Long Reads

She Was a Soul Food Sensation. Then, 19 Years Ago, She Disappeared.

February  2, 2017

We're thrilled to see this heartfelt, poignant piece by Mayukh Sen win a 2018 James Beard Journalism award in the Profile category. If you haven't yet read it, prepare to be moved by the story of Princess Pamela.

Painting by Celeste Byers

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.

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.

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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.

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Top Comment:
“Although based in the SF Bay Area, I long have been deeply involved in the jazz community and it was through musician friends I was tipped to Princess Pamela. It is my understanding that her relationship to the musician community went beyond that with her other patrons/customers. That would seem to be the most likely lead to track down what became of her. I would float those images of the two musicians in the film clip to NYC musicians: someone will know them, I guarantee that. And check in with the older artists who may have frequented her place.... there is a lot of lore that stays within the musical community... folks know. Just a thought, but one that is aging and the musicians that would have hung with her are aging and passing as well. For sure there were folks eating w/her right up to 1998 and would know what went down... Love and respect to you. ”
— Lynnie
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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.

Scenes from Princess Pamela's restaurant. © Ed Newman

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 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.

Photo by Rizzoli USA

Princess Pamela became a sensation after releasing her cookbook, especially in that stretch of the East Village where she opened her first restaurant. You could call her the doyenne of soul food for New York, when the city had precious few soul food restaurants. She earned this title during a time when her black skin, her womanhood, and her Southern accent weren't just signifiers of identity; they were handicaps that limited her possibilities in the culinary world. Pamela’s defiance of odds was, for these reasons alone, both singular and unprecedented.

But she closed the restaurant in 1998 for reasons no one quite knows. And then, when she was nearly 70, she disappeared.


Not even her birth name is clear. Though it’s likely she may have been born “Addie Mae” Strobel, like her grandmother Addie, at some point between 1927 and 1929, there’s a chance that Pamela’s birth name was Mary, too. Census records don’t provide clarity, but one thing is certain, as she states it repeatedly in her cookbook: She was born in the upstate South Carolina town of Spartanburg.

Cooking was the language of her household. Her mother was Rosella by birth, but she went by Beauty. Beauty was the head pastry chef at Spartanburg’s Elite Restaurant. This was a gift that coursed through the family’s bloodline; Beauty’s brother, whom Pamela called Uncle Isaac, was also a pastry chef. She never knew her father. Beauty moved soon after Pamela was born for a job in Boston, leaving her daughter in the care of her own mother, Addie.

An ad for Spartanburg's Elite Restaurant, where Pamela's mother cooked. Photo by Matt and Ted Lee

Addie was doting but strict, an impervious woman who cooked fiendishly. Every Sunday, Addie took Pamela to Spartanburg’s largest church, Majority Baptist Church. Pamela would spend her Sundays reading the Bible, followed by meals of milk-baked ham and soda biscuits. Her grandmother’s manicured hedge house on Park Avenue was a community hub, which saw swaths of people drop by and experience her hospitality. It was this rotating stable of guests, mostly women she called “play mamas,” who christened this young girl different names, one of which was Pamela.

Though Beauty wanted her daughter to be a concert pianist or doctor, Pamela had long wanted to be a restaurateur. She would pretend to cook for her two dolls on a small toy stove, joking that the chubby one was the one who liked her food. At Sunday school, she’d heard the story of Noah’s Ark, which left her confused: “I couldn’t help thinkin’ how he coulda opened up quite a place on the ark and had all that animal meat and no butcher bill,” she would write in her cookbook.

I couldn’t help thinkin’ how he coulda opened up quite a place on the ark and had all that animal meat and no butcher bill.
Princess Pamela

Beauty supported her mother and daughter however she could through her meager income, but she soon fell ill with an indeterminate sickness. She returned to Spartanburg to die. She was 28; Pamela was only 10. One year later, Addie died, too.

With no family left in Spartanburg, Pamela, a small but brazen 13-year-old who wore her hair in three pigtails, boarded a bus 125 miles north to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She had nothing on her person but her mother’s suitcase and a diamond watch. She begged her way to a job as a helping hand to the salad lady at a corner restaurant at the R.J. Reynolds tobacco plant. Her main task was dishwashing, but once she finished that dirty work, she got to what she wanted to do all along: cook. She made chops and steaks, she made gravy, she made slaw.

I been close to Jewish people and Eye-talians all my life. There is the kind of love in them that comes of bein’ hurt and healed a thousand times.
Princess Pamela

A few years later, she moved to Newport News, Virginia and took a job at a mobile kitchen, where she met a redheaded West Indian shakedancer named Visee Dubois who was a few years her elder. In 1950, the two trekked to New York City. They shared a room in uptown Manhattan, and Pamela took day work at a chemical factory and night work in a restaurant where Dubois danced.

The details get fuzzy around what she did during following decade, or what made her decide to open up Princess Pamela’s Little Kitchen in 1965. It was a time when she only had a dollar in her pocket, pooling money from her Italian and Jewish friends in the neighborhood (“I been close to Jewish people and Eye-talians all my life. There is the kind of love in them that comes of bein’ hurt and healed a thousand times,” she wrote), who pinned money to the wall of her would-be restaurant. She used this cash to buy some chickens and greens from the nearby grocery store. When she visited a printer in the East Village who would craft her business card for her, he suggested some names: He threw Princess Pamela out as an option, and she liked the sound, so she ran with it.


When she first opened the Little Kitchen, Princess Pamela’s staple dish was a plate of fried chicken alongside collard greens and black-eyed peas. It cost $1.35. For the same price, you could also get an oxtail stew with collards and a cold potato salad. Each dish came with biscuits, cornbread, and a salad of firm lettuce and scallions tossed in a cocktail of oil, vinegar, and sugar. For dessert, there was apple cobbler. The only drinks she served were water and coffee. The restaurant would open at 5pm and close whenever she felt like it.

She wanted this space to be a neutral territory: “Like Monaco, this is gonna be Princess Pamela’s Kingdom Come and the only passport anyone is gonna need, is lovin’ kindness and a good appetite for soul cookin’.” But the precise meaning of hospitality was predicated, in Princess Pamela’s eyes, on mutual respect. She would welcome these strangers into her home as if they were friends, with the same enthusiasm her grandma Addie ushered in churchgoers, so long as they didn’t trash the place.

She looked like she drank more than she ate. You know that look?
Ruth Reichl, author of 'My Kitchen Year' and former restaurant critic for The New York Times

In the summer of 1971, Ruth Reichl was living in the Lower East Side, back then a place she describes to me as “very cheap and very scary.” Reichl had found a copy of Princess Pamela’s cookbook when she was an undergrad in Ann Arbor, Michigan a few years before, and it piqued her curiosity. The Little Kitchen had, in these early years, gained respectable word-of-mouth from champions like The New York Times’ Craig Claiborne. Reichl dragged a friend from out of town to the Little Kitchen. When they got to the restaurant, Reichl encountered wiry woman missing many teeth. "She looked like she drank more than she ate,” Reichl tells me. “You know that look?”

Reichl was hoping for chitlins or pig ears like the ones Princess Pamela had in her book, so she was somewhat dismayed at the menu's paucity of options. “Our friend asked if she had sweet potato pie on the menu,” Reichl remembers of her visit. “Pamela said, no, I don’t have any sweet potato pie. My friend thought he was being charming, so he made a joke about her being a Southern restaurant and not having sweet potato pie.” Without a beat passing, Princess Pamela ordered Reichl and her friend out of the restaurant. She was furious.

Princess Pamela serenades birthday boy Bill Lichtenstein in October 1986. © Bill Lichtenstein

When he visited in 1979, Andy Warhol would write in his diaries that Princess Pamela was “a colored lady in a bright red wig” who “looked like a drag queen, so you get the idea.” He paints a thoroughly unsparing portrait of both Princess Pamela and her food. The restaurant “had pictures of Norman Norell on the wall and he’s dead already of throat cancer, probably from eating there.”

Alexander Smalls, the restaurateur and chef of the Cecil and Minton’s in Harlem, was spellbound by the food at the Little Kitchen. Like Princess Pamela, he was from Spartanburg. Smalls saw in her an aspirational tale of a woman who realized her Southern vision north of the Mason-Dixon line. “I think she had visions of grandeur that were too big to be contained in Spartanburg,” Smalls says to me.

I think she had visions of grandeur that were too big to be contained in Spartanburg.
Alexander Smalls, Restaurateur and Chef of the Cecil and Minton’s

When Smalls first went to Princess Pamela’s, he was reticent about even dining there, regarding a soul food restaurant outside the South with a touch of suspicion. But Princess Pamela sensed in him, a man who was by his own recollection a “well-dressed, proper, fancy Negro,” a basic authenticity. The two bonded over their shared hometown of Spartanburg and the memories it gave them. “I’d walk in and she’d acknowledge me with a hug each time,” he recalls of his visits. “And we’d talk about what we had in common: the South, and its food.”


It’s unclear what motivated Princess Pamela to team with Signet and stick these recipes in a cookbook. By definition, a cookbook employs the language of precision; this seems against the philosophy Princess Pamela advocated for in her restaurant, with its fierce resistance to the logic of recipes. To Princess Pamela, the essence of “soul food” was intuition, feeling, and a defiance of calculus. “She is evasive about her recipes,” Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder would write in a 1966 New York Herald Tribune review of the Little Kitchen. “She offers the disclaimer that she cooks by feeling—soul—rather than measurement.”

Princess Pamela's restaurant in the 1980s. © Ed Newman

But in The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (2015), food historian Toni Tipton-Martin argues that Princess Pamela’s cookbook positions itself as a “clever retort to scientific cooking” that could characterize so much of cookbook writing of the era, especially the kind that got published by predominantly white authors. Tipton-Martin provides a useful framework: Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook isn’t a manual so much as it’s a highly organized diary of her culinary knowhow. Numerous notes in the margins of the book’s reissue, inserted with asterisks by the Lees, fill in the gaps that her original instructions invite.

This was food for us, by us, that white people can’t understand.
Adrian Miller, Author of 'Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time'

She prefaces each chapter with a sort of evocative, lush canto; each poem is a time machine. Some read like proverbs: “You play ‘possum with that man and you end up cookin’ it for him,” she writes before a recipe for roast opossum with sweet potatoes. Others attack the dazed, uninformed ignorance of soul food that surrounded her in New York City: “Practically every kind of people eat somethin’ that somebody else make a godawful face at,” she opens her entry on tripe. “If that don’t tellya what this race-hatin’ is all about, nuthin’ will.”

Author and chef Adrian Miller, who wrote the James Beard Award-winning Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time in 2013, tells me that the 1960s were akin to a “culinary declaration of independence for soul food.” This period saw a number of soul food restaurants blossom in major metropolitan areas, and with that came an assertion of black culinary excellence: “This was food for us, by us, that white people can’t understand,” he suggests.

If this was, as Miller points out, a renaissance for the soul food establishment across urban America, it also represented a fallow period for the larger American populace’s understanding of it. This was a time when soul food, as it still is now, was synonymized with heart-attack food.

I think that it's assumed that black women are good cooks, and therefore there's nothing special about them or the food that they make. This couldn't be further from the truth.
Carla Hall, co-host of ABC’s 'The Chew' and chef of Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen

When Carla Hall, restaurateur of Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, leafs through Princess Pamela's cookbook every few years, she starts to think about her grandmothers. Today, the dishes she cooks at her restaurant are drawn from these memories of what they fed her, the same memory palate that Princess Pamela’s book prompts.

“I think that it's assumed that black women are good cooks, and therefore there's nothing special about them or the food that they make,” Hall tells me. “This couldn't be further from the truth.” Hall finds Princess Pamela’s text especially crucial in the present day, when the joys and beauties of Southern cooking are finally undergoing a long-awaited rediscovery. “Comfort food, especially Southern food, has been on the rise for the last decade, especially outside of the African-American community,” Hall says to me. “So, often, a cuisine lives in obscurity until the perceived majority recognizes its value.”


In 1989, Princess Pamela moved her restaurant to a marginally bigger storefront on East Houston Street, facing Katz’s Delicatessen. The sign read “Princess Southern Touch—Cuisine of South Carolina.” It was in this period that Princess Pamela’s performance would become the establishment’s main attraction, eclipsing the actual food she served.

Princess Pamela with some of her patrons in October 1986. © Bill Lichtenstein

“Nothing about her performances was ever sad, like, oh look, she’s past her peak, or there’s this woman trying too hard,” Sherron Watkins remembers of Princess Pamela. Watkins, who later became famous in her own right for being the Enron whistleblower, moved to New York in 1987. She, too, was from the South, and her thick, sticky Texan drawl gave her away to Princess Pamela, who took an instant liking to her.

“Whenever I went there, and maybe it was because I was from Texas and had a southern accent and was blonde, she always seemed to be very welcoming of me,” Watkins says. “She seemed to really want me in her restaurant.”

Watkins, who lived far uptown, would venture all the way to Princess Pamela’s restaurant downtown for both the food and the performances, both displays of her blazing, easy magnificence. Like her food, Princess Pamela's voice articulated the pain and jubilation of her life, details she otherwise kept guarded. As GQ writer Tim Sultan wrote in the last recorded profile of her, in 1997, her “voice goes with the face, which goes with the life led.”


“I heard she lost her mind here in New York at some point and went home,” Smalls tells me late in our conversation. “It seems like a pattern with a lot of New York divas for one reason or another, even if they are just divas in their own minds.”

There are warring theories about Princess Pamela's fate. Watkins heard rumors that the last time anyone had seen Princess Pamela, her restaurant was surrounded by policemen, causing suspicion that she may not have owned the restaurant legally. The overwhelming consensus among those I speak to, though, is that Princess Pamela, having gained weight and showing signs of fraying health, simply fell ill and died. There is no obituary or death record found of a woman who went by any of her names to support this.

Scenes from Princess Pamela's second restaurant. © Ed Newman Photo by Ed Newman

In 1998, Princess Pamela shut down her restaurant in the East Village. No one has determined why. Looking at the patterns of the era provides some opportunity for guesswork: After that renaissance period for soul food in the 1960s, the once-feted soul food restaurants of the 1960s began to rapidly decline. Miller attributes this decline to a nasty alchemy of non-black New Yorkers’ innate prejudices against soul food, labeled as inherently unhealthy; the death or retirement of proprietors whose kin didn’t want to inherit their parents’ restaurants; and the eventual gentrification of overwhelmingly black neighborhoods, leading to an eventual pricing out.

The Lees have been working with Rizzoli for over three years to reissue Princess Pamela’s book, and, in the process, have been trying to confirm whether Princess Pamela lived beyond 1998. She disappeared before the era of hyper-surveillance, which has now made it easy to triangulate the details of a person’s life with a simple Google search. But search the very name “Pamela Strobel” and you won’t find much, if anything, about her; likewise, there are no photographic documents of Princess Pamela. The Lees have rescued polaroids of her from patrons of her restaurants. She was recorded on film once: a small, cult queer movie, Sheila McLaughlin’s She Must Be Seeing Things (1987). Strobel makes a brief appearance singing her own song with a cabal of percussionists, and though she is the backdrop for a feud between the film’s two female leads, her voice never dims.

It was this scene that sent chills up Matt Lee’s spine once he first saw it last year, deep into his resuscitation effort with Rizzoli. It motivated him and his brother to keep searching for her, and a bit harder. They called nursing homes and pored over census records, none of which provided much clarity. Frustrated, they enlisted the help of Andy McCarthy, a librarian and historian at the New York Public Library, whose searches came up dry.

“Maybe she moved back to South Carolina and left the city,” McCarthy tells me. “It’s tough to know.” He explains there’s great difficulty in researching what happened to someone whose legal name likely isn’t what she claimed it was. Privacy laws stiffen the possibility of finding out much more. Birth indexes, at least before World War II, are not public record in New York City. He managed to get in touch with the man who would’ve been her last landlord, but he was terse and toneless in his answers. He told McCarthy he didn’t remember a woman by the name Pamela Strobel.

The Lees have been unable to reach Ada Spivey, either, let alone determine whether she’s alive. They’ve called tens of Ada Spiveys who live down South, or retired back to the Carolinas. The most they were able to confirm was that Bobby Vidal died over a decade ago. The Lees both believe that Pamela’s other great love aside from food—jazz—will provide access to a connection heretofore unseen, an answer about her whereabouts.

After months of research, though, McCarthy has temporarily concluded that Princess Pamela was likely consigned to Hart Island, the burial ground for many John and Jane Does where Riker’s Island operates. It’s just his hunch, and fits the pattern of the elderly and unwanted being buried there.

Courtesy of Tim Sultan

At the very least, the Lees harbor a cautious optimism that the book’s reissue will jolt the public consciousness into knowing her name. It helps that this book arrives in a period when food historians are applying more rigor to assessing the stories of black women whose contributions to the culinary world were undervalued during their lifetimes. I hear the same names when people list her contemporaries: Sylvia Woods, Vertamae Grosvenor, and Edna Lewis, all black women who were not quite given their due in life. These are women united by their identities—their blackness, their femininity, and their Southernness in tandem—along with the great injustice of the fact that history nearly forgot them.

“I hate doing that, naming her contemporaries,” insists Nicole A. Taylor, author of 2015’s The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen. She cautions that there crucial nuances that separate these women, and vaulting them into the same canon has many limitations. Lewis was from Virginia. Grosvenor was a Gullah-Geechee woman from Charleston. Princess Pamela was from South Carolina. These were entirely different vocabularies of cooking. “Princess Pamela had a whole other beat and experience than these folks," Taylor says. "She stood in her own lane.”

Food media tends not to focus on black stories and black cookbook authors. There are dozens more waiting to be told.
Nicole A. Taylor, author of 'The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen'

To Taylor, Princess Pamela’s story is a case study in examining who controls narratives of excellence in cooking. For decades, the chains of influence and power in the culinary sphere have remained static and white, and so have those sentries who dictate the worth of certain people's contributions. (That it took two white, male celebrity chefs to resurrect this book and assert its worth within the literary marketplace only confirms this.) “Food media tends not to focus on black stories and black cookbook authors,” Taylor says. “There are dozens more waiting to be told.”

It is a refrain I hear from countless others: that her narrative’s descent into obscurity is indicative of a greater systemic ill that plagues America’s culinary memory. It is a memory prone to historical amnesia. Look no further than Princess Pamela, a woman no one noticed was gone. It’s as if they weren’t even looking.

The Rizzoli reissue of Princess Pamela's Soul Food Cookbook comes out next Tuesday, February 7. If you know of Pamela Strobel's whereabouts, or have memories you'd be willing to share of her, add your testimonials here or send an email to [email protected]

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.

69 Comments

Kenneth S. December 2, 2019
I remember Princess Pamela as a most wonderful woman ,always a smile. I grew up in the East Village. Funny we were poor and my mother was a great cook and some how was working at the Little Kitchen. I went into the Little Kitchen abd asked my mother,how did you learn to cook soul food. Well I appreciate and thank Princess Pamela for employing my mother. Just got her box, I will try some receipe, they look easy. I will always remember.
 
KGB November 1, 2019
Carrie Fisher once said that "celebrity is just obscurity biding its time." Princess Pamela's story underscores how fans flocked to be a part of her scene, take "selfies" as evidence that she let them in; yet, though a minor celebrity herself, having been in the newspaper and sought after by the likes of "more famous celebrities," she was forgotten and obviously alone or someone would know or at least have kept track of the cookbook royalties, if there ever were any. . .It's gross how we use other people's light.
 
jeffreyt2000 November 1, 2019
@KGB, not sure how you come to that opinion. The mid-70's to mid 90's were certainly NOT the selfie period we are in today. The pictures taken by the people were to capture the moment, to be able to remember the time. They weren't posted on-line and used as evidence of being in the cool place that so many selfie takers today are focused on showing. The atmosphere was to enjoy life and seek out places that were fun and unique.

By your reasoning, any popular restaurant, bar, chef, or unique experience from the 80's that people flocked to because of the unique driving force behind it would have achieved notoriety only because people "use other people's light".

Did people go to Roa's, Da Silvano's, CBGB's, Studio 54, Brownie's, etc to take selfie's and user other people's light? No.
 
Robert B. December 2, 2019
The sheer ignorance of this comment makes me sick. Princess's story isn't about "fans" flocking to be "part of her scene" -- far from it. Selfies didn't exist, and if they did, she would have chucked you out the door when she saw the cellphone come out. I once asked about her about a photo of her with Jonathan Frid (Barnabas, Dark Shadows) on the wall, and she shot back "I don't talk about my friends, none of your business." Her restaurant was a little-known NY thing. Very special, probably illegal. It could be harrowing (you never knew what you might get in trouble for saying or doing) but it was also warm and loving and funny as hell. And the food was damn good. If you'd been a few times and passed Princess's sniff test (she HATED phonies), you might still get a reprimand or two, but with a twinkle in her eye. She was a lot of fun. And my god she could sing. It's a NY (or at least Manhattan) that doesn't exist anymore. Bless you, Princess, wherever you are.
 
Robert B. December 2, 2019
I also got to dance with her a few times during the band solos. She'd say, "Gimme some of that good sugar" and pull me up from my seat. Quite a lady. Will always love her.
 
Sam B. November 1, 2019
Maybe you could search for Visee Dubois and locate some of his relatives and see if they know anything?
 
Cleowhiskey October 29, 2019
I think it's disturbing that you can barely see her in the color photographs--save for the glitter on her clothing to remind you she's there--but the white people shine out in contrast. Confirms the racial bias of color photography technology.
 
Michael October 29, 2019
Sad that you had to turn a great story into a racial discussion, and this is why as minorities we are always fighting up hill. Know what you are fighting for and don’t just engage when there is no need.
 
Colette October 29, 2019
Why is it a problem to point out the racial bias of the photography? Perhaps you also should look at what your fighting for. Race shouldn’t be something we are afraid to discuss.
 
KGB November 1, 2019
I agree with you, considering that all the pictures she is in were from crappy 80s or earlier technology, a technology that didn't consider how ANYone looked. Have any of you seen polaroids or even instamatic camera prints that have actually survived 30 or 50 years, black people look like shadows and white people look like bright white alien ghosts. And people didn't look much better when the film first developed out of the camera. However, I also suspect that in deep in the past, the film companies were probably not testing their film on broad audience subjects, and focused on whites, just like the medical world focused on only white males in their studies or heart disease for decades, even though ALL women present differently.
 
Sam B. November 1, 2019
If they had any knowledge of how to take a good picture the results would have been better. They could have used a film made for indoor shooting with a flash, adjusted the f-stop and moved Princess Pamela against a lighter background, she would have been the center of attention. As it was taken with poor technique, you blame an entire industry for racial bias. The film and camera manufactures spent tons of money on getting the true and life like colors of the subjects. Back then, unless you had the money to buy a quality SLR, a light meter and a good flash and the proper film, you had to use a crappy $100 camera that had no F-stop and a crappy lens. You should be happy and proud that her personality and cooking transcended racial stereotypes.
 
jeffreyt2000 November 1, 2019
Race should definitely not be something we are afraid to discuss, but implying that there is a racial motivation to the photos taken or used for the article, or that the film industry was racially biased in an article about a wonderful woman and the resuraction of her cookbook is silly at best (and I would normally use a stronger word than that).
The polaroid film and cameras were not good in low light situations and these were quick snaps taken to capture the moment. Look at the shots from 1986 - even the white people in the background are dark and harder to see while the people up front are too bright. That is because the flash on these cheap cameras blasted the close up subjects and the light didn't reach further back. This has nothing to do with the race of the subjects, simply to do with the person taking the picture not understanding how to take a good picture. Plus having a white object in the foreground (a cake in 1 picture and a napkin in the other) throws off the balance and instant film technology just could not handle the range caused by that glare in the foreground.
The pictures at the beginning of the article "Scenes from Princess Pamela's restaurant" are just bad shots where she was out of focus in on and the shutter speed too slow in the other.
In the shots labeled "Princess Pamela's restaurant in the 1980s" the colored people are very clear and in focus.

So no, this is not a race issue and it is wrong to try to turn it into that. The film industry was intent on capturing light where possible, but you need to understand the technology to use it properly. To imply that the film industry "tested their film" only on white people is just ridiculous. If the allegations here are true, then how do you explain the great photos from the 50's, 60's, 70's, and 80's of black leaders, athletes, performers, etc. Many of them with white people in the same frame. Look at the pictures of James Brown, Diahann Carroll, Sidney Poitier, and so many others.
 
Patti Z. August 30, 2018
I was a kid in late sixties I lived on East 2 st
We all knew the regal lady who lived in 71
She was Princess Pamela
We kids knew she was special and she was nice.
Thank you for this article. I have thought about her often.
 
Mik May 6, 2018
Mr. Sen, you are an extraordinary writer. Excellent craftsmanship. Congratulations on your award. Very well deserved. As to being able to find out what happened to her, along with the suggestions about checking with musicians that may have known her, it seems to me that she probably has family in her hometown (according to the account, she had an uncle) or descendants of her family that would have some knowledge of what happened to her. May be a good idea to look there.
 
Chuck D. May 2, 2018
I had the honor of eating there in 1992 with the production staff at Comedy Central. This article brought back such wonderful memories of that wonderful place and now realizing I was also honored to hear her sing and play the piano, that night as well. I remember one of us kept running out to buy more wine. The food was absolutely the best soul food dinner of my life, It was a wonderful time that I will always treasure. Thank you for the article!!!
 
M May 1, 2018
Really liked this piece, and that it led me to discover my own battered Princess Pamela book at a used shop. I hope this award, and awards by other 52 contributors and subjects, influences the content we'll see in the future.
 
monkeymom May 1, 2018
Great job Mayukh! I hope that food52 keeps up with supporting this type of storytelling!
 
James April 30, 2018
After the James Beard announcement, I happily read this article and then, as someone who is interested in genealogy, I looked up Pamela. I think Mayukh Sen has a few of the early dates wrong. From just doing a brief hunt around the internet, I was able to find the death certificates of both Addie and Rosella: Addie died in 1934, and Rosella died in 1939 (5 years after her mother). Rosella was one of many children, and shortly after she died, Pamela went to live with Rosella's brother Willie and his wife, in 1940. From my digging around I believe that Pamela's real name is Addie as she would have been 12 in 1940, which lines up with the rest of her life's story. She had one sister, maybe two, that of Anna(ie) Belle and Mary. Anna Belle also came and lived with their uncle Willie after their mother died. From the looks of it I think Pamela did have close family that she left behind when she left Spartanburg.
 
James April 30, 2018
Also the testimonial link is not bringing up a working website or page.
 
creamtea April 30, 2018
Congratulations, Mayukh, on winning a 2018 James Beard Award for this piece
!
 
Author Comment
Mayukh S. April 30, 2018
Thank you so much, Lisanne—hope all is well!
 
David R. February 11, 2018
I was lucky enough to get to go to her upstairs restaurant several times in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Someone had told me about the place. We went and there was a small sign on the side of the building on the second floor that just said “Pamela” We rang the bell and the Princess stuck her head out of the window and yelled “whatchu want?” We called that up that we would like to have dinner and she buzzed us up. We had a magical night. Ada told that she had chicken and pork chops both in “sauce beautiful” the food was delicious and the Princess sat with us at our table the whole time and we talked about food and her and the famous people who came to the restaurant.
I went several times. Pamela always sat down with us to chat. And yes, if you went to the bathroom Ada would follow you and wait outside the door until you came out. I lost track after that and never even knew that she had moved to Houston street. It has always been a good story that i have enjoyed telling.

 
Robert B. December 3, 2017
I adored Princess. I went to her restaurant on 1st and 1st many times in the late 80's and through the 90's. Oh, the stories! A night at Southern Touch was always an adventure, and never ever disappointed. She was one of a kind. I've always wondered what became of her -- and of Ada and Bobby. Her cookbook is a treasure, and I'm so glad it's been republished. Wherever you are, Princess, I love you and miss you ;-)
 
Li P. September 27, 2017
I did not expect this article to be so emotional for me. And Rob Sacher your story made me even moreso. Thank you for writing this and thanks to those helping to revive her legacy.
 
Sam B. November 1, 2019
agreed. I would like to know more about her, hopefully someday her fate will be shared.
 
Rob S. August 20, 2017
I met the Princess two times in my life. The first time was when my parents took me to her restaurant, The Little Kitchen, where we had a wonderful meal and she entertained everyone in the restaurant with her singing and dancing while she cooked our meals at her stove which was on a side wall just a few feet away from where the four restaurant tables were located. It was like being in her home and she did put on a show. I was only about seven or eight and I guess it was back in 1968 or '69, I believe. It was such an extraordinary evening that my mom and I still talk about today.

The second time I met the Princess was many years later. It had always been my dream to open a cool indie rock club in Manhattan's East Village and I got to do that twice. The first time was when I opened a club called Mission (1989-1993) and the second club was called Luna Lounge (1995-2005).

Luna was on Ludlow Street which was across the street and half way down the block from where The Little Kitchen was located. I knew nothing of this and hardly could recall where the restaurant was that I had ate in with my parents when I was a little boy. I remembered the experience and the food but not the address or area of the city that we were in. But, one day I happened to be walking past 78 East 1st Street which is actually on the north side of East Houston Street and I noticed a tiny sign above the entrance to a very small restaurant. It read, "The Little Kitchen". And then it all came rushing back to me. In that moment, I recalled that one meal with the Princess more than twenty five years earlier.

It was in the middle of the afternoon and I decided to poke my head in the door and see if the room was still as I remembered from that one night so long ago. What happened next is permanently seared into my heart and memory. The door was unlocked and I looked in to see that there was no one in the restaurant except for the Princess. She was just sitting there by herself in the darkness, very much alone with her thoughts. I felt that I was intruding on her solitude and I also felt embarrassed to be so clumsy in the moment.

I asked her if she could tell me what nights the restaurant was open and what hours would she be there cooking. She looked at me and with a presence and power profound in a single sentence she told me that the restaurant was no longer open. I got the feeling that she was not well. I wanted to apologize for intruding upon her space but I simply said that I had eaten there many years earlier as a little boy and that now that I was living in the neighborhood I had hoped to have another meal there.

She just smiled at me from across the room. I was still standing at the entrance. I never crossed those several feet to where she was sitting. The space between her and myself on that day seemed as far as one side of the Grand Canyon to the other. I am sure that it was deep and wide.

I backed out of the doorway and closed it gently behind me and made my way west down Houston Street with her on my mind. I passed the building many times over the course of the next few weeks. It was always closed. The Little KItchen was gone. The Princess was gone. A month or two later, a new restaurant opened in that space. I went into it a few times just for the memory of seeing her and feeling her presence those two times in my life.

Coming across this book has made my day, today. And, wherever the Princess is, I hope I get to meet her one more time and express to her my sense of appreciation in knowing that she had touched my life, twice.

Rob Sacher
http://wakeme.net
 
Tony Q. July 18, 2017
Mayukh Sen this is an awesome article of someone I have never heard about, you are bringing so much awareness to the unsung cooks of our era. kudos!
 
Colette April 12, 2017
Such a special read, thanks for putting it together! I feel like it's such a reflection of POC food experiences, more than just a recipe and a good bite, but a whole body experience of community, history, music, and munching.
 
Vũ C. March 20, 2017
i love your story. it's very interesting. i like her in story. she is very special .
http://hadosg-centrosagarden.com/
 
Peter February 23, 2017
I ate at her place in about 1979 when it was on the second floor of a building at 1st Avenue and 9th Street. She may have thrown the keys down to us, gaining access was complicated. Bobby was there playing drums but we immediately felt trapped, as if we were now there to provide Pamela with enough of our money and our attention before we could be released. It felt like a scam to fuel her habit, whatever her drug of choice was. I had gone with a girlfriend with southern roots and I was expecting to discover another Edna Lewis, another Cafe Nicholson but instead the food was little more than a suggestion of southern cooking. She may have better moments but this wasn't entering someone's life on a downward spiral.
 
Jen A. February 22, 2017
I had the great misfortune of getting locked in that restaurant one night, the one on Houston St. Music so loud, place pitch black you couldn't see what you were eating. She was like a bossy crazy person who had the keys to the asylum. Was never so happy as when she "allowed" us to leave. A nightmare. Funny to see a story about her.
 
cy August 23, 2017
Bossy, crazy person, wow! Not surprised...