witness the collapse of the World Trade Center. She had already maintained that she didn't know what would happen if she died before Herbert. “We love each other so much, but I think Herbert would be lost if I left before he did.”
Indeed, their love was the stuff that fairy tales and dreams were made of. Sylvia and Herbert met when they were 10 and 12 years old, in a bean field. Herbert was an orphan and was picking beans for a living. Sylvia remembers thinking even then that he was going to be her husband. And throughout the years they were inseparable. When Sylvia's mother Julia took her to New York to so she could attend beauty school, Herbert was devastated. He enlisted in the Navy under the assumption that he would be stationed in New York and close to Sylvia. However, they sent him everywhere but New York. So it was two years before they were reunited.
In their golden years, Sylvia and Herbert used to spend quiet days at home relaxing and enjoying each other's company. He would prepare breakfast in bed for her, to give her a break from cooking. They'd read the newspapers, and basically keep each other company. They never lost the romance in their marriage – something I always admired about them. They were the rare couple who put each other first, no matter what.
I can envision Sylvia now, finally reunited with her beloved Herbert once again, enjoying those quiet moments together, as he serves his queen breakfast in bed. She's done a great and mighty work, built and empire for her family, provided hospitality for the world. I always cherish those days, but know that it is now for the new generation of the Woods family to continue the legacy as she rests in peace, knowing that it is now completed.
As we approach the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Sylvia's next week (July 31 through August 1) there will no doubt be thousands of Sylvia stories. There is so much to celebrate. And we all owe it to one tiny, elegant little woman – Sylvia Woods, who totally understood the meaning of family, and made it happen in the heart of Harlem.
Thank you Sylvia!!!
Stay Blessed &
ECLECTICALLY BLACK &
Eternally Loved - from
To Van, Bedelia, Kenny, Crizette and the kids: You know how much I loved your mom, and how much I wish I could be there for her homegoing services; but I'm in Oklahoma City visiting my mom and family. My love and condolences to each and every one of you; as well as my gratitude for your being my New York family. I treasure each and every time I've had the privilege of being with you all.