Editor's Note: 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 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.