Sylvia Woods, the queen of soul food

6/30/2016, 10:49 a.m.
Last week, when a coterie of notables gathered at Sylvia’s Restaurant for a press conference on the Harlem/Havana event, Lloyd ...
Herbert and Sylvia Woods Contributed

Last week, when a coterie of notables gathered at Sylvia’s Restaurant for a press conference on the Harlem/Havana event, Lloyd Williams, who hosted the affair, gave a shout out to Kenneth Woods, Sylvia’s son. It was a recognition that echoed across the years, and if the event had been happening four years ago, Sylvia Woods would have been the recipient of the salute.

This was the kind of moment that she relished in the same way patrons relished opportunities to pull up a chair at one of her sumptuous meals, dining at the palace where the queen of soul food was in the kitchen.

Born Sylvia Pressley in Hemingway, S.C., Feb. 2, 1926, she came into the world as her father, Van, was departing. He died three days after she was born from the aftereffects of a chemical-weapons injury during military service in World War I. Three years later, her mother, Julia, left for New York City to find employment, leaving the child in the care of her grandmother. But, as we have learned, it takes a village to raise a child, and that’s what she received in Hemingway.

Along with the loving comfort of Hemingway residents, she also acquired the rudiments of southern cooking. There were more cooks in her community than you could shake a spatula at, to paraphrase one of her statements. Even so, southern hospitality was too often accompanied by southern hostility, including the oppressive Jim Crow laws and the lethal attitudes of white racists, some of whom were involved in the lynching of her grandfather, who was wrongly accused of robbing a store.

“I didn’t like any part of farm life,” Woods told a reporter. “I didn’t understand why they would not let me drink out of the same water fountain, but they would trust me to cook for them and to take care of their dearest thing, their babies.”

She was 11 when she met her husband, Herbert. He was 12. They met while picking green beans. “It was love at first sight,” Woods once effused. Still, as teenagers, their chances to court were three evening hours, twice a week. It was a frustrating situation, but it did not cool or stifle their romance.

In 1944, they married. At this time Woods owned a beauty shop in Hemingway but the couple soon left the South for California and then on to Harlem where Herbert Woods, a Navy veteran, found work in a Queens hat factory. Woods worked as a waitress at Johnson’s Luncheonette, from 1954 to 1962.

When Johnson was no longer able to keep the restaurant solvent, he offered it to Woods. With a $20,000 loan from her mother, with the family’s farm as collateral, Sylvia purchased the restaurant and began her illustrious ascent to the pinnacle of soul food.

During the turbulent 1960s when Black Nationalism and self-determination were the buzz words, Sylvia’s Restaurant was in a prime position to attract patrons, particularly with its delectable fried chicken, ribs, collard greens, corn bread and an assortment of mouth-watering desserts. Like Dookey Chase in New Orleans, Paschale’s in Atlanta and Roscoe’s in Los Angeles, Sylvia’s was the place to go for the best soul food in Harlem. The restaurant’s reputation spread both by word of mouth and the reviews in Black local and national publications.