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The Legacy of Sylvia Woods, Harlem Icon

Unheard Voices

Mention Harlem and a swirl of images come to mind: the Schomburg Center – the intellectual home of the Black world; the various booksellers on 125th Street, and of course, the eternal Apollo Theater, the proving where our music was forged in the often, not-so-friendly fires generated by generations of ebullient and effusive Uptown audiences.

But Harlem is also a Black, Brown and Beige cosmopolitan culinary collage that belies the global complexity of our people; from Down South, the Islands and the Continent. It is a land where okra, sweet potatoes, plantains, greens, grits, pate, couscous and flying fish compete for the succulent citizenship on the tips of our Babel of tongues.

If there was a universally agreed-upon temple of taste in Harlem, it is Sylvia’s Restaurant on Lenox Avenue. Whether you just arrived in Harlem, or you’ve been a lifelong resident of that borough within a borough, a visit to Sylvia’s brought you back to your down-home origins, even if you’ve never been south of the Mason Dixon Line.

Of course, the collard greens, savory salmon cakes, rib-sticking chicken and waffles, barbeque spare ribs, and other soulful foodstuffs are the main attractions, but food isn’t the only reason that this restaurant reigns supreme.

That’s where the South Carolina-born Sylvia Woods, owner and matriarch comes in. Ever since she opened the restaurant fifty years ago in 1962, “The Queen of Soul Food” maintained a professional, friendly and eclectic atmosphere where an unlimited combination of peoples, languages, accents, and patois provide the perfect soundtrack: an aural condiment for the main course. But it wasn’t only Blacks who dug Sylvia’s, as evidenced by the regular visitations of President Clinton, and the irregular arrival of Fox talking head Bill O’Reily, who was shocked to find brothers and sisters, enjoying and carrying themselves like, (wait for it)… normal and responsible human beings, and not the Afro-apparitions of social science fiction that fuel his network.

If we believe, as Scatman Crothers told us in The Shining, that some places “shine” with the spirits of the former inhabitants, I hope the spirit of Ms. Woods – who passed away at the age of 86 on July, 19th – forever shines on in her restaurant – “the Meeting Place of Black America.”

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