Behind the Story: Food52 Uncovers the Majesty & Mystery of Princess Pamela

Gabriella Schwarz / March 30, 2017

Photo Credit: Celeste Byers

Article: She Was a Soul Food Sensation. Then, 19 Years Ago, She Disappeared.
Publication: Food52
Reporter: Mayukh Sen

When Food52‘s Mayukh Sen first read about chef, author and entertainer Princess Pamela, he was struck by the world she created in her downtown restaurants and the mystery of her disappearance in the 1990s. It was that curiosity that set him on a more than 30-interview journey to get to know this larger than life figure, culminating in the publication of She Was a Soul Food Sensation. Then, 19 Years Ago, She Disappeared.

Pamela Strobel, or Princess Pamela as she was known, was the queen of downtown Manhattan soul food for over twenty years. Her intimate restaurants served comforting dishes and provided cultural oases, often with Princess Pam herself as the entertainment. Her creations, including fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas, oxtail stew, cold potato salad, and apple cobbler, as well as her substantial following, resulted in the 1968 cookbook, Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook. (My my Dallas-born grandmother, Shirley, had a well thumbed-through copy in her kitchen.) Her restaurant closed in 1998 and she later disappeared.

Forty-five years after her 147-recipe book fell out of print, it was re-released in February by Matt and Ted Lee, known as the Lee Bros, and became the subject of Sen‘s investigation. Though his writing hasn’t yet solved the mystery of Princess Pamela’s disappearance, Sen said he won’t consider his job done until her ending is known.

We spoke to Sen about how Pamela inspired him, the world she created and what modern day chefs and restaurant owners can learn from her pioneering journey.

How did this story come to be?
It came on my radar in mid-January when I saw a very brief Publisher’s Weekly article about the reissue of Pamela’s cookbook…I thought this woman clearly had an amazing life, was very charismatic and she disappeared so literally. So I really thought given the climate that we’re in now, that it’s as good a time as any to devote a lot of real estate to telling that story and telling it right. And at the very least, indicating how much her personality and her food meant to people around her.

Why is there an uptick in stories like this now?
I think that in general a lot of media, beyond food media, is starting to appreciate the kinds of contributions and imprints that a lot of black women have had on our broader cultural understanding of art, whether that’s food, music, movies etc. One story I read a lot as I was writing this piece was this story by Francis Lam in The New York Times Magazine. It was I think two years ago and it was about Edna Lewis. Edna Lewis is a very important culinary figure, and she’s also a black woman who just didn’t really get her due in her time. I remember when the story came out, which was just a few years ago, it brought her to a much wider audience. I wanted this story to have the same impact.

I think a lot of publications are starting to take these stories more seriously now. I think they’re important, especially because the stories a lot of media focus on and tell have historically been stories of white home cooks and white chefs and white cookbook authors. As a man of color, I think it’s important to amplify the stories and voices of people of color, especially chefs and cookbook authors of color.

What captivated you most about Pamela?
There were two things really. One is that when I first read her cookbook I just thought her voice was so lush and captivating and charismatic. As I was reporting the whole story, I heard so many things about what a large personality she was and how particular she was. But when you read her actual book, I read it like a novel. The prose is so beautiful and the way she describes food and the memories that are attached to it were extremely captivating to me.

But also, I’m someone who grew up watching Unsolved Mysteries and being obsessed with stories of missing people so the added component in this case of this woman having gone missing completely almost three decades ago was also compelling to me. One of my hopes for this story when I first started reporting it was maybe we’ll inch closer to the truth of what happened to her and where she ended up.

I was struck by how you explained the whole world and atmosphere she created. How important was, not just the food, but the way people felt when they were there?
What I found in reporting this and talking to more people about what the experience of eating at her restaurant was like—a lot of people actually didn’t think the food was anything to write home about. Like Ruth Reichl who is quoted in the story, she wasn’t a huge fan of the food. A lot of people from the South who came to New York and missed the food and environment and were longing for home, they really appreciated her food. I think her restaurant and the feel of it was the food, but also her personality and what her personality brought to the whole experience. The whole restaurant was pretty small, very intimate. As I describe in the story, she kind of preened the clientele as the night wore on so she would end up with an ideal audience who she was most comfortable performing around. The experience that she created was so intimate and inviting in a way that a lot of restaurants aren’t now, for example. They are both extremely integral to the way people remember her.

You mentioned the sense of community, so do you think there’s a yearning now for that feeling?
I think there is. That reminds me of one thing I read while I was reporting this that didn’t make it into the story. A lot of people, especially queer people, drag queens, trans people and queer people of color said that her restaurant provided almost a safe haven for them. That was interesting to hear—this idea that a lot of people really gravitated toward her restaurant, people who couldn’t find other places where they could feel safe and welcome. I think that was also a huge part of what she created as well and how special it was.

One quote from the piece that struck me was “She offers the disclaimer that she cooks by feeling—soul—rather than measurement.” Is there room for that kind of cooking today?
I think so, definitely. What I was also really intrigued by as I was reading her book was her kind of saying, ‘screw you’ to the scientific way that a lot of people approach cooking now. I think that the way she kind of defies those expectations is very appealing in today’s landscape. I think a lot of cookbooks that I read now are very cut and dry: do this, do that, x, y, z, step by step. She just kind of eschewed that whole standard, which I really was attracted to.

The piece talks about the popularity of Soul Food in the 1960s. How has that changed?
I think that there are still a lot of soul food restaurants in New York and major metropolitan areas, definitely more than there were before. But I don’t know how much of broader America, for lack of a better term, has developed their understanding of soul food. I think that soul food carries connotations of being very glutinous, very unhealthy, very heavy. That idea is something I detected as I was interviewing people for this story, but soul food is so much more than that. It’s connected to an emotional charge and this sense that people have been uprooted from where they grew up and are looking to reconnect to that place that they know so well and no longer have access to. The only way they can have that access is through food.

You talked in the piece about the handicaps Pamela had in the culinary world – her gender, her skin color. Do those handicaps persist?
I think they definitely still persist. If anything, I think the more obvious discrimination that a lot of black women face is now more slyly coded. It comes in the form of microaggressions almost. But I would definitely say that, speaking as someone who is in the culinary world in general, it often feels like there isn’t a lot of room for people of color, period. I’ve heard stories from black women who have tried to feel as though they have a sense of place or belonging here. I think there is a lot to learn from Pamela’s story in terms of how she did stand up against these awful obstacles that were put in her way purely because of her personhood.

Is that what you hope people take away from your story?
That’s definitely one thing. I think that when I take many steps back from this story, I look at Princes Pam and think this is a woman who had everything stacked against her—her color, her gender, her accent, the way she spoke, the way she carried herself also. A lot of people said that she kind of did whatever she wanted. She was very impulsive and spontaneous, and that was integral to her charisma, but a lot of people might be turned off by that kind of personality. And a few people I talked to, were. But I think she succeeded and monetized the business…in spite of all of those things. I wish that circumstances were different today…but systemic and structural racism still exist. And that is one takeaway that I want people to have—what she did at this specific time period when so many black women did not rise up in the ranks.

Was it unsatisfying to know her ending is unknown?
It totally was. I had a few objectives when I began reporting this story. One was that I really wanted people to know who this woman was, her name at the very least. But I think one of the hardest parts of reporting this whole story was the fact that there are so many question marks. Even as I talked to almost 30 people and had all these interviews, pages and pages of transcripts, there’s still so much we don’t know. We don’t know what her exact birth year was or what her birth name was and obviously what became of her, if she is dead or alive. I think one of the big challenges in writing this story was how do I convey that ambiguity in a way that feels artful and that doesn’t detract from the power of the story. Because I really wanted to make it feel expansive. And expansive doesn’t necessarily mean exhaustive.

There was definitely something lingering as I wrote this. As it circulated around the internet and made its way to different corners, I hoped people would have some sort of inkling or clue as to what did become of her, but so far it has been nothing. Throughout this whole process, from the very beginning, I’ve kept in touch with the Lee brothers who were responsible for reissuing this book. They were actually the first people I talked to as I started reporting this story. They also wanted to find Pam. I told them that “I’m a journalist, I agree with their mission, and I’d like to help amplify it and amplify her story as well.” So we line up in that regard. “Let me help figure out what happened to her.”

I’m still invested in this story. I still want to know what happened. And if someone somewhere who reads the story knows what happened to her, that would be amazing, and I would consider my job and the Lee brothers’ job, done.

Read more in-depth reporting from Food52 on Flipboard and check out a special Food section on Friday’s in Daily Edition for the next month.

~GabyS is curating Explainers