Michael W. Twitty is a culinary historian, living history interpreter and Jewish educator from the Washington D.C. area. He blogs at Afroculinaria.com and thecookinggene.com. As the originator of the Cooking Gene Project, he seeks to trace his ancestry through food.
Walking down the ambiguous “ethnic” aisle in the local supermarket the other day ago, I was struck by the fact that every other ethnic group seemed to have a label on their cooking supplies but African Americans. I shouldn’t complain - it’s probably in the best interest of culinary political correctness. Then that familiar smiling face greeted me from my favorite seasoning for greens - a youthful, beautiful Sylvia Woods telling me that we didn’t need a label, we just needed to be.
The “Queen of Soul Food,” lent her face and character to a brand built on dignity - from a line of products for the Up South home cook to cookbooks, to a successful family business that is justly the culinary embassy of Harlem. To those of us inspired by her entrepreneurial drive and commitment to family, faith and food, the loss of Mrs. Woods is a time to reflect on the unique gifts this gastronomic ambassador brought to the American table.
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.
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