The Living History of Soul Food in Harlem Told in Three Decades

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Chadwick Boseman’s final cinematic appearance was captured in the posthumously released film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), based on the complicated and controversial play by August Wilson. The film depicts Boseman’s character, Levee, as a young, talented, and ambitious but ultimately traumatized member of the titular character’s band. As portrayed by Viola Davis, Ma Rainey engages in a simultaneous battle throughout the film, as in the play, with the old and the new. Throughout the story, she certainly comes to blows with the forces of a racist recording industry that profited off the exploitation of increasingly popular black music. Still, the plot’s primary conflict is between herself and Levee, whose desire to write and perform his music is thrashed when it comes into conflict with Ma Rainey’s stubborn but pragmatic vision. In that way, the film depicts a core generational struggle during the 1920s; it shows the anxiety of a slowly changing black culture which drew audiences away from the raw and bawdy southern blues of Ma Rainey and toward a more complex and rapid northern jazz. In the film, Ma secures something of a victory. Still, the Harlem Renaissance history shows that the real-life Ma Rainey could do nothing to contend with the energy and creativity generated in New York City. While the black artists, professionals, artisans, and laborers who moved to Harlem created a progressive and dynamic cultural hub, they nevertheless brought the comforting cuisine developed in the south. Southern-style soul food restaurants popped up all over Harlem to get a sense of history and community to an unusual yet alienating urban movement. Almost a hundred years later, Harlem is a very different place, but soul food restaurants served in the neighborhood remain the same. 

The fact that August Wilson’s story about the anxiety of the black community’s future has had a resurgence, appearing on a shortlist of nominations for the 93rd annual Oscars, is interesting when considering the state of modern Harlem. In recent decades we saw gentrification threaten many black-owned businesses, and even the Apollo theater fell into disrepair. But more contemporary events have seen the Apollo theater restored and reinvestment in black-owned restaurants. All the while, some of the more traditional soul food restaurants in Harlem have maintained a dedicated community. Unlike the tragic story of Ma Rainey and Levee’s relationship, there exists an atmosphere of respect and community within the older and younger generations of black restaurants in Harlem. 

1960's

The corner of W. 126th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem has been co-named Sylvia P. Woods Way since 2014, only two years after the death of the well-regarded restauranteur and the founder of the world-renowned Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food Restaurant. Sylvia’s story is one of self-actualization and entrepreneurship. After moving to Harlem from her mother’s farmstead in South Carolina, Sylvia waited tables in a small luncheonette. Having developed a strong working relationship over time, the luncheonette owner eventually sold the space to Sylvia, who then took the opportunity to build an empire. Her down-home style menu, including robust yet straightforward selections of chicken and waffles and whiting sandwiches, is coupled with a wide selection of sides from traditional collard greens and black-eyed peas to buttered corn and candied yams. When the restaurant opened, with fifteen bar-side stools and six mid-sized booths in 1962, this straightforward and hardy menu provided a safe and welcoming environment for people like Sylvia, black and otherwise, who had made their way from the south, seeking the opportunities promised by a booming economy in NYC. The unique sides and sauces provided table-side at Sylvia’s over the decades proved so popular that the restaurant expanded to a storefront to sell them as canned and bottled items. Over the years, Sylvia’s has grown to a national chain of restaurants, a suite of commercial products, and a full-service catering hall. But the original Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem has survived its founder and continues to inspire the neighborhood with its comforting presence.

2000’s

New York City’s entirety experienced a severe decline in the 1970s, eventually becoming bankrupt. As a result, more impoverished neighborhoods, like those in Harlem, saw rising unemployment, and people began to flee. But restaurants like Sylvia’s remained in the community, withstood the recession, and provided a basis for a better future. And in the early 2000s, amid a booming economy, Harlemites saw a better lot with another influx of migrants, this time with select neighborhoods being targeted for gentrification by young professionals. This changing demographic dynamic forced entrepreneurs in the area to adapt. Luckily, young black chefs and restaurateurs developed diverse and versatile dishes that fit the neighborhood’s needs. It was 2005 when Melba’s opened on 114th street and Fredrick Douglas Blvd. Melba Davis is a native Harlemite who spent time working in some of Harlem’s best restaurants, including Sylvia’s. There she learned about the value of comfort and service. Melba brought that forward to her restaurant while moving traditional soul food in a more progressive and healthy direction. 

Melba’s menu sports comfortable favorites like Country Catfish and Mac and Cheese, but it also offers a diverse category of “Healthy Comfort Foods,” ranging from Southern Crab Cakes to plant-based burgers and mesclun greens. Since 2005 many new, perhaps more healthy, southern food restaurants have popped up around Harlem, but much of that can be traced back to work done by the innovative styles and strategies developed in Melba’s.

2010's

After the recession of 2007, Harlem was once again revitalized. As the community continued to shift and grow, the demographics became more diverse. While it is true that the population of whites in Central Harlem jumped from 10% in 2000 to 14% in 2006, the shift in median income from $33,000 in 2000 to $40,000 in 2010 is far more descriptive of what was happening in Harlem at the time. This gentrification wasn’t merely a migration of white people into the city. It was a collection of young, ambitious professionals whose careers were just beginning and whose income was about as expendable as it would ever be. When Marcus Samuelsson entered the scene, renowned throughout the city for his James Beard Award-winning work at the Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit, a foray into Asian fusion with his restaurant Riingo. In some ways, it was strange for the award-winning chef and tv personality to open his restaurant, Red Rooster, nearly a minute’s walk down the street from Sylvia’s. But in other—perhaps more significant—ways, it made perfect sense. Marcus was born in Ethiopia and was separated from his family during the civil war turmoil in the ’70s. He was then adopted by a Swedish family and eventually trained in culinary institutions across Europe. He often combines his panoply of cultural influences to produce imaginative and transcendent dishes. Theoretically, the meeting of these restaurants–the traditional style of Sylvia’s and the avant-garde eccentricities of Red Rooster–should result in a clash of some sort. But instead, both restaurants have flourished in their cultural environments. Red Rooster’s menu has some exciting oddities, including an “Uptown” guacamole topped with pineapple salsa and a succulent brioche lobster roll. Still, it pays homage to the more classic menu selections perfected and innovated upon by places like Sylvia’s and Melba’s. The more traditional dishes include a shrimp and grits okra stew, spiced with chorizo, and pan-fried catfish with a cucumber-pickled onion salad, both of which illustrate a deep-seated ingenuity at the core of Red Rooster

Rather than cause the kind of jealously and resentment we see between Ma Rainey and Levee in August Wilson’s play, there instead exists a shared legacy and future between the generations of restaurants in Harlem. Even the Red Rooster’s biggest claim to fame, hosting a massive fundraising dinner for the Obama campaign in 2011 where plates were sold for as high as $30,000, was preceded by the connections and collaborations Sylvia’s had made with the Clinton administration in the ’80s and with the Obama’s, on a personal basis, years earlier. As for the future, Marcus Samuelsson believes black cuisine is on the rise, which is probably why he’s been documenting black chefs and their signature dishes for his latest book, The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food. In the book, he and his co-author Osayi Endolyn make the case that black chefs have continually led the culinary progress in America and have been repeatedly erased from history. He makes a case for creating more books like these in which the best black chefs in the country are highlighted for their excellence and ingenuity. Collaborative efforts like The Rise create a blending of the traditional and the innovative. Rather than finding discordance, Samuelsson suggests a crescendo; a perfect fusion of comforting blues and daring jazz generates a sophisticated and promising rhythm.