NEW YORK — If you want to spread joy, simply give people something good to eat and a friendly place to eat in. So says Sylvia Woods, who has been doing just that for 37 years at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem. Known as the Queen of Soul Food, Sylvia and her staff, made up mostly of family, profess to add an essential ingredient to every batch of fried chicken or side dish of collard greens: a spice called love.
"You can't have soul food without it," Sylvia declares, smiling at Herbert, her husband of 55 years, who beams back at her. It's a spice the two of them know a few things about. They first became smitten with one another as children while in a field picking beans in their hometown of Hemingway, S.C., and except for a couple of teenage years when Sylvia's mother sent her to beauty school in New York, they have been inseparable.
Almost all of their four children, 16 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren are involved in the family restaurant, which attracts local and foreign tourists by the busload and has become a Manhattan mecca for those in search of food without pretense.
Soul food is rooted in the days of slavery. It's cooked simply and with ingredients from the earth, explains Sylvia. For her, it's always been connected with the vegetables her mother grew and the animals she raised on a farm in Hemingway.
Come the holidays, the Woods clan will go heavy on their favorite spice at their own family gatherings. Thanksgiving is one of the restaurant's busiest days all year, but they always opt to share the holiday at home with family. This year it's Kenneth Woods's turn to host. He and his wife, also named Sylvia, will cook the biggest bird they can find. He estimates the guest list will number between 75 to 100. "Our relatives from Hemingway will come up in several cars if not by bus," says the unfazed host, whose home in Mount Vernon, N.Y., is within sniffing distance of his parents'.
Kenneth's grandmother taught him how to cook, which was rare in Hemingway 40-some years ago when African-American men typically tended the fields all day while women prepared the meals back home. "She was ahead of her time," he recalls. "I had to stand on a chair to watch. She said if my wife gets mad at me and I know how to cook, I'll never starve."
Guests certainly won't go starving at Kenneth's this Thanksgiving. In addition to an enormous fresh roasted turkey, the Thanksgiving spread will include such Southern classics as collard greens with turnips, candied yams, black-eyed peas, rice, green beans, macaroni and cheese, cornbread by itself and as stuffing, sweet-potato pie, and peach cobbler.
"Side dishes are the heart of soul food," says Sylvia Woods. And for some family members, like granddaughter Maliaka, that's all that will fill her plate on Thanksgiving. "I don't like meat," she says timidly, knowing vegetarianism is almost sacrilegious in a family whose idea of a good time is a festive pig roast.
That's exactly what the Woods have planned for Christmas, when, as always, they will head south to join friends and family in their beloved Hemingway. "We always gather on Christmas Eve, sing carols, say prayers, and roast a huge hog," Sylvia explains. Crabmeat and corn will also be part of the Christmas spread in Hemingway, where she speculates that there are probably more great cooks per square mile than anywhere else in America.
The Woods family typically rings in the New Year with all the usual meats and side dishes as well as chitlins and heaping platters of collard greens, the symbol of greenbacks, Sylvia explains.
Lamb, a fixture on many tables at Christmastime, is one meat the Woods would never think to serve, and it is conspicuously absent from the recently published "Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook" (William Morrow & Co., $25). "I've never really liked it," says Sylvia. "I stick to what I do best and don't experiment much."
What she does best is far better than finger-lickin' good, but like many Southern foods, it's not for the diet-conscious. "You can't live on this food everyday," says her grandson Lindsay. He should know. In the past 1-1/2 years, he has dropped more than 200 pounds (down from almost 400) by keeping his fingers out of the pies, cakes, and cobblers that are so popular at Sylvia's, where he handles media relations. He even plans to brown-bag it on Thanksgiving Day. "I'm very proud of him," says grandpa Herbert, patting Lindsay on the shoulder.
Lindsay may pass on the meal, but he won't pass on prayers if his grandparents have anything to say about it. And they certainly do. The holiday ritual surrounding prayers is well understood by all generations. Before anyone picks up a fork, Sylvia and Herbert start off by sharing their gratitude for the family and feast. Then it's the children's turn, and the grandchildren's. The signal to begin eating is always given by Herbert when he clears his throat loudly.
As important as food is to the Woods, it's the spirit of family, the warmth, and the lively conversation that they seem to enjoy most. When asked what he's looking forward to, Van Woods, Sylvia and Herbert's eldest, rattles off some of the typical dishes - turkey, stuffing, yams ... but then stops mid-sentence. "Actually, more than anything," he says, "it's just the feeling that I love."
Mom and Dad beam proudly, as if they have just received confirmation of a job well done. Must have something to do with that spice.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society