NEW YORK -- Sylvia Woods is 72, old enough to understand how God feels. Oh, sure, he probably wouldn't mind retirement, but instead he ended up just like her, working six days a week. The Almighty and Sylvia have the same problem. Too many mouths to feed.
It's not even 1 o'clock on Saturday afternoon, and she's already fed husband Herbert, most of the kitchen staff, Lonnie, the jazz band, Lonnie again, a few early birds all the way up from Richmond, those four crazy hayseeds in from West Texas, the entire crew of a hip-hop video, a pair of nice white folks from down near Washington, a sweet couple from up near 138th Street, and enough Japanese tourists to fill 100 sub-compacts. God knows all four of her kids are still working for her, so while they didn't eat at Sylvia's today, when you check the ledger sheet of the King of the Angels you'll find Her name is paying for all their meals.
Sylvia Woods won't stop there. In the beginning, she was feeding just Lenox Avenue, then the surrounding neighborhood, and then it was all of Harlem that was eating her Southern fried chicken and giblets and salmon cakes and ribs and pork chitterlings and collard greens and (deep breath) sweet potato pie. In 1979, one of New York's almighty food critics heard about the almighty Queen of Soul Food, and pretty soon Sylvia was feeding all of New York City: musicians and mayors, cabbies and councilmen, bankers and Black Panthers. God help us! The woman even fed a few Republicans.
"Some people work for love, some people work for money, but Sylvia feels she has a spiritual calling to feed the whole world," says Lonnie Youngblood, the well-fed lead singer of the band that performs every Saturday as part of the restaurant's jazz brunch. "That's why she's branching out from Harlem. You do know who's next, don't you?"
Baltimore's next. In 1998, Sylvia's of Harlem, the most famous soul-food restaurant in New York if not the world, is expected to bring the Gospel Brunch to Charm City. Sylvia's son Van, who is president of Sylvia Woods Enterprises LLC has been scouting locations in Baltimore, and taking meetings with Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who is helping in the search. All that is being said at this point is that the restaurant will be near the Inner Harbor. "But it's certain we're coming," says Van Woods. "You can just about make your reservations."
The Baltimore restaurant, which would be the second Sylvia's outside Harlem (an Atlanta location opened last February), already is shaping up as a crucial test. The Woods family wants Sylvia's to become nothing less than the African-American Planet Hollywood, the soul-food version of the Hard Rock Cafe, with restaurants in every major urban tourist center from New Orleans to Tokyo.
The Woods have carefully lined up financial backers -- a well-heeled Florida family and Wall Street investment bank J.P. Morgan -- who are as good as golden fried chicken. But expanding is still a gamble. The history of Sylvia's is one of the great, seamless success stories of an American family business -- black or white. Why risk a blemish on a divine record?
"I don't think it's much of a risk," says Henson. "Baltimore is like a lot of cities: It needs a good soul-food restaurant, particularly one that can appeal to tourists and visitors. And everyone has heard of Sylvia's."
Sylvia Woods was lucky. Her mom, Julia Pressley, saved and scrimped, and even took a train north to New York in 1929 to work in a laundry. She returned to South Carolina with enough money to buy a piece of land and a four-room boarding house.
Rice and beans -- that's what Sylvia learned during her childhood. Julia let her daughter know early on that food was holy, let her in on the lesson when Sylvia was 8 and burned the rice and mom spanked her for it. Three years later, Sylvia turned 11 and made another discovery: a beautiful 12-year-old boy named Herbert Woods whom she met in a bean patch not far from home. Rice and beans.
Herbert, who spent time as a steward on a Navy warship in the Pacific, married Sylvia in 1944, and Van arrived a year later. Like a lot of Southern folks, they saw a future up North, and settled in New York. Herbert drove a cab. Sylvia lied about her experience and got a job as a waitress at Johnson's Luncheonette on 127th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Sylvia says she didn't even know what a coffee urn was back then, and burned herself the first time she tried to use one.
But Andrew Johnson liked Sylvia. In 1960, he took a vacation and left her in charge. Sylvia didn't know it then, but Johnson was testing her, and she passed. The luncheonette owner was having financial trouble. In 1962, he offered to sell her the place for $20,000. Sylvia didn't have the money, but her mother, convinced Sylvia would burn no more rice, agreed to mortgage her farm.
"At the time, I didn't know if I could handle it," Sylvia says now. "I'm a farm girl, and suddenly my name is on the front of a restaurant in New York City."
She did so well that Sylvia began to think God had blessed her extra. Harlem fell on hard times in the 1960s and 1970s, as its middle-class stalwarts moved to the suburbs, and Lenox Avenue wasn't much to look at. Except for Sylvia's block, the east side of the street between 126th and 127th. With other businesses selling out or closing, Sylvia bought and built and expanded whenever she could. Today, Sylvia's is a block long, with 500 seats, three dining rooms, and its own catering hall.
Inside the restaurant, Sylvia is all-powerful. "It's my way or no way," she tells chefs, waiters, even Herbert, who still helps out in the kitchen. Sylvia hires novice cooks and trains them herself; she has found it too hard to break the bad habits of experienced chefs. While many New York restaurants expand their menus and add lighter, healthier foods, Sylvia keeps her list short and her food heavy. She bans instant potatoes and mixes for corn bread or biscuits; such conveniences are for supermarkets to sell. Her own relatives resist going out to dinner at other restaurants with Sylvia. Imagine how Schubert might behave if you made him sit through a Spice Girls concert.
"I'm exacting," says Sylvia. "That's just the way I am."
After the restaurant critic Gael Greene's rave review appeared in 1979, a trickle of celebrities at Sylvia's became a flood. The restaurant's walls are covered with pictures: Sylvia, with thick glasses, grandmotherly hair and open palms, welcoming Don King, Danny Glover, Darryl Strawberry, Denzel Washington, Jack Kemp and others. A few years back, the NAACP named her "Mother of the Year." And Spike Lee brought a film crew to the restaurant to shoot a scene for "Jungle Fever." The scene, in which Wesley Snipes' black architect brings his white lover to dinner at Sylvia's, is authentic in all ways but one: The waitress is less than pleasant toward the interracial couple. Employees say anything less than total politeness would never be tolerated on Sylvia's watch.
"People who work here are loyal, because she does so much for you," says David Callaway, a doorman. "I got a part in a movie through the people I met on this job. And wherever I go in the future, I can put Sylvia's on my resume. In the African-American world, her name is gold."
Sylvia says she wants to be a presence at every kitchen table in America. She has a cookbook, and Hollywood has bought an option on her life story for a TV sitcom. After sluggish early sales, her new line of "Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food" products for grocery stores is doing better. Items include canned kidney and pinto beans, as well as her original barbecue sauce and honey mustard.
Her children have been handling the expansion of the franchise. Bedelia, the second of her four children, runs the Sylvia's in Atlanta, which is across the street from City Hall. In addition to Baltimore, franchises are expected to open in Kansas City, Houston and Brooklyn within the next two years. Van, the oldest child, has interviewed potential local partners in various cities and lined up investors.
The expansion has found strong support among Baltimore's African-American political leaders, several of whom have long complained about the lack of high-end, black-oriented food and entertainment in the city. Awhile back, there was even talk of organizing an effort by black business leaders to buy out Bohager's.
"The idea of bringing more black and Hispanic culture into Baltimore's tourism industry is something we need to look seriously at," says Housing Commissioner Henson.
"The reception has been warm," says Van. "This is a great opportunity."
If she is not lecturing the kitchen staff about the perils of waste, Sylvia greets her customers at the door. In many cases, they are pilgrims. On a recent Saturday, Sherry Natkowitz, a Catholic Charities worker, was up all the way from Baltimore. And Michelle Tarry, a 39-year-old financial analyst, and her friend Sharon Bassard had driven from Richmond, Va., to New York for jazz brunch. The two women lingered in the packed house for three hours, without Sylvia or anyone giving the slightest hint that they should move along and free up a seat.
"The grits were so smooth, like they were when I was growing up," Tarry says. "It was like going to heaven."
Between bites of fried chicken, Lonnie Youngblood and his jazz band conduct a revival meeting. Between songs, there are short sermons on the merits of soul food. And toward the end of the brunch, with Sylvia and her younger son Kenny clapping on the two and the four counts, Lonnie belts out a jazzy rendition of "Happy Birthday" for an 85-year-old customer, Thomas Henry.
"Thomas, how many generations do you have sitting at your table there?" Lonnie asks.
"Three," he says. "Me, my grandchildren, and my great- grandchildren."
"What about your children?"
"Oh," says Thomas, "they're getting old."
The singing tires Sylvia, and she takes her usual seat beneath a painting of a scene from the Bible. John the Baptist, who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, adhered to a low-fat diet of locusts and wild honey, is introducing the people of Judea to the soothing waters of the river Jordan.
"You know, the only thing I pay attention to all the time is God," says Sylvia. "He has been the best business partner a person could ever hope to have."
Makes 6 servings
Crunchy, rich pigs' tails are a soul-food treat. It's not always easy to find them, but perhaps your butcher can set some aside for you.
2 pounds fresh pigs' tails
4 cups plus 1/3 cup water
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 large stalk celery, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1. Cut each pig tail into 3 pices. Place them in a 3- to 4-quart saucepan or pot. Add 4 cups of water, the vinegar, onions, celery, salt, red pepper, and black pepper. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, until thetails are tender, about 45 minutes. Occasionally skim the foam that rises to the surface during cooking.
2. Preheat the oven to 350. Remove the tails from the broth with a slotted spoon and place them in a shallow baking pan. Reserve the broth. Bake them, turning occasionally, until nicely browned on all sides, about 30 minutes. Remove and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl stir the flour and 1/3 cup of water until smooth. Stir the flour paste into the reserved cooking liquid. Heat to boiling over medium heat, stirring constantly. Add the pigs' tails to the gravy and simmer 10 to 15 minutes over low heat. Check the seasonings.
From "Sylvia's Soul Food: Recipes From Harlem's World-Famous Restaurant," by Sylvia Woods and Christopher Styler.
Pub Date: 1/25/98