Sylvia Woods, the founder of Sylvia's on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, passed away last week. She was the Queen of Soul Food and a iconic element of Upper Manhattan.
Remembering a Queen
Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty offered reflections that fit the reality of Sylvia Woods and her legacy.
Sylvia Woods was a graduate of the tobacco fields and truck patches of Hemingway, South Carolina. Much like family and many others, she and her husband joined the wave North in search of a better life, while maintaining strong links to the family “home place.” Sylvia’s, now an institution of 50 years in the New York scene, made way for a whole host of fabulous soul food restaurants, each giving a taste of home to migrants and their descendants but to tourists from around the world as well.
Sylvia’s institution has known its politicians, civil rights activists, artists and entertainers - it was the place Bill O’Reilly and Al Sharpton could break bread in peace, and the place where hip hop deals and careers were born. Like “the South’s Julia Child,” Edna Lewis, North Carolina’s Mildred “Mama Dip” Council, and Chef Leah Chase and Mrs. Willie Mae Seaton of New Orleans, Ms. Sylvia is part of a pantheon of black women nourished by drive and quiet dignity, but to us she’s more than her history or any of its hype.
Sylvia Woods represented the survival of something more than just “soul food,” she was an Old World craftswoman; essentially an immigrant bringing her cuisine to a new land. This woman was our mother, our grandmother - to the world. She helped make it possible for culinary historians and food writers like myself to claim and love our food and embrace it as our inheritance. She inspired others to pursue their dreams and represent their Southern regional flavors.
Ms. Sylvia was proof of the resilience of the Great Migration experience, and proof that we had done more than just move North or escape the South; we brought the best of who we were and we enriched the planet through the nourishment that gave strength to our ancestors. Sylvia was one of many heritage bearers, carrying flavors passed from Africa to slave ships to plantations to sharecroppers to freedom seekers, business people, chefs, migrants, and now her great-great grandchildren and beyond. The Woods’ legacy was giving African America back a word that is often reserved for other Americans with far off lands: tradition
To be sure, this is not the death of Sylvia’s as an institution. The restaurant will continue to thrive and the family will carry on Sylvia’s legacy and high standards of hospitality and flavor. And yet, today America is missing one of its cultural and culinary icons; someone whose love for her kin, country and country roots will continue to inspire us all to cook with bigger hearts and plenty of soul.