Monthly Archives: December 2008

Southern Hospitality Hits Harlem-


Throughout my time in New York City, only on a few occasions have I missed Duke and Durham, NC. I missed Duke when I ran out of money and food points were no longer at my disposal. I missed Duke when I could not locate an e-print station every five feet. I missed Durham only briefly when I was frantically running errands all over the city sans winter coat in below zero temperature. Lastly, after those long, difficult days when you are feeling exhausted, defeated, and the city has sufficiently whooped your ass, I missed Durham for its southern food which serves as both a guaranteed pick-me-up and a peculiar cure-all for all things unpleasant. The therapeutic powers of soul food are unrivaled and, given the immense amount of butter, fat, and frying involved, no one does it better than southerners, naturally. But when my final project led me to the internationally known Sylvia’s Soul Food Restaurant in Harlem, I was able to find a little piece of the South on 328 Lenox Avenue.


Mrs. Sylvia Woods is nothing short of a phenomenon, providing a port in the storm and a beacon of hope to Harlem at a time when the area was ravished by drug-use and poverty. Sylvia Woods moved to Harlem from Hemingway, South Carolina. Mrs. Woods worked tirelessly as a waitress at a Harlem restaurant for five years. Her hard work impressed her boss and in 1962 she purchased the restaurant from him with her husband, Herbert Woods. What started as a one-room restaurant serving homemade recipes has expanded into a line of prepared foods, skin care items, cookbooks, and even a children’s book written by Mrs. Woods. People come from all over the world to taste Sylvia’s famous short ribs and greens. On the day I went there were visitors from Ireland, Spain, England and, of course, the locals. Sylvia’s has seen famous faces such as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, James Brown, Nelson Mandela, and Magic Johnson, just to name a few.

I arrived on a Sunday, unknowingly right on time for the restaurant’s weekly Sunday Gospel Brunch. As I surveyed the menu a female gospel singer weaved in and out of the tables, circling each room as patrons clapped and tapped their feet. It was the closest I had come to attending church in years but the afternoon was less about religious dogma and more about a celebration of community. “Good music, good food, and good people coming together,” as one patron put it. At a time like this when people are stressed and struggling financially, myself included, despite the fact that you’re paying $20 for your meal the Sunday Gospel Brunch is a mild form of escapism.

Now Soul Food lovers all over the country can escape to a Sylvia’s Restaurant. In February of 1997 a Sylvia’s opened in Atlanta. The restauranteur plans for increased expansion; although, I imagine it will have a similar effect as jazz and jambalaya. You could, essentially, get it anywhere in the country but it’s not the real deal until you’ve had it in New Orleans. Sylvia’s in Harlem is not just about delicious food, although the quality of the food is impossible to overstate, it’s about southern hospitality, and that’s not an easy thing to transplant just anywhere.

While many worry that Soul Food is on its way out in New York City as a result of increased health consciousness, fast-food culture, the onset of wealthier young adults in the Harlem community and the craze for “ethnic foods”, for which Soul Food no longer qualifies (think Thai food, Indian food, and the like). The New York Times reports:

“Calvin Copeland, 83, who closed his landmark soul food restaurant Copeland’s last summer after 50 years because of declining business, said gentrification and accelerating prices for basics like cooking oil and collard greens may doom many of the rest.

‘The transformation of Harlem snuck up on me like a tornado,’ Mr. Copeland said. ‘I don’t expect many of those places to last. Soul food was supposed to be a cheap type of food that black people made at home. What we used to call cheap isn’t cheap anymore’.”

But Sylvia Woods is not one to cling to something that’s on its way out; rather, she decided to change with the times, without sacrificing the integrity of her restaurant. The owner began offering more baked and grilled items, seasoning her collard greens with smoked turkey rather than the traditional ham-hocks, and expanding her empire by exploring other markets. Sylvia’s is well on its way to its 47th year of business and as one long-time patron said, “it just keeps getting better.”

(Note: I recommend the fried chicken and mac and cheese, but apparently it’s all good. I’ll be sampling the ribs next weekend.)





4.Sylvia’s Soul Food Restaurant original pamphlet.


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Listening Outside of the Box by Eileen Zhang

When Anthony Kelley taught our class a couple of Tuesdays ago, he decided to let us
listen to a clip of Krzystof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, in preparation for the New York Philharmonic performance we were to attend that night. What ensued after he pressed play was what sounded to my ear like, excuse the cliché, nails on chalkboard. I raised a skeptical eyebrow, especially when Anthony said that this was Penderecki’s most famous work. Great. We’re in for a real treat.


I tried to keep an open mind, but as a pianist I have always gravitated toward composers like Chopin and Debussy, who really emphasized melody. Penderecki was definitely in a different category. A polish composer born in 1933, Penderecki in his early days was influenced by composers like Austrian Anton Webern, who did a lot of atonal work, and the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima was written in 1959 for 52 string instruments. During this time Polish music was being allowed to spread its wings under Soviet control, and Penderecki would be a major driving force behind this development. By the 1970s, Penderecki started to take a more melodic approach and turned toward semitones and tritones. A semitone is a half-step, or, on the piano, the interval between a white key and the next key up, most likely a black key. A tritone spans three whole tones and is also called an augmented fourth. Both produce a rather dissonant and dark sound, so even though Penderecki was being a bit more conservative, he still retained his rather gloomy tone.

What we heard at the Philharmonic, his Cello Concerto No. 2, was a product of this later phase of his career. The piece began with the rather jarring violin sounds that I had been anticipating. The percussion, which had 18 different instruments, as cellist Alisa Weilerstein says, created “such a powerful rhythm, a really engaging type of rhythm.” The cello’s part seemed extremely intricate and complex, and I cannot even begin to imagine how challenging it was to play.

So 35 minutes later, I came to the conclusion that I had thoroughly enjoyed the piece. A lady sitting in front of me turned around and asked what I had thought of it. My inarticulate struggle to find the right words proved that alas, I still don’t really understand Penderecki. But I was on the edge of my seat through the whole piece, kept in a constant state of tension, taken by the music
through moments of great anxiety and then incomplete relief, and basically just caught in a whirlwind of powerfully emotional sound. My ears heard things they were not accustomed to and were not wholly comfortable with, but the effect wasn’t completely unpleasant, and it was definitely gratifying.

I guess in music, as well as art and literature and maybe anything that requires creativity, we can become too attached to things we are accustomed to and familiar with. So I’m glad that there are composers willing to experiment with sound and to embrace the avant-garde, so that sometimes-unadventurous music lovers like myself will think outside the box a little more and look at music in a new way. Just to show how far I’ve come, I’ve even bought Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima on iTunes.

Visit and scroll down to watch videos of interviews with Alisa Weilerstein discussing the piece.





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