How this Harlem restaurant changed America

Editor’s Note: This Thanksgiving week, what better way to celebrate than with a chronicle of American food? That’s just what we did here at Making Sen$e with historian Paul Freedmans’s new book, “Ten Restaurants That Changed America.”

Economics correspondent Paul Solman recently sat down with Freedman to discuss the 10 restaurants that shaped American food as we know it. Today we have a short excerpt from his conversation with Freeman on one of those restaurants: Sylvia’s, which serves “authentic, soul-food cuisine” and has become a go-to spot for politicians, pop-stars, tourists and locals alike.

For more, watch Thursday’s Making Sen$e report here. You can also read Freedman’s column on how fast-food killed off Howard Johnson, the restaurant chain that made highway food popular.

And from all of us at Making Sen$e, hope you had a happy Thanksgiving!

— Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

PAUL SOLMAN: So finally, why Sylvia’s here on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem?

PAUL FREEDMAN: You can’t write a book about American food without giving a big place to African-American cuisine, which is arguably what American cuisine is at heart. Sylvia’s, founded in 1962, is a representative not only of Harlem, or soul food as the sign indicates, it is a representative of southern food, of the migration of black people from the South. Sylvia Woods grew up in South Carolina and came to New York during the second World War.

It’s really an example of the migration of black people, the links between the South and the North, and the formation of so many dishes in American food. Their specialty is fried chicken, barbecued ribs, collard greens that are classics of both black and white southern and northern cuisine. It is among the most important restaurants on my list.

PAUL SOLMAN: And does any of what we think of as soul food come from places other than the American South? Are there any African connections?

PAUL FREEDMAN: Certainly a lot of products were brought from Africa – okra, yams – but also ways of preparing things, the kinds of stews, greens and the emphasis on greens. So it’s not that the African slaves who were brought against their will here simply reproduced the cooking that they were familiar with – they didn’t have the ingredients, they didn’t have the autonomy in many cases to do so – they used ingredients that Native Americans, that Europeans and that their own African heritage brought to create something that’s both new and a combination of known predecessors.

PAUL SOLMAN: So how does this fit into the big picture of how American cuisine and American restaurants reflect the development of the American economy?

PAUL FREEDMAN: The black influence on American food is more broad and diverse than just through restaurants. In this case, Sylvia’s is one of a number of restaurants, but also a number of things, facts that affect the development of American food. So black people working in restaurants that were not identified as African-American. Black people who owned businesses. Black people who catered events in the 19th century. The leading caterers of Philadelphia were all African-American. Black people who worked in white people’s kitchens in the South. All of this forms not just what’s been called soul food or African-American food, but the basic kinds of staples of what people eat in the United States.

PAUL SOLMAN: So fried chicken, barbecued ribs, we think of that as generic American food but that’s initially African-American?

PAUL FREEDMAN: Yes, and ways of preparing food like barbecue itself. If not invented solely by African-Americans would be inconceivable without the presence of African-Americans. The way of slowly marinating and cooking meat over a slow fire is derived at least in large part from African and African-Americans in this country.

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