Restaurateur, author, businesswoman. Woods was born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 2, 1926, the only child of Van and Julia Pressley. Her father died three days later, and Sylvia and her mother moved to Hemingway, South Carolina, to live with her maternal grandparents on their thirty-five-acre farm. It was here that Woods learned to cook traditional southern and African American food.
Sylvia married Herbert Woods in Hemingway on January 18, 1944. They started a family, which would eventually grow to include four children, and she owned a beauty parlor. In 1950 the family moved to Harlem, and in 1954 she began waiting tables at Johnson’s Restaurant. Eight years later she bought the eatery with a $20,000 loan from her mother, who mortgaged the family farm to raise the money, and renamed it Sylvia’s.
Sylvia’s became a popular neighborhood restaurant, but it was not until New York magazine’s food critic Gael Greene wrote a 1979 article dubbing Woods “the queen of soul food” that the business gained worldwide attention. Her simple southern dishes–many of which were created by Hemingway native Ruth Gully, who ran the restaurant’s kitchen from 1975 until her death in 1995–attracted throngs of tourists each year and have spawned a multi-million-dollar empire, Sylvia Woods Enterprises. The company includes the Harlem restaurant, an Atlanta branch, cookbooks, and a successful line of packaged food products sold in stores across the country.
By the early twenty-first century Wood’s four children ran the business, and she divided her time between Hemingway and Harlem until her death in July of 2012. At just one of several memorial services, hundreds of mourners packed the church to hear eulogies by former President Bill Clinton and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Her 1999 cookbook, Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook, is an homage to her childhood in Hemingway, a town that, she wrote, “has more great cooks per square inch than you would find in most cooking schools.”
Woods, Sylvia. Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook: From Hemingway, South Carolina, to Harlem. New York: Morrow, 1999.
Woods, Sylvia, and Christopher Styler. Sylvia’s Soul Food: Recipes from Harlem’s World-Famous Restaurant. New York: Morrow, 1992.