Sylvia Woods - beyond the label, a legacy of dignity and inspiration
July 20th, 2012
09:30 AM ET
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Michael W. Twitty is a culinary historian, living history interpreter and Jewish educator from the Washington D.C. area. He blogs at and 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 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.

Previously - Sylvia Woods, queen of soul food, dies at 86 and The cook who picks cotton: reclaiming my roots and A toast to Leah Chase

soundoff (21 Responses)
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    August 5, 2013 at 2:30 am |
  2. Therese Nelson

    Beautifully written and a pretty spot on analysis of the legacy of Miss Sylvia. The importance of a critical and multidimensional examination of African Diaspora in the discussion of American foodways has never been as apparent to me as in these days following her passing. Some of the comments that attempt to boil down the Woods legacy show me clearly that the work Michael is doing and the work of black chefs across the country has never been more critical to the preservation of our heritage.

    July 24, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  3. Bobby G.

    To all the workers at Sylvia's – Change NOTHING or you will be haunted from the grave.

    July 23, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  4. ell

    So – twenty years ago I worked in Harlem and often got 5-6 dinners and brought them to my friends. I stopped working in Harlem so I stopped bring her food home. About a year ago i decided to bring my husband food from Sylvia's.. When I walked in, mind you 18 years later – I was greeted with -"hi – where have you been/"... I tell this story because not only was the food great but I always felt welcomed by Sylvia and her family...

    July 23, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  5. Brian Scott Mednick

    Dignity? This woman threw a party at her restaurant to celebrate O.J. Simpson's acquittal for murder. Nothing dignified about Sylvia Woods and no great loss, I don't care how good her black eyed peas were.

    July 23, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Therese Nelson

      Its such a shame that you don't seem to understand Mrs. Woods' cultural significance outside of your myopic views of her personal choices. If you're deliberately ignorant to her work, charitable and commercial, you really should have saved your ignorant comment and did some research, you look ridiculous. If you do however know the whole of her life and work it seems irresponsible and just plain negligent to boil it all down to something so divisive and frankly insignificant in the wake of her passing as OJ Simpson.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  6. cajas de madera

    lassen Sie mich Ihnen sagen, Sie haben den Nagel auf den Kopf getroffen. Ihre Idee ist hervorragend, deze Frage ist etwas,

    July 22, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  7. RezaK

    A beautifully written, and well earned tribute to a culinary Queen. Living in NY for over 30 years, didn't go to Sylvia's often enough (I'm sure my cardiologist is happy), but when I/we did, it was pure magic. You eat her food and feel warm all over ... there is a genuine feel of comfort and kindness that is served on her plates ... even though you then struggle to get out of your seat. Oh, how she'll be missed ....

    July 22, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  8. Rosa Bogar

    I am most saddened by the passing of Sylvia Woods. I am also a native of South Carolina.I visited Sylvia;s Sept. of last year.I was on my way to the Schomburg Center to present a copy of my booklet "South Carolina's Bllacks "a great migration to NYC" This work a plea to recognize the many contributions by Blacks who migrated to NYC for a better life as Sylvia. I hope this day will soon become a reality! Sylvia served us well with her life! She will be greatly missed but aways remembered. A-shaa to "Queen of Soul Food" [homegirl] Rosa Mavins Bogar from

    July 22, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  9. corntrader19

    My husband and I were sorry to hear of Syvia's passing. Her tiny black-eyed peas are incredible!

    July 21, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
  10. Sach

    Sylvia should be recongized by the NAACP for enormous work for proliferating America soul food with class!!

    July 20, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • corntrader19

      Absolutely! She did a great job for the black community. I agree and I am white.

      July 21, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • rudy

      you are right sach the NAACP has honored less deserving people

      July 24, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  11. jen

    A tear will splash on my bespattered, dog-eared, well-worn and loved copy of Sylvia's family cookbook today (Her cornbread recipe is the only one prepared in our home. Ever.). God Bless You, dear lady, and thank you for sharing your food and your stories.

    July 20, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  12. takingmyownsteps

    Sylvia's is a Harlem staple a food landmark. Her seasoning yes. Canned goods can use revision but that is just something that is lost in translation. It doesn't change the statement that Sylvia and her husband made on Harlem, NY, and the everywhere because we went there ate and took our experience and shared it. I am reading the comments about her and they amazing!

    July 20, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  13. CO from fitnessfashionfrank

    Reblogged this on Fitness, Fashion & Frank Talk.

    July 20, 2012 at 9:41 am |
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