Life-Changing Cookbooks: Sylvia’s Family Soul Cookbook — From Hemingway, South Carolina to Harlem, New York

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Life-Changing Cookbooks: <i>Sylvia&#8217;s Family Soul Cookbook &#8212; From Hemingway, South Carolina to Harlem, New York </i>

Swirls of purple and white in a harmonious blend are the forefront of my mind when I think about cookbooks. When I’m thinking about those books bursting with recipes, of scientific codes yielding a sensory masterpiece, I’m thinking of what it means and what it meant for me as a child, as a young girl. I was like any other child and any other girl yet I wasn’t. At nine years old it dawned on me how different I was because that was when the taunting started, the verbal insults grazing my heart, blow by blow, bit by bit.

My name was different. It was Nigerian. My father was Nigerian. My mother was American. I was living in America but it was as if I was living in an alternate universe, occupying an alien plane, where I wasn’t being extended the right of being normal, like everyone else.

But cookbooks. My mother’s kitchen was filled with cookbooks and each afternoon as I gingerly unlocked the front door, sliding my backpack at a loud heap at my feet and shuffling to kick my shoes off, I wandered into the gallery where the glorious books were held. At 13, when the waves of hormonal tyranny found its home in me, there was one cookbook which rose to the surface and came a fast favorite — Sylvia’s Family Soul Cookbook: From Hemingway, South Carolina to Harlem, New York.

Swirls of purple and white were what made this cookbook innately special once I picked it up, with a white front and back cover and a purple, slender spine. The words of the cookbook were inscribed on the thin spine in gold lettering and each time I held it, I ran my fingers into the grooves the embossed letters made marveling at their precision and careful beauty. The details awed me before even flipping the cover open.

Sylvia’s Family Soul Cookbook reads as a family record of famous restauranteur Sylvia Woods, whose claim to fame is a southern “soul food” eatery in Harlem, New York. Woods is a native Southerner from Hemingway and through pictures, stories and recipes, she chronicles her journey from her hometown among family and friends to making a culinary dream a reality.

For me, as a teenager who felt, at the time, greatly confused about her identity, reading about Woods’ strong connection to her family narrative and witnessing her movement through those familial bonds stirred up a longing I didn’t know I ever had. Sure, I’d grown up in the South and surrounded by my mother’s family who were also Southerners. I was fluent in Southern culture, dialect, accents and food, but I didn’t feel truly a part of that world. I, instead, oscillated between belonging and not belonging at all with one foot out either door.

My favorite part of the cookbook, save for the recipes which I always tried and rarely executed well and a centerfold of glossy photos of some of the key dishes, were the pictures of Woods’ family. They were all in black and white. Some in homes, others outside, some gleeful scenes, some seemingly tinkered with sadness. Generation after generation were shown. It was powerful and it was painful.

Then was the first time I comprehended a heavy truth: I’d never seen pictures of my paternal grandmother or grandfather. I didn’t know how it felt to sit and walk down memory lane at those who were family when an entire side of my family, my father’s family, remained a mystery, a gaping hole, to me. Somewhere thousands of miles away, across an ocean, there were family members I’d never met. People who I’d never had the liberty to hug, to know the comfort of their voice, recognize the melody of a chortled chuckle. What did it feel like to feel whole and connected? Sylvia’s cookbook entered into me this looming question I held up over my head and let settle, to rest as a crown.

Hindsight often is wistful wisdom if we dare to glance back and reflect upon what we didn’t know at the time but wish we had. I wish I had known then that there would never be a stopping point to questioning who I was or where I truly belonged. That quieting one round of questions only gave space to more to arise in their place. I wish I could’ve just wrapped my heart around the goodness a cookbook is and cherished the food it presented.

And even though there are many things I wish I had done I’m still glad a cookbook, a culinary catalog, a record of history, a scientific spattering of dazzling combinations, could have the power to make me peer deeper into myself. To see with so much clarity there was a longing lingering I needed to embrace.

Now, decades later, I can pinpoint the swirls of purple and white with arriving here, the place where I still wonder, how it would feel to more connected and to know and miss the faces of those that I love, those that I call ancestors.


Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia, who lived in Madrid and three years later still sings its praises.

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