Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Long Read: The Lost Treasures Of Princess Pamela

This week's Sunday Long Read comes from Mayukh Sen at Food52, the story of Princess Pamela and her tiny apartment soul food restaurant in Manhattan in the late 60's and 70's, how she became a word-of-mouth legend, and how she vanished into that legend.  Decades later her recipes are being republished in their full glory.

Princess Pamela didn’t let just anyone into her restaurant. She ran her Little Kitchen out of her railroad apartment in an Alphabet City walkup, one floor above a Chinese takeout joint with an eleven-fingered delivery boy.

This was the Manhattan of 1965. Would-be patrons would buzz apartment 2A and Princess Pamela, who claimed her real name was Pamela Strobel, would creak the door open, revealing little more than her eyes. She would accost her prospective clientele with questions: Who were they? Were they from the South, like she was? Sometimes, she didn’t have to ask; she just had a feeling about them the minute she saw their face.

If she knew you, though, chances were you’d be able to shout her name from the ground outside and she’d just throw a key down. And getting in was like scoring drugs. The joint was far from spacious; it was no bigger than 120 square feet, and capacity didn’t exceed 15. But she treated it like her hamlet. Inside were corrugated ceilings, black fridges, checked shamrock green tablecloths, Jewish memorial candles, and derelict chairs donated by do-gooders she knew in the neighborhood. Over time, the restaurant’s cerulean walls would be decorated with the portraits of those who’d passed through, from Gloria Steinem to the Rothschilds, Ringo Starr to Diana Ross.

Once you sat down, Ada Spivey, the Little Kitchen’s meek and spindly cook, would come take your order before retreating to the backroom to make some dishes, likely sweet potato and collards. The menu fluctuated according to Princess Pamela’s mood. You weren’t a customer at her restaurant; you were a guest in her home. She certainly expected you to behave as such. If you went up to use the bathroom without asking, she’d walk right into the stall and drag your ass out. Did you think the chairs were wobbly? If you complained, Princess Pamela, firm and irate, would hiss to Ada, instructing her to feed you and get you out immediately. If you gave Princess Pamela lip, she’d banish you entirely.

If you stayed deep into the night, she’d lock the door and turn away anyone else who buzzed in, telling them that the restaurant was closed. She’d exit to a back room and emerge wearing a red wig and tight, gold lamé dress. The lights would dim, and this cramped room would turn into a jazz salon. Surrounded by a group of male percussionists, including her sometime lover Bobby Vidal, Princess Pamela would sing with a voice that sounded like a nightcap.

Whatever food the restaurant did serve didn’t suggest the encyclopedic breadth of her 1969 cookbook. Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook, originally published by Signet Books before falling out of print for 45 years, was a tome of 147 recipes sourced from the life she’d led for four decades. She was a mettled, plucky girl from the South Carolina town of Spartanburg who was orphaned at 10, left home on her own when she was 13, and worked in restaurants until she reached New York in her early 20s, when she decided to start a business of her own.

The book’s recipes are tenaciously, unrepentantly Southern. It's a compendium of pork spoon bread and peanut butter biscuits, ham hocks and oxtail ragus, catfish stews and giblet gravies, pickled pig’s feet and roast opossum. For decades, though, the only prints of Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook were pumiced paperbacks that would dissolve in your hands.

It has taken nearly half a century for this to be rectified. Next week, Rizzoli is set to release a handsome hardcover reissue of the book. The rehabilitation effort has been spearheaded by Matt and Ted Lee, two siblings better known as the proprietors of the Lee Bros. They first encountered her cookbook in 2004, when they bought it from a used bookstore. The Lees fell in love with the book, considering it a manuscript of integrity and poetry.

And anyone who says food cannot be art or history or culture, well you've never had collard greens and chitlins.  More power to Princess Pamela to see her work endure for a new generation.

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