Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Sylvia Woods

Episode Summary

Sylvia Woods (1926-2012) founded the famous Harlem soul-food restaurant Sylvia’s.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Tastemaker was a restaurateur, entrepreneur, and author whose name is practically synonymous with Harlem Soul Food. Her eponymous restaurant has served as a culinary, social, and cultural New York landmark for decades, frequented by celebrities and locals alike. Let’s talk about the Queen of Soul Food, Sylvia Woods.

Sylvia was born on February 2, 1926 in Hemingway, South Carolina to Julia and Van Pressley. Her father died just three days after Sylvia’s birth from complications of injuries he received while fighting in World War I.

By the time Sylvia was three, her mother had decided to move the rest of the family to New York City to look for better opportunities. She left Sylvia in South Carolina to be raised by her grandmother who was also named Sylvia and who worked as a farmer. 

Young Sylvia also worked in the fields. While working in a bean field at age 11, Sylvia met her future husband, Herbert Woods. He was 12 years old at the time.

As a teenager, Sylvia moved to New York City to join her mother and found work for herself at a hat factory in Queens. She also trained for a time to become a beautician. In 1944, Herbert followed Sylvia up to New York and the two were married the same year.

A decade later in 1954, Sylvia began working as a waitress at Johnson’s Luncheonette in Harlem. According to the New York Times, “because she had grown up poor in the Jim Crow era, the day she first set foot in the place was the first time she had been inside a restaurant anywhere.”

Sylvia stayed on as a waitress for eight years. When the owner decided to sell the restaurant in 1962, he offered it to Sylvia for $20,000. With help from her mother, who mortgaged the family farm in South Carolina, Sylvia bought the luncheonette. She renamed it Sylvia’s.

Thanks to a great early review from the food critic at New York magazine, who loved the restaurant’s soul food and friendly vibe, Sylvia’s was an almost immediate hit. The restaurant had just six booths and 15 stools. Sylvia served up a huge offering of soul food staples/ Favorite dishes included fried chicken, ribs, corn bread, collards, and hot cakes. The immense popularity of her food earned Sylvia the title Queen of Soul Food.

Sylvia’s wasn’t just a restaurant though. Over the years it became a culinary staple in Harlem and the de facto social center of the neighborhood. The likes of Diana Ross, Muhammad Ali, Quincy Jones, Roberta Flack, Robert F. Kennedy, Jack Kemp, and Barack Obama were all patrons of the storied establishment. Spike Lee even used the restaurant as a location for his iconic 1991 film “Jungle Fever.” Today, busloads of tourists from around the world make sure to visit this New York City landmark when they’re in town.

Over the ensuing decades, Sylvia’s was expanded to seat more than 250 people and became the prized jewel of a veritable soul food empire. Sylvia’s now has a major catering service and runs its own banquet hall for events. The company also started distributing its own line of prepared foods nationwide.

Sylvia wrote two cookbook classics, “Sylvia’s Soul Food: Recipes From Harlem’s World Famous Restaurant,” and “Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook: From Hemingway, South Carolina to Harlem.”

Sylvia ran the business until her retirement at 80 years old. She passed away six years later in 2012. At the time she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Sylvia’s restaurant is still thriving today, run by her children and grandchildren. If you’re in New York City, it is very much worth a visit!

Today was our last episode on Tastemakers. As always, we’ll be taking a break for the weekend, so tune in on Monday to hear the first episode of our next theme, Beautiful Minds. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you on Monday!