Soul Food Fans Say Goodbye To 'Queen' Sylvia

Originally published on July 21, 2012 11:11 am

Sylvia Woods, known as the Queen of Soul Food, died yesterday at age 86. She opened the legendary Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem 50 years ago, around the corner from the Apollo Theater, and it soon became a gathering place for prominent African Americans, politicians, and foodies of all ages and races.

Woods' secret, she told a TV reporter back in 2003, was "a little of this and a little of that and you mix it all together. But a whole lotta love has to go in it. If you don't have that, you have nothing at all." (Hear our colleague Joel Rose's remembrance above and on All Things Considered tonight.)

She made chicken and waffles cool long before today's current crop of retro-comfort food seeking hipsters ever thought about installing a deep fryer.

Check out the story of her life, and some delicious tributes from social media sites:

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Finally this hour, we remember a woman known as the Queen of Soul Food. Sylvia Woods has died. She founded the Harlem restaurant that bears her name almost five decades ago. Sylvia's has become a required stop for politicians, foodies and just about anyone who wanted a taste of her world-famous fried chicken. NPR's Joel Rose has this appreciation.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Long before she was crowned the Queen of Soul Food, Sylvia Woods learned how to cook in the tiny town of Hemingway, South Carolina. But she perfected her craft in her namesake restaurant on Lenox Avenue and 126th Street in Harlem.

SYLVIA WOODS: You got pork chops. You got chicken and waffles. You got a variety.

ROSE: As Woods told a local TV reporter in 2003, the key was what she called Sylvia's secret seasoning.

WOODS: Well, it's a little of this and a little of that and you mix it all together. But a whole lot of love has to go in it. If you don't have that, you have nothing at all.

ROSE: Sylvia Woods scraped together the money to buy a luncheonette in 1962. It quickly grew into a thriving restaurant and something more. Reverend Al Sharpton says Sylvia's became a meeting place for black America.

AL SHARPTON: I watched this business grow from a counter to a corner to where all over the world people know Sylvia's. She built something that made us all proud. But she did it without being boastful and proudful(ph) herself.

ROSE: Sylvia's became a frequent stop for politicians courting the black community and other bigwigs from around the world. But those who knew Sylvia Woods say she had the same welcome for everyone who came through her door, whether they were famous or not. Woods' niece Melba Williams grew up working at Sylvia's.

MELBA WILLIAMS: When you walked in there, no one was too big, no one was too small for her. The dishwasher was just as important as the head chef. And she lived and led by example. If she wanted the toilet clean, she'd go clean it herself.

ROSE: Williams now owns several restaurants of her own. She's one of many family members in the business. Woods' grandson Lindsey Williams is a caterer and cookbook author who also grew up around Sylvia's.

LINDSEY WILLIAMS: I could think of so many times where a guy who's strictly hungry and he's like I just need something to eat, need something to eat. She'd go, OK, I'm going to give you this food. Now, you go outside and eat that food, OK? Don't be gnawing on my counter. That's how she was, man. She'd make sure that if you were hungry you were going to eat.

ROSE: Sylvia Woods died Thursday at the age of 86 after a long struggle with Alzheimer's Disease, just a few weeks shy of her restaurant's 50th anniversary. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.