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Abstract: Faded family photos place me in Harlem as early as the mid-1960s when, as a girl, I made the suburban to urban trek each summer with my family in our wood-paneled station wagon. Harlem to me then meant deciphering the Southern roots transplanted north of my Aunt Skeeter and Uncle Tyrone. Along with townhomes selling for millions of dollars, the current upscaling of Harlem bestows a reputation as a ‘must-eat’ site on foodie treks through Manhattan. A weekend food truck rally is made popular through Facebook. In guidebooks such as Frommers, online endorsements by trip advisor and insider tips from the sassy Zagat guide, today’s traveler is urged to make Harlem a destination for eating. Magazine, social media and blog talk of a restaurant renaissance depicts a burgeoning scene that on its surface communicates tolerance and diversity through food and eating. The following essay is an analysis of Harlem food and eating communities that are defined through food discourse(s). In what Annie Hauck-Lawson terms ‘foodvoices’ I explore the role gentrification plays in changing Harlem foodways.

 

I can never put on paper the thrill of the underground ride to Harlem … At every station I kept watching for the sign: 135TH STREET. When I saw it, I held my breath. I came out onto the platform with two heavy bags and looked around. It was still early morning and people were going to work. Hundreds of colored people! I wanted to shake hands with them, speak to them. I hadn’t seen any colored people for so long — that is, any Negro colored people. I went up the steps and out into the bright September sunlight. Harlem! I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath and felt happy again.[1]

Faded family photos place me in Harlem as early as the mid-1960s when, as a girl, I made the suburban to urban trek each summer with my family in our wood-paneled station wagon. Harlem to me then meant deciphering the Southern roots transplanted north of my Aunt Skeeter and Uncle Tyrone. Long after the other children had gone to bed, I was the small set of eyes in the corner of the living room watching loud and long games of bid whist through a haze of cigarette smoke. Always on the night of our arrival the room was abuzz with news from back home and filled with a lingering aroma and praise for my Aunt Skeeter’s fried chicken, collard greens and corn bread which had been prepared in the North Carolina style of my mother’s family. These were hot summer nights cooled by the breeze of an electric fan and tall glasses of sweet tea or cherry red Kool-Aid. In the morning the adults would plot the downtown explorations of our New York travels over plates of eggs, country ham, grits and biscuits.

I continued these visits to see relatives in Harlem well into my twenties when I was a college student at Yale. After long weekends of study and sightseeing, I was packed off on the train back to New Haven with foil wrapped packages of chicken and greens and mac and cheese. Decades later when I made the gentrification in Harlem the subject of my ethnographic field work, I connected my family’s Harlem experience to that of many of the black migrants who had made their way to Harlem in waves going back to the early 1900s bringing with them distinct food culture(s) that can be traced to the ends of a far-flung set of geographic roots in Africa, the Caribbean and the American south.

These days it appears that uptown gentrification is transforming what folklorists and anthropologists would term the “foodways of Harlem.” Along with townhomes selling for millions of dollars, the current upscaling of Harlem bestows a reputation as a ‘must-eat’ site on foodie treks through Manhattan. From a plate of reimagined fried chicken on a bed of grits to fusion cuisine that serves up sides like Afro-Asian collard green salad, my travel to Harlem in the summer of 2014 brought me face to face with the elasticity of foodways in ways I have yet to fully digest.

In guidebooks such as Fodors and Frommer’s, online endorsements by trip advisor as well as insider tips from the sassy Zagat guide, today’s travellers are urged to make Harlem a destination for eating. “Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster created the influx,” claims a 2013 on-line Fodor’s post, “and now [other] notable spots help solidify Harlem as a bona fide food and restaurant destination.” A weekend food truck rally is made popular through Facebook and food blogs promising tastes that range from “a 21st century spin on the traditional Japanese hibachi” to “authentic organic Columbian food” that “skillfully blend[s] tradition with eco-friendly ingredients.”

Magazine, social media and blog talk of a “restaurant renaissance” depict a burgeoning scene that on its surface communicates tolerance and diversity through food and eating. But after decades of decline, the transformation of Harlem into a top destination for travel, food and eating invites curiosity and questions: When did this “restaurant renaissance” take off and why? Who are its actors and authors? How does it reveal the contradictions of capital in neighborhood restructuring? As anthropologist James Watson argues, “food is a universal medium that illuminates a wide range of other cultural practices … that are implicated in a complex field of relationships, expectations and choices.”[2] Read closely, the meals, menus and marketing of a food scene offer a semiotics of food tourism and a multiplicity of meanings behind a real and imagined Harlem that is as cooked up as the ingredients appearing on its tables these days.

 

In the Beginning

Some of the earliest travelers to Harlem are identified in Gilbert Osofsky’s classic work, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. As Osofsky documents the evolution of Harlem from its aristocratic roots to the predominantly Negro ghetto of the early twentieth century, he introduces 1860s’ visitors to pastoral, rural Harlem as “downtowners wandering about on country jaunts.”[3] Arriving in Harlem at that time was accomplished by a long journey that extended from Central Park northward along “the road,” or Harlem Lane as St. Nicholas Avenue was then known.[4] St. Nicholas Avenue, which originates near the intersection of 110th Street (Central Park North) and Lenox Avenue, heading northwest toward 125th Street, where it follows the north border of St. Nicholas Park, was originally conceived to improve access to Central Park.[5] According to a New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission report, “it became a popular route for trotters heading to the Harlem Speedway and Jerome Park, where the American Jockey Club built a racecourse seating eight thousand spectators.”[6]

At the end of the 19th century, the distance and seclusion of Harlem made it attractive as “the country retreat of a burgeoning metropolis” and for an “exclusive class” that counted Comodore Vanderbilt among its ranks, Harlem also offered rest and relaxation in the form of drink and dining:

After a day on the country these “fashionable people” might stop at Toppy McGuires Clubhouse or sip wine at the intriguing Brossi’s Tunnel, bored out of rock at One Hundred and Twenty-second Street. “Harlem had become the rural retreat of the aristocratic New Yorker,” an old Manhattanite recalled, and its “chief charm [was] its well-bred seclusion …”[7]

Many writers have noted that the black claim to a prevailing Harlem narrative often has rewritten or neglected a longer Harlem history in which a white elite as well as a German, Italian and Irish immigrant working poor were previously the inhabitants and creators of Harlem’s cultural identity and its traditions.[8] This history would include and extend to the foodways of Harlem as well. “Dear Carl,” Harlem’s poet laureate Langston Hughes wrote to well-known renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten:

… do you mean to tell me that you do not know where Franks is! Or do I read your card wrong? Franks is the large restaurant on the north side of West 125th street, exactly 315 West 125th Street. It is just about the oldest restaurant in Harlem and was, I understand, a solid and well known steak house and fish place long before Harlem became colored. Many of the old waiters are still there and some of the old patrons still come from other sections of the city to dine there occasionally … Sincerely Langston.[9]

 

Fig. 1: Frank’s Menu Cover

 

Fig. 2: Frank’s Menu

 

Until it was integrated and became a popular dining spot in black Harlem, Frank’s was known for its whites only policy. As was The Cotton Club, another popular club and restaurant in renaissance Harlem. Blacks were employed as entertainers and, as seen on the cover of a special edition collectors’ menu, as waiters.

Like Frank’s, the menu of the Cotton club reveals popular restaurant fare in the 1920s and 1930s to be with little fanfare or flourish with dishes ranging from steaks and fish to boiled vegetables and salads. Both Frank’s and the Cotton Club list Chinese food selections such as one dollar plates of chicken chowmein, pork, shrimp and beef chop suey, foo yong dan — which the menu translates as “Omelettes” (sic) Chinese — and pots of coffee and tea for 25 cents. During the Harlem Renaissance the Cotton Club was known for employing Chinese waiters who served Chinese food. Perhaps in keeping with the tastes of changing times, Frank’s recognized the appeal of “soul” in the form of “exotic” cuisine by offering a special edition African meal to its white patrons. Listen to chef Robert Kitchen introduce a menu called “Franks African Cuisine” which includes dishes such as pallava sauce, goat soup, peanut soup and ghalif rice.

 

Fig. 3: Cotton Club Menu Cover

 

Fig. 4 Cotton Club Menu

 

Fig. 5: Frank’s African Menu

 

Chef Kitchen first situates the reader/diner at an “auspicious” reception at a “commanding elegant” apartment where philosophies and points of view are shared with an “impressive” array of guests: politicians, diplomats, scholars, publishers, civil rights leaders. The groups’ turn to the subject of cuisine is Kitchen’s segue to the consensus he seeks about Africa and its exotic cuisine. The brief chef’s note which accompanies the menu thrice uses the term “exotic” as Kitchen describes his enthusiasm for the food. He even goes so far as to suggest that for those who are neither native Africans nor tourists to Africa, the meal potentially offers the transformative experience as an adventure into “soul.”

Indeed, the “American” dining scene in turn-of-century Harlem would evolve over time with the neighborhood’s shifting demographics as it became Nigger Heaven: the queen of the black belts, the cultural capital of Negroes and home of the Harlem Renaissance. At the intersection of economic oppression and artistic expression, the Harlem ghetto was forged by America’s racial prejudice and spatial segregation but was shaped, too, into “Renaissance Harlem” through the blend of cultural creativity and artistic innovation. While jazz and blues were the main attractions, the easy availability of alcohol and the lure of parting with morals and manners in the starched-collar era of prohibition made Harlem a popular escapist destination for white thrill seekers and club hoppers.

By the 1930s, the neighborhood’s white population had declined and “St. Nicholas Avenue [had] developed into a lively commercial thoroughfare. Retail stores and restaurants, as well as nightspots, opened on the lower floors of various row houses and apartment buildings. The best-known venues were located between 148th and 149th Streets. Jimmy’s (Jimmie’s) Chicken Shack, a popular restaurant with jazz musicians [could be found] located in the basement of 763 St. Nicholas Avenue”[10] (Historical factoid: Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker worked as a dishwasher in Jimmy’s Chicken Shack). The block of West 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues had so many nightclubs it was known as Jungle Alle[11] A popular favorite, Tillie’s Chicken Shack:

served some of the tastier late night meals uptown — fried chicken and sweet potato pie were its specialties. Its regular patrons gathered there as much to dine as to hear Elmira, the torch singer, in her suggestive rendition of “Stop It, Joe.”[12]

Wells’ Restaurant was also popular with musicians and mixedrace crowds of jazz aficionados. Located on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard between 132nd and 133rd Streets, it opened in 1938. Wells’ was legendary for serving up late night plates of chicken and waffles in the liminality between after hours and the break of dawn. As local lore would have it, chicken and waffles was invented in Harlem, at Wells’ Restaurant. A culinary footnote: Dutch immigrants popularized waffles in New Amsterdam, before it became New York and the earliest American chicken and waffle combination appears in Pennsylvania Dutch country during the 1600’s, when home cooks made waffles and topped them with pulled chicken and gravy. But this reality does not get in the way of chicken and waffles being identified as a signature dish, which continues to be known as one of the staples of Harlem soul food.

Clearly, the commercial transformation of Harlem in the first decades of the 1900s introduced foodways shaped by the neighborhood’s changing demographics. While Southern black migrants and large numbers of foreign-born blacks were arriving in steady numbers between 1920 and 1930, whites (second generation Italians and Jews) were moving out of Manhattan.[13] Heterogeneity among this arriving population should not be overlooked as it contributed to important markers of diversity in the development of Harlem as a black community. With the majority of blacks coming north arriving from Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, it is likely that there were regional variations in food and cooking techniques. West Indian origins can be traced to dozens of different islands in the Caribbean. Harlem, writes Osofsky, “was America’s largest melting pot.”[14]

Damian Mosley, in an essay titled, “Cooking Up Heritage in Harlem,” challenges what he characterizes as a reductive reading of soul food in the history of Harlem. The “primacy of soul food” in today’s Harlem, Mosely argues, misses what he depicts as the early decades of 20th century Harlem rife with “tension and heterogeneity.”[15] In part, he writes, Harlem owed the existence of a varied food culture to Jamaican and Ugandan born merchants who “imported various foodstuffs (pepper sauces, chutneys and condiments, cocoa and cola nuts)”… which “signified a variegated food world”:

In Harlem … [the immigrant] has introduced to the food culture of the negro community native vegetables and fruits, yams, West Indian pumpkins, Guatemalan black beans, pigeon peas, mangos, pawpaws, ginger root from which ginger beer is made, choyos which looked like large green peppers, plantains, papaya, guava, eddo, alligator pears, breadfruit, cassava, black pudding, red fish and tannias.[16]

Given the diverse roots of Harlem’s black food culture, Mosley asks “when and how did southern African American cuisine — widely even if unofficially called soul food today — establish its dominance in Harlem?”. His answer is that, in part, it was the presence of non-native blacks in Harlem who “pushed native African Americans as a group to celebrate, emphasize and take pride in their own food culture as a foil against the outsiders.”[17] While southern black food “never reigned without peer during the renaissance years,” concludes Mosley, its ubiquity in Harlem “came with the eventual exodus of remaining European immigrants and the most upwardly mobile black West Indian immigrants.”[18] But a co-mingling of native and non-native influences in Harlem’s foodways would carry forward.

 

Soul Foodways

Before he moved to Harlem in 1965, LeRoi Jones who would become Amiri Baraka, was a traveler to Harlem. During the early 1960s, while Jones made his home downtown in Greenwich Village, a significant settlement in the art scene of beats and hipsters, Harlem was his destination for soul. In Home: Social Essays, Jones (Baraka) locates the foodways of African, Caribbean and Southern blacks uptown, above 110th Street, in the heart of Harlem. Here, Jones, as tourist and tour guide, lovingly recounts a line-up of well-known soul food staples, preparation techniques along with his recommendations for finding soul:

Away from home you must makes the trip uptown to get really straight as far as good grease is concerned … There are probably more restaurants in Harlem whose staple food is fried chicken, or chicken in the basket, than any other place in the world. Ditto, barbecued ribs—also straight out of the South with the West Indians i.e. Africans from farther south in the west, having developed the best sauce for roasting whole oxen and hogs, spicy and extremely hot. Hoppin’ john, hushpuppies, hoecake, buttermilk biscuits and pancakes, fatback, dumplings, neckbones, knuckles, okra (another African importation other name gumbo), pork chops—some more staples of the Harlem cuisine. Most of the food came north when the people did.[19]

Though not identified as fusion, the soul food scene that existed by the 1960s in Harlem could claim global origins stretching from West Africa to the West Indies, and the American South. Shops and restaurants, or “shacks” and “joints,” in an informal lingo related by Jones/Baraka, are the important social home space of soul:

There are hundreds of tiny restaurants, food shops, rib joints, shrimp shacks, chicken shacks, ‘rotisseries’ throughout Harlem that serve “soul food” — say a breakfast of grits, eggs and sausage, pancakes and Alaga syrup — You can go to the Red Rooster or Wells or Jochs and get a good meal but Jennylins, a little place on 135th near Lenox is more filling (122-23).[20]

When photojournalist Craig Marberry came to Harlem to shoot the subjects of Spirit of Harlem (2003), the nostalgia for soul similarly shaped his perceptions:

My first taste of Harlem came at age eleven, when my mother took my four brothers and me to New York on summer vacation … one afternoon Mom took us up to Harlem … What I remember most about that excursion uptown was our meal at Sylvia’s Restaurant. I can still taste the corn bread, collards, candied yams, and fried pork chops, all so faithful to my grandmother’s own. (My grandmother, like restaurateur Sylvia Woods, grew up in South Carolina). And I can hear the babble, happy babble, that swirled through the restaurant like the aroma of sweet potato pie, hot from the oven, voices wafting as they did Sunday afternoons in the dining hall of my grandfather’s church.[21]

Marberry’s recollection goes beyond the tastes, smells and sounds of soul in Harlem. His memories are given specificity in Sylvia’s, a restaurant that would take on an iconic status and play a distinct role in the food tourism of Harlem. It would take decades before Harlem nostalgia became commodified, but its origins in the tale of Sylvia are instructive. “I am Harlem!” declared Sylvia Woods, one of the subjects of Marberry’s work. “When people around the world think of Harlem, they think of the food at Sylvia’s, my fried chicken, my collards, my corn bread. I’ve fed Robert F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, Madonna, Malcolm X” she boasted.[22] Back in 1962 when she was a waitress, Sylvia bought the restaurant from her employer of eight years and in 1963 renamed it Sylvia’s. By 1968, Sylvia’s had become so popular as a local favorite that it was relocated to its present location on Lenox Avenue and 126th Street.

In a tale that reads like a plucky cross between Horatio Alger and Oprah Winfrey, Sylvia Woods introduces the recipe of her restaurant’s success in a 1992 cookbook co-written with Christopher Styles. Grit and a strong work ethic were not the only factors that contributed to the local Woods’ global dominance as the “queen of soul food.” In the cookbook she recounts how she caught a bit of a lucky break when Sylvia’s was reviewed in 1979 by New York magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene. “You’re kidding,” was Greene’s initial reaction when a companion suggested the trek uptown, “You’re such a romantic. You are not Cole Porter. I am not Helen Lawrenson. These are not those bad old good old days” she pushed back before confiding to readers:

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure a duo of aging blond preppies and I would be all that welcome ribbing and chicken-hopping in Harlem. Not that I’d tried it since Rosa Parks refused to sit down in the back of that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and the civil-rights struggle began.[23]

By the end of the review we learn the purpose of her visit: “to advance the cause of cuisinary research … It’s an adventure. It’s a bargain. It’s a lark.”[24] As tourist guide and translator, Greene managed to demystify, decode, deconstruct. The article attracted media attention and customers from all over the world. “The rest is history” writes Sylvia in her cookbook.[25]

Back then Sylvia’s wasn’t the only game uptown in Harlem. Other neighborhood family favorites included Copelands and Wells and Singletons. But if soul was the defining food of late twentieth century Harlem, by the early 21st century well-loved sites were shutting their doors. Valerie Kinloch notes the consequences this decline holds for the black community. Kinloch argues that the well-loved familial black restaurants of pre-gentrified Harlem played a strong role in the identity formation of the youth in her research. In detailing the demise of a series of well-known restaurants that had held institutional longevity in the community, Kinloch explores the impact of gentrification on community rituals in Harlem on Our Minds: Place, Race, and the Literacies of Urban Youth. As a site of community gathering and identity formation, Harlem restaurants have not only been important as places to consume the staples of Southern cuisine — grits and biscuits, waffles and fried chicken, oxtails, red velvet cake — but also have operated as the locus of tradition. The roll call of famous blacks who have been spotted or hosted at local establishments lends credibility and connections beyond simple transactions of business. As an insider affair, the restaurant scene in Harlem is remembered as being about family and cultural traditions, sharing traditional foods and defining historic moments.

In the early 2000s, the arrival in Central Harlem of a Starbucks, Old Navy, Body Shop and other mainstream retailers signaled yet another new commercial face on the streets of Harlem. More than a decade later, a stroll along the major boulevards of Harlem reveals changes in its flavors and tastes. While media report the death and decline of soul food, a recent visit to the neighborhood in the summer of 2014 saw newish yoga studios and gyms, artist galleries, cafes and cappuccino, wine shops and bicycle stores and what is referred to as the ‘explosion’ of a food scene — gourmet restaurants and sidewalk dining, signs advertising happy hour and drinks specials and a small but growing number of specialty food and grocery purveyors in which farm fresh and local, organic and gluten free are the bywords of the day. Even a poster in a pet shop window on Lenox Avenue was advertising organic food for pets!

On one hand, the new Harlem narratives of food tourism create a space for Harlem food consumption that is linked to its soul food “heritage,” its connections to black culture (music, art and literature), and links to famous or influential black Americans. So Sylvia’s survives along with a narrowing list of others who serve up soul in line with ethnic revival efforts. This “heritage tourism” strategy is viewed with a critical eye by Damian Mosley. “Its focus on a narrowly conceived African American food culture,” argues Mosley, “seems to propagate a reductive image of Harlem to the greater world.”[26] Mosley attributes much of a ‘cooked up’ soul food image to the efforts of the mid-1990s in Washington Heights, Central, West and East Harlem neighborhoods designated as the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ). A review of UMEZ annual reports shows intentionality behind the heritage approach:

Whereas the purpose of UMEZ’ existence is to revitalize economic development and assist with human empowerment, the increased revenue that results from a vital tourism and cultural industry overwhelmingly enhances our raison d’être … Our community is hungry for outlets to express its cultural heritage … and the tourists who visit New York City are thirsty for the cultural experience Upper Manhattan has to offer … It is our goal to encourage residents and visitors to shop, eat and immerse themselves in the diversity of the community.

Mosley points to Sylvia’s Restaurant as one of the largest beneficiaries of empowerment zone efforts at establishing links between history and heritage tourism. In fact, as the heirs of the “queen of soul food” receive more and more busloads of tourists, business is booming but over time Sylvia’s has come in for criticism from long term residents who claim it has lost some of its local appeal. It has also been on the receiving end of not-so-subtle jibes from newer establishments who specifically promote themselves as “not” being Sylvia’s.

The community’s new food narrative, however, also moves beyond historic and cultural Harlem which is at times ignored or in some cases absorbed as one component of a larger international, global and multicultural narrative about food, engagement and belonging. This latter trend can be seen in the appearance of food fusion — from fried chicken to Afro-Asian collard greens — and the global and high-end tastes dished out at the Harlem food truck rally, an impromptu gathering of travelers as nomads which I will discuss below.

 

Home Cookin’ and Cultural Tourism

While one can find new dining options in various pockets and corners of Harlem, what is heralded in the media as the “restaurant renaissance” is most precisely located in two areas: on Lenox Avenue moving North from 125th Street and along Frederick Douglass Boulevard beginning around 116th Street. Consider this description of 1960s and 1970s Harlem from Daryl Pinkney in a review of Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto and Harlem is Nowhere, two recent books about the place:

Old heads in Harlem will tell you that in the 1960s, particularly after the riot of 1964, white policemen were afraid of walking an uptown beat. They were reluctant to come through even in patrol cars. Those who did were often on the take. White landlords would try to collect the rent, guns at their hips … Harlem was the place where you could do or get anything and get away with it. People would disappear for days into the cathouses and shooting galleries. One guy told me that at his corner of 124th Street and Lenox he once saw the garbage collectors in their truck nodding from heroin. They were parked for hours, the trash uncollected when they finally left. Delivery trucks at stoplights got held up. Sometimes a driver would be enticed by a woman to a room where he was then tied up. Down in the street, an orderly line was forming for the sale of his truck’s contents. Drug money circulated fiercely. People could get shot in the middle of the afternoon and if you chanced to be on the street where it happened, you knew that you had seen nothing, heard nothing, and would say nothing … Blacks felt that they ran the place. You could pass out on a traffic island in Harlem and no one would bother you all day long. The only people around in those days were black, old heads say.[27]

Given the derelict reputation that Harlem had carried moving forward from the 1960s, that it would become the site of successful food tourism, in the form of sidewalk cafes, bistros and brasseries is almost impossible to conceive. While public and private redevelopment efforts in Harlem result in reclaiming public space put in service of leisure, dining, shopping and recreation, this is only a first step. Today, the Harlem dining scene boasts a cast of characters that includes travelers, tourists, nomads, pilgrims, students and hipsters. They have not arrived by accident. The nexus between architecture and activity reveals discursive spaces created in dining reviews, restaurant websites, food blogs and tourist tips. In the last several decades, a steady and shifting narrative effort has simultaneously recast Harlem while defining its emergence as a food destination.

Back in the mid-1980s, Peter Bailey introduced a slim volume, Harlem Today: A Cultural and Visitors Guide. Bailey started with a forward by then-Manhattan Borough President (and later New York City’s first black mayor) David Dinkins. Dinkins uses superlatives to describe the community, including “acclaimed,” “most treasured,” “proud” and “colorful,” yet in a direct acknowledgement of Harlem’s ‘troubled’ reputation, he made clear that concerning tourism: “Harlem’s problem is not to make you aware of its existence but to change for the better what you think about it. We begin by asking you to join us in looking on Harlem not as a ghetto but as a community … when you look at Harlem this way, you will find more that is fascinating, educational and fun, than frightening and depressing.”[28] The brief guide includes chapters on standard tourist fare — historic districts and landmarks, theater, music and dance, museums and art galleries — but provides a short four-page chapter devoted to restaurants. Inviting the visitor to stay and eat beyond just making visits to well-known historic spots of Harlem, the culinary suggestions that Bailey provides range from southern cuisine to African, Spanish and American Continental. With a broad reach that extends to global fare, the listings also include Chinese, Indian, Italian and Hungarian offerings. Descriptions of Southern cuisine identified as local favorites point to their popularity among Harlemites, and some of the familiar food choices in the line-up of soul are detailed — grits, eggs and biscuits, mouth-watering collard greens, ham hocks, pig feet.

The point, however, is that at that moment in time the food wasn’t the point. Bailey’s visitor guide was written in service of getting beyond the travelers’ reluctance to visit a Harlem that many found “frightening” and “depressing.” Where a psychology of reluctance acted as a barrier to getting tourists to come to Harlem, food was a “mouth-watering” enticement that would extend visits beyond the historic and landmark sites such as the Apollo Theater and the Abyssinian Baptist Church. In fact, adopting a homey approach, Bailey’s recommendations were all based on personal favorites shared by Harlem residents. Promoting the community by promoting the eating habits of local residents can be read as a way to normalize the experience of a visit to Harlem. Also important was the need to offer reassurance to travelers who as outsiders would lack connections of kin that might relax their attitudes about visiting the neighborhood. An imagined or constructed kinship for non-natives is suggested through an emphasis on the restaurants’ home-cooked meals, their family owned status, their place as afterchurch options and generally their reputation for being “popular meeting spot(s) for Harlemites.”[29] In Bailey’s guide, international dining is described in a way that urges a visitor to imagine Harlem as a gateway to a global experience through food. Through a strategy of dislocation, the tourist is invited to imagine a simultaneous arrival and departure through Harlem food experiences. Come here, “for a taste of Ethiopia, a taste of Cuba,” Bailey’s restaurant reviews invite, while playfully suggesting that you could be anywhere with “décor, ambiance and cuisine that take you back to Old San Juan.”[30]

The cautious tone continues in the Harlem write-up in the sightseeing section of the Time Out: New York Guide (2003): “despite the retail explosion and influx of development money, there remains a psychological divide between Harlem and the rest of Manhattan … Violent crime remains low (though it’s not uncommon to find a shop locked — the salesperson buzzes you in).” Despite what the guidebook acknowledges as the impact of gentrification on the community “locals complain[ing] of ballooning rents, the infiltration of superstores, the Caucasian invasion and simultaneous watering down of black culture,” it confirms Harlem’s status as “the heart and soul of Black America … filled with Afrocentric culture.” Soul food, the only reference to restaurant eating in its brief Harlem sightseeing introduction, is presented as part of the attraction: “its soulfood restaurants serve the world’s best pork chops and collard greens.”

Even as recently as 2006, the perceived unwillingness to visit the neighborhood persisted when the Frommer’s guide gave Harlem a nod, including it alongside other neighborhoods where those with an adventurous spirit would be rewarded with cheap but good eats by moving beyond (geographic) comfort zones: “… good value abounds, especially if you’re willing to eat ethnic, and venture beyond tourist zones into the neighborhoods like Chinatown, the East Village, Harlem, and even the Upper West Side” (155). The suggestion to “eat ethnic” in Harlem functions as a container that collapses meaning in the service of simplifying what might still be seen as a difficult choice overridden by good value.

But in 2009, along comes the sassy Zagat guide. Introduced by (Former-U.S. President) Bill Clinton and U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel, Zagat: Spotlight on Harlem brings the neighborhood the popular ‘voice of the people’ approach to restaurant reviewing. “While Harlem has had its ups and downs over the years,” write Nina and Tim Zagat in their chatty intro, “the neighborhood has been undergoing a dramatic renaissance of late.” By introducing us to the prospect of a round-up of restaurants that “run the gamut from Harlem icons like Sylvia’s and Rao’s to quiet neighborhood nooks to the lively newcomers on 12th Avenue’s budding Restaurant Row,” Zagat confers an arrived status on the dining scene of the latest incarnation of Harlem. And in what they refer to as “the area newly dubbed ViVA (Viaduct Valley)” the Zagat franchise helps cement a spatial-psychological make-over of Harlem with a real estate moniker that connects eating to other changes that have been consuming the neighborhood for decades (5).

 

Gospel Sunday

Full throated and joyous, the sounds of gospel are the soundtrack to Harlem on this, the day of rest and prayer. I am walking on 125th Street on a recent summer Sunday in Harlem and see the sidewalk vendors still know how to play to a crowd. Afrocentric literature, African oils, incense that tickles the nose with its pungency, t-shirts piled high on tables lined with black, red and green Kente clothe are the trade of today’s sidewalk marketplace. CDs, pirated and plenty, are in evidence on tables that are full with music. A steady beatbeatbeat of James Brown, the godfather of soul and subject of a summer 2014 biopic by Mick Jagger, competes to be the sound of the moment. SAY IT LOUD. I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD.

But today is Sunday and this is Harlem. Which would mean it is gospel Sunday. And the honeysuckle sweet and low baritone sound of gospel music rises from the tables. The notes lay low and steady, climbing as they insinuate in the warp and woof of the day. Since the mid-1990s clubs and restaurants in Harlem have been offering one version of heritage tourism in the form of the gospel brunch. Some of the surviving old neighborhood favorites have cast a gaze outward for customers and a link to the past defines what they are serving up.

Marco Flavella has clearly identified a place for himself in this weekend scene. A dapper man, brown sugar brown, with a spray of tightly coiled and graying locks peeking from the sides of a sporty duffer cap perched on his head, Marco has a niche: T-shirts. Red Rooster t-shirts to be more precise. And why not? The original Rooster was a speakeasy and this is not. Nor is the current Rooster at the exact location of the former Rooster. But past and present in today’s food tourism can easily be captured in icons. Besides, at this corner of Lenox Avenue, right off the exit of the 125th Street subway, Harlem is seeing a lot of action these days.

Flavella folds and rearranges his wares, hanging and then rehanging a t-shirt on the tree beside his folding table which is piled with the Red Rooster shirts. At Sylvia’s up the block, there is a wait for tables and the busses keep disgorging passengers. Blocks away, Japanese, Australian and Korean tourists snap selfies in front of the Apollo. And the hustlers hustle. The street vendors run a fast rap on James Brown, Harlem and gospel. But the real attraction and much of the action is inside the restaurants. With its mid-1990s empowerment zone designation fueling the frenzy, Harlem’s gentrification and urban redevelopment have blended a space, through eating, where public and private entrepreneurs trek from the past to the future through the diversity of Harlem cuisine(s). I review the menu: The Rooster, for example, serves Chicken and Waffles — with chicken liver butter and bourbon maple syrup — their shrimp and grits meet up with cilantro and salsa verde, the mac and cheese introduces cheddar to parmesan.

The Rooster is one of many Harlem establishments that offer Sunday gospel, jazz and blues packages. New York television station CBS pulls the promotion together in one place so that from the safety of cyberspace potential visitors to Harlem receive reassuring guidance. The CBS website describes three of the popular Sunday tourist destinations, The Red Rooster, Ginny’s Supper Club and Sylvia’s. It offers dress code advice, food and ordering tips, and establishes history as a frame of reference for the uninitiated. In the case of Ginnys, potential patrons are offered more than just a chance to connect with history. They are also able to support a social cause — the preservation of history — through dining.

As a virtual arena in which the new Harlem can be promoted, previewed and pre-digested, the websites play an important function in the machinery of food tourism:

Red Rooster
310 Lenox Avenue
New York, NY 10027
(212) 792-9001
redroosterharlem.com

Red Rooster, Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s tribute to Harlem, welcomes Boncellia Lewis to sing gospel and spiritual favorites during brunch every other Sunday (check the calendar to confirm dates). Served from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the brunch menu includes blackened catfish and mac & greens.

Ginny’s Supper Club
310 Lenox Avenue
New York, NY 10027
212.421.3821
www.ginnyssupperclub.com

Downstairs from Red Rooster (see below) is Ginny’s Supper Club, a restaurant and bar styled to evoke the speakeasies so popular during the Harlem Renaissance. Every Sunday the lounge offers a gospel brunch complete with a buffet. As you eat, you’ll be entertained by Vy Higgensen’s Gospel for Teens Choir, an award-winning singing troupe.

Sylvia’s
328 Malcolm X Boulevard
New York, NY 10027
(212) 996-0660
sylviasrestaurant.com

One of the most popular restaurants in Harlem, Sylvia’s was opened in 1962 by Sylvia Woods and her husband. While both are gone, the restaurant, specializing in soul food, remains in family hands (it’s now run by the Woods children and grandchildren). This institution does an especially brisk business during brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, the latter of which features live gospel music. Try the shrimp and grits, hot cakes, or red velvet waffles and fried chicken.

As “travels in a hyperreality” of Harlem, the gospel brunch of the Red Rooster, Ginny’s Supper Club and Sylvia’s approach simulacra: Ginny’s in its declaration that the club “evokes” the speakeasy; the Rooster in its adoption of the name of a speakeasy relocated and repurposed at another site; Sylvia’s, the iconic purveyor of canned vegetables and supermarket spices that bear the queen of soul food moniker. But not all of the trendiest traffic in this arena of heritage tourism with its emphasis on literally consuming an ‘authentic’ black cultural experience through dining. Instead, we can also find a post-racial discourse which treats the space of the restaurant, the range of cuisine and the communities that food creates as markers of a multicultural and global experience.

 

Food Diasporas and Globalism

Dusk falls gently like a shawl wrapping itself around the shoulders of Harlem on a warm August evening. Colorfully dressed African women gather in intimate clusters outside the storefront hair braiding shops and small African groceries that cater to the Senegalese and other West African migrants who populate this stretch of Central Harlem these days. At the intersection of 116th Street and Lenox Avenue the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque (with its majestic onion dome) and the African market place sit in the shadows of the towering cluster of public housing that looms over long and lanky black boys and men who trade the smoke of marijuana cigarettes. A CVS pharmacy and a Bank of America lobby full of ATMs serve old and new residents at the gateway of Harlem’s “new renaissance.”

My walk west along 116th Street takes me past the glorious Graham Court apartments (once the home of Zora Neal Hurston), a mix of mom and pop storefronts and a lot of food — soul, African, fast — including a popular local restaurant, Amy Ruth’s, another beneficiary of empowerment zone funding. Amy Ruth’s menu is strictly soul and the food selections are named for famous and wellknown African Americans. Further along, I arrive at Minton’s Playhouse and the neighboring Cecil restaurant — the fall 2014 winner of a best new restaurant of the year award from Esquire Magazine. A National Register of Historic Places marker designates Minton’s as the home of be-bop, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk. Next door is its sister establishment, The Cecil.

Travel is a central metaphor in the narrative defining The Cecil, a restaurant created by Richard Parsons and noted restaurateur Alexander Smalls. From its website, The Cecil is described as being “[i]nspired by the travels, exploration and study of the African Diaspora of Chef Smalls.” “The Cecil,” its website informs us, “will offer a global adventure in tastes and flavors as diverse and dynamic as the community in which the restaurant resides.” And if food can have a mission, according to the text, “its goal is to connect communities through food, comfort and hospitality.” On the Cecil website, Parson and Smalls present a culinary concept that is multicultural and global in intent. “Afro / Asian / American cuisine,” we are told, “is a fusion of the best of what each of those distinct food cultures has to offer. It traces the global migration of African-descendent people through the influence of African spices, textures and cooking techniques on traditional American, Latin and MONIQUE TAYLOR | 185 FIRST PUBLISHED Asian dishes” and promises to “celebrates the diversity and commonality of the Afro/Asian/American experience.”

In websites such as those of Red Rooster and The Cecil, we clearly see a “literary architecture” of the Harlem food scene being developed in a virtual world that exists entirely apart from the experience of actually being in Harlem. Because these sites so deftly join past, present and future, they help establish links to comfort zones and belonging that redefine the ways we can participate in community. Because of the nature of the virtual, travels in these Harlem realities are made synchronous and asynchronous for diners and their food peers.

There are no strict rules or boundaries about what is and is not ethnic, there are no color lines, no assumptions of authenticity. Diversity is an assumed and underlying fact of experience. A table of four diners could easily consume the following in an evening at the Cecil: Afro/Asian/American Oxtail Dumplings, Green Apple Curry Sauce, Taro Root, Collard Green Salad, Spiced Cashews, Coconut Dressing, Braised Lamb Shoulder, Curry Edamame Custard, Saffron Israeli Couscous, Birdseye Chili Jam, Citrus Jerk Wild Bass, African Fonio, Okra, Burst Tomatoes, Parsnip Purée, Merguez Lamb Sausage, Beer Battered Long Beans, Spiced Pumpkin Milk, Crispy Okra Fries, Sundried Tomato & Black-Eyed Pea Salad, Black Pepper Sauce, Roasted Japanese Eggplant, Confit Shiitake Mushrooms, Harissa Fonin, Pecans, Pan Roasted Skuna Bay Salmon, Kabocha Squash. In addition to restaurant websites which develop narrative identities for themselves, food blogs also contribute to a production of spatial meaning in neo-renaissance Harlem. The texts of the food blog take food as a starting point but provide a broader narrative that offers identities, ideology and shapes shared interests. Harlem Food Truck rally is one instance of a discursive food community that is shaped by social media

Since food truck rally is an impermanent event, foodies are invited to associate their participation as being connected to already settled and future establishments — “Cecils and Vinateria … right around the corner.” There is even room to see oneself in the role of pioneer by joining in an event where “Whole Foods will be launching” in the near future.

Another blog, thedailymeal.com, which proclaims itself an authority on “all things food and drink,” also contributes to the spatial reimagining of Harlem through the use of food. Oddly, its proclamation that Harlem is “celebrat[ing] a culinary comeback” and “experiencing a gastronomic revival” breaks with and stands apart from the past and present food presence in Harlem. In part, this allows food to aid in the construction of a future narrative about consumption, space and belonging in Harlem: “Also on hand was Riley/Land Gourmet pantry (a boutique culinary company) which is … working its way from pop-up to full-fledged Harlem storefront shop in the near future.” Riley/Land Gourmet, the blog tells us, will offer “artisanal eats like rosemary pear spread, chai spice nut butter, small-batch crabapple jelly, fennel blood orange tapenade, skillet bacon jam and Carolina creole simmering sauce.”

Nomads drawn to the intermittent experience of the food truck are invited to imagine taking part in a more permanent endeavor, as consumers, who will find artisanal eating as part of a Harlem shopping experience. Like the pioneering prospects suggested by the newyorkstreetfood blog, followers of Riley/Land Gourmet are encouraged to see themselves as trailblazers and taste makers. We also learn from thedailymeal.com that the food truck “event [is] made possible by organizations like Experience Harlem, Corbin hill farm/food project (which helps bring fresh produce from local farms into Harlem) and The Harlem Garage (a co-working space for Harlem businesses).” By alerting foodies to institutional and organizational affinities, which they may or may not already be aware of, the food truck rally helps eaters define themselves as belonging to a broader shared space of social, ethical and political values that transcend a weekend moment at 116th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard.

The latest restaurant rhetoric suggests a harmonious community united in its pleasure of eating and of food. Values of pluralism, tolerance and diversity are conjured through space and ingredients. While the death of the soul food establishment is in evidence in Harlem, the empowerment zone has offered support for the fittest to survive as ethnic heritage purveyors. Food fusion as an alternative brings travelers a wealth of food and eating experiences in Harlem that extend outward in reach to gather in the tastes of the globe. The food truck rally, along with an abundance of new and hip restaurants, brings a diversity of tastes to a developing community in Harlem that is defining itself through a food lifestyle that incorporates tradition but is by no means bound to the one-dimensional version of the past that is found in dining that is strictly soul.

 

Fig. 6: Harlem Food Truck Rally

 

List of Menus and Maps

Figure 1: Menu cover from Frank’s Famous Restaurant, Oyster and Chop House
Courtesy of the Manuscripts, Archives and rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library

Figure 2: Menu from Frank’s Famous Restaurant, Oyster and Chop House
Courtesy of the Manuscripts, Archives and rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library

Figure 3: Menu cover from The Famous Cotton Club, The Aristocrat of Harlem
Courtesy of the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library

Figure 4: Menu from The Famous Cotton Club, The Aristocrat of Harlem
Courtesy of the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library

Figure 5: Menu Frank’s Famous Restaurant, Frank’s African Cuisine
Courtesy of the Manuscripts, Archives and rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library

Figure 6: Poster from Harlem Food Truck Rally
Source: http://harlemeats.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/harlem_food_truck_rally_nonurture-me_green2.jpg

 

References

[1] Langston Hughes. “From The Big Sea,” in Nathan Irvin Huggins ed. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1976) p. 90.

[2] James L. Watson and Melissa Caldwell, The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) p. 1.

[3] Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1971) p. 74.

[4] Ibid. p. 84.

[5] Matthew Postal, Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill Historic District Extension:

Designation Report (New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, 2001) p. 5.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Osofsky, Harlem, p. 74.

[8] Monique M. Taylor, Harlem Between Heaven and Hell (Minneapolis University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Camilo Jose Vergara, Harlem the Unmaking of a Ghetto (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[9] Emily Bernhard ed. Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes

and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-64 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) p. 251.

[10] Postal, Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill Historic District Extension: Designation Report, p. 12.

[11] Jervis Anderson, This Was Harlem: 1900-1950 (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982) p. 182.

[12] Ibid. p. 169.

[13] Osofsky, Harlem, p. 129.

[14] Ibid. p.

[15] Damian Mosley, “Cooking Up Heritage in Harlem,” in Annie Hauck-Lawson and Jonathan Deutsch eds. Gastropolis: Food and New York City (New York:

Columbia University Press, 2010) pp. 274-292: p. 279.

[16] Qtd. in ibid. p. 282.

[17] Ibid. pp. 278-280.

[18] Ibid. p. 282.

[19] Amiri Baraka, Home: Social Essays (New York, 1966) p. 122.

[20] Ibid. pp. 122-23.

[21] Craig Marberry and Michael Cunningham, Spirit of Harlem: A Portrait of

America’s Most Exciting Neighborhood (New York: Doubleday, 2003) p. xi.

[22] Ibid. p. 110.

[23] Greene, Gael. “Harlem on My Mind,” in Vintage Insatiable. March 12, 1979.

http://insatiablecritic.com/Article.aspx?ID=329&keyword=Harlem+On+My+Mind&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1. Accessed: 25.12.2014: p. 63.

[24] Ibid. P. 63.

[25] Sylvia Woods and Christopher Styles, Sylvia’s Soul Food: Recipes From Harlem’s World-Famous Restaurant (New York: Harper Collins, 1992) p. xii.

[26] Mosley, “Cooking Up Heritage in Harlem,” p. 289.

[27] Darryl Pinckney, “The Real Harlem,” in The New York Review of Books, April 3, 2014. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/04/03/real-harlem/. Accessed: 27/7/2015.

[28] Peter Bailey, Harlem Today. A Cultural and Visitors Guide (New York: Gumbs and Thomas Publisher, 1986) p. 1.

[29] Ibid. p. 25.

[30] Ibid. p. 27.

 

This work is published as part of the Sage ~ December 2017 Issue, of the Coldnoon journal.

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Monique Taylor

Monique Taylor

Monique Taylor is a sociologist by training with undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yale and Harvard. Her research, teaching, and public speaking stretches from race, inequality, and urban studies to film, food, and pop culture. For the past 15 years, she has lived and worked in the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia.

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