I'm no fool! On the day I was scheduled to interview Sylvia Woods in the early afternoon, I made sure that I could "Take the A Train" to 125th Street in New York City's Harlem with plenty of time left to enjoy lunch at Sylvia's, Sylvia and Herbert Woods's world-famous restaurant. And I didn't go alone: My husband and a friend tagged along to make sure that they got to share in my soul-food picnic. On a rainy Friday afternoon, the restaurant was packed, and we had to wait for a table. But once we sat down, what a lunch we had ribs, fried chicken, smothered pork chops, greens, okra gumbo, mashed potatoes, cowpeas and rice, cornbread, lemonade and iced tea, and my most favorite down-home dessert: coconut cake, along with peach cobbler, layer cake, and, at Sylvia's urging, a big take-home piece of her justly famous carrot cake. I was more than full when I sat down to talk with Sylvia and Herbert Woods about their dream of a restaurant and their newest cookbook, Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook: From Hemingway, South Carolina, To Harlem.
I don't remember when I last met such truly wonderful people as the Woodses. They met in the bean fields of Hemingway when she was 11 and he was 12 years old (they are now 72 and 74, respectively), and they still look at each other as if love bloomed yesterday. I use a quote from the book that says it all: "If you want to see love in action, you have only to watch Sylvia and Herbert Woods together. They're love personified. It kind of renews your faith in love, because when you're around them there's an aura that reachesoutand blesses everyone in their presence." They are both so proud of what they have accomplished together, and Herbert is particularly thrilled with Sylvia's success. Their warmth absolutely enfolds you.
Although Sylvia and Herbert are the heart and soul of the restaurant, all of their children and grandchildren are involved in some aspect of running the restaurant itself, the Woods's catering business, or their new line of canned and bottled food products that have been introduced in stores all across America. As Sylvia said to me, "Our kids will continue our work after we are gone. They have helped us so much, and we know that their pleasure is in keeping the restaurant alive. It truly is most amazing. All kinds of people from all over the world come here and sit down together for a meal. The world could take a lesson from our tables, and maybe people would learn to live together in peace and harmony just like they eat together in peace and harmony at Sylvia's." As I looked around, I saw that what she said was true: black, brown, white, tan, almond all shades and shapes and sizes were sitting at lunch, totally embracing the experience, seemingly without a care on their shoulders.
I asked Sylvia and Herbert if young people came to them for advice about opening a restaurant in what some might consider a less than desirable location in a poor urban community. "Oh, yes, all the time," answered Sylvia. "I tell them that, for us, it was so, so hard. We had borrowed money from my mama, and all we wanted to do was to pay back the loan and live decently from our work at the restaurant. It was long, long hours for very little money for a long time. But, I am here to tell you that it was never as hard as picking cotton." I had no problem believing her!
It was clear that Sylvia and Herbert valued each other and their children equally. "With my mama, the children always came first. And we were always first to tell her how much we loved her," said Sylvia. "And, with our children and grandchildren, it has been the same." I had no doubt that this was true as some of their children and grandchildren stopped by our table with a pat, a smile, and to inquire if we needed anything.
I asked Sylvia and Herbert how much time they now spend at the restaurant since they have hit what for many are the retirement years. "Oh, we got home 'bout eleven last night but most days we're here from just before noon to about nine o'clock. People come to see us as well as eat at the restaurant, and we like to be here. Besides, what else would we do? This has been our life for 35 years."
I asked if there were favorite recipes in Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook. "No way," answered Sylvia. "Every recipe comes from someone I love, and each one represents the kind of food we have eaten all our lives. It is the kind of food my mama would make on Sundays. These are all recipes that I know better than anything, and they are the kind of recipes that young people should cherish for the history that they carry with them."
"Well, then," I ventured, "if we can't share a favorite recipe from Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook with our readers, how about a word about what you would like them to take away from using the cookbook?" "That's easy," answered Sylvia and Herbert together. "When they cook from this book, they should know that every recipe comes from the heart and soul of our family. Most of them were made by the best cook in the world, Sylvia's mama. And remember, a recipe isn't just a thing: It creates something that will nourish both your body and your soul." What more could I offer? I took my doggie bag and went out into the workaday world feeling as though I had been touched by angels. And, you know what? I'm not so sure that I hadn't been.