March 3, 2017
Forget Le Pavillon. The hardest reservation in the sixties in New York City might have been Little Kitchen, Princess Pamela’s soul food restaurant. The Princess moved around a lot; at one point her restaurant was in a walkup apartment in the East Village, but by the time I nervously rang her bell she’d moved to a narrow storefront on very east Tenth Street. Princess Pamela didn’t let just anybody in: she had to size you up first, and if you passed muster, she might open the door. That did not, however, mean you got to stay.
When I visited the Princess in the summer of 1971, I was already a fan. I’d found a used copy of her cookbook, Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Recipes, and practically memorized it. I was hoping for something exotic – chitlins maybe – but you pretty much ate what the Princess gave you. In our case, that meant nothing. One of my friends made a joke about “a soul food restaurant with no sweet potato pie.” He thought he was being charming; the Princess was not amused. “Out!” she shouted.
I’ve been thinking about Princess Pamela because her cookbook has just been re-released. The Lee Brothers, who brought the book back, set out to find out as much as they could about Pamela Stroebel. It’s a melancholy tale. Orphaned at the age of ten, she wended her way up the East Coast, working in kitchens until she opened her own place. Then, somewhere around 1998, she simply disappeared. The Lees think she may have been interred at Hart Island, where the city buries unclaimed bodies.
Reading about the Princess in this great Food 52 piece by Mayukh Sen, it’s impossible not to mourn the untold numbers of black chefs whose stories’ we’ll never fully know. It makes me doubly grateful that Princess Pamela’s book has been given a second chance. Here’s her recipe for fried chicken, which she served with Sauce Beautiful (named for her mother, Beauty).
(I see I cut a few things off. That’s “3 tablespoons peach preserves” and “1/2 cup water,” “2 tablespoons brown sugar” and “1 tablespoon butter.”)
Categorised in: Vintage Books and Magazines