Southern Fried Sorrow: Soul Food and Mourning with Sylvia Woods’ Cookbook

By Margaret Saunders

I bought my only cookbook in 2008, the same year my Aunt Sharon was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It was a sentimental purchase—a soul food cookbook, the recipes of famous Harlem restaurateur, Sylvia Woods. Sylvia’s namesake eatery on Malcolm X and 126th was the only place in New York that my aunts swore by when it came to their southern fried favorites.

Because I was a teenager then, my aunt’s doctors were eager to feed me a lot of unfounded optimism about her disease. They had Sharon on a medication that was supposed to slow her symptoms, and there were a few promising studies out about the possibility of being able to reverse the memory loss. I repeated this information, even as Sharon forgot everyone’s name and face before eventually forgetting her own. When I saw Sylvia’s cookbook propped up on a table at Barnes & Noble, I took it as a sign. I’d bring it with me the next time I visited Sharon. Maybe we’d be able to cook her favorites together.

I found the forgotten cookbook high up on my bookshelf just before Sharon passed in the summer of 2017. I’ve always been a talented eater—I once won the Kentucky State Fair hot dog eating contest—but never a gifted chef.  When I re-discovered the cookbook, I wasn’t exactly struck with a sudden urge to fry myself a catfish. What did catch me right in the chest was the familial memory that soul food has always evoked. A cousin known for his pseudo-intellectual quips about Blackness once said, “The one thing Black people have always had was great food.” After every marriage, divorce, birth, and death, after waiting every Sunday at church for the more enthusiastic members of the congregation to finish catching the Holy Spirit, we had great food—black-eyed peas in chicken broth, savory grits, sweet potato pie, and buttery, tender cornbread.

During the final stages of her Alzheimer’s, my aunt lost the ability to eat. She’d forgotten how to chew her food. When I took the cookbook off my shelf, it was because I wanted to remember Sharon—hair in doodoo braids tucked under a beanie, blasting Beyoncé or JLo on her boombox, cooking up food she’d forbid us from trying until it was done, but sticking her own finger in the pot for a taste.

I fried my first chicken a month after Sharon died. I am not the next Sylvia Woods. Nor am I my aunt Sharon, a woman of inimitable swagger and confidence, who never needed a recipe or anyone’s advice. But that doesn’t really matter. For the first time since my aunt got sick, I sweat it all out in an overheated kitchen, and I didn’t need the recipe anymore. It was an incomparable sensation, like stepping into a memory. I listened for oil popping and stuck a fork deep down until I hit the bone of the chicken breast and the juices ran clear instead of pink—that’s how my aunt Sharon taught me, and I knew, it was ready.

Photo: Chia Messina