By NANA DUFFUOR
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.