Who Is Princess Pamela? A Southern Cooking Legend Returns

Southern cookbook lovers, make room on your shelves for a new classic.

Lisa Cericola
Pamela Strobel
Photo Courtesy of Tim Sultan

It’s every cookbook collector’s dream: stumbling across a true gem when you least expect it. When Southern food experts and brothers Matt and Ted Lee found a well-worn copy of Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook: A Mouth-Watering Treasury of Afro-American Recipes in a vintage bookstore, they realized there was something special beyond the book’s plain paperback cover. The out-of-print book deserved a second life (and a better cover), so the Lees decided to republish it. Released on February 7, it will be the first title under their new imprint, the Lee Brothers Library Series.

The book, written in 1969, is a collection of recipes from The Little Kitchen, Pamela Strobel’s twelve-seat soul food restaurant, which she opened in Manhattan’s East Village in the 1960s. Orphaned at 10 years old, Strobel was just a teenager when she traveled north from South Carolina to make a new life for herself. Her one skill was cooking and she had two excellent teachers: her mother, Beauty, who was a pastry chef, and her grandmother Addie, who raised her. Even though Strobel was too small to lift a heavy frying pan, she was able to talk her way into a job washing dishes at a Winston-Salem restaurant. It wasn't long before she was cooking and running the kitchen. Eventually, Strobel made her way to New York City and opened The Little Kitchen. Several years later, she published one of the first cookbooks about soul food, then opened a second restaurant in the East Village called Princess’ Southern Touch.

Although Strobel treated her tiny restaurant like a private club, her smothered pork chops and nightly live jazz (she often sang with the band) attracted a loyal following, including many famous names such as Diana Ross, Andy Warhol, and Gloria Steinem. As the Lees write in the introduction to the re-released book: “The power of Strobel’s personality, as remembered by the thousands of people who experienced it, was consistent: indelible and electric,
an evening in her presence was a roller-coaster ride of emotions that ended either in a rapture—as the smothered pork chop and corn bread soothed, and Strobel took the microphone to conjure the deepest blues—or in ruin, if she tossed your ass into the street when one of your guests brought a sense of entitlement to the table.”

Strobel’s remarkable success story and soulful recipes are enough to make Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook worth another look, but the Lees were especially struck by her lyrical writing. Strobel paired nearly every recipe in the book with a poem, showing how Southerners intertwine food with almost every part of life, from relationships to religion to race. Strobel pairs a recipe for tripe with these lines, which still feel relevant today: Practically every kind of people/ eat somethin' that somebody/ else make a godawful face/ at. If that don’ tellya what/ this race-hatin’ is
 all about, nuthin’ will./ In this life, we gotta give / ourselves a chance to digest a/ lotta things we don’/ understand right off.

It’s hard to imagine how such an outsized figure could disappear completely, but that seems to have been the case with Strobel. After Princess’s Southern Touch closed in 1998, no one seems to know what happened to her—or if she is even still alive. The Lees researched as much as they could, talked to people who knew Strobel or ate at her restaurants, and even hired a private investigator and geneologist. In reissuing the book, they took great care to leave Strobel’s words as written, although they tested each recipe and offer suggestions on adjusting the seasonings for today’s reader. The result is a beautiful, hardcover edition that celebrates and preserves the life and work of a long-lost Southern legend.

Read on for an excerpt from Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook, including three recipes:

I Never Got a Chance
Because Beauty, my mama, was away working all the time, supporting us, I never got to be with her very much. Even when she came home to visit, I couldn’t be with her enough because everybody wanted to be with her, and it looked like they were pushing me away.

Even when Beauty got sick in Boston and came home to die, I couldn’t be with her enough. She was only twenty-eight. And she had been getting ready to bring me up there. Beauty wanted me to be a concert pianist or a doctor!

I can tell you something. Beauty was on her deathbed, and she called us all in there. And pretty soon she asked for some food. Well, I was a little thing and I didn’t do any cooking. But I went in the kitchen and boiled some water and put some cauliflower in and brought it to my mother.

Then she said to my uncles and all, “I have taken care of you all, all these years. But now I want to rest, and now I want you to take care of my child.”

I never got the chance to say the things I really wanted to say to Beauty—all by myself, without any interference or anybody around me. I never got a chance to say them one-to-one. —Pamela Strobel

What Our Food Is About
I was thirteen when Mama and Grandmama were dead, so I decided
to go on my own up north—about 125 miles to Winston-Salem. That was certainly North to me. I rode a bus and had three pigtails, my mother’s suitcase and diamond watch, and a big white bow in my hair, but I didn’t even have a place to stay. So I asked a man on the bus where the colored section was, and he sent me to the worst part of Winston-Salem.

I saw a lady walk by when I got out of the cab. Her name was Maude, and the first thing she asked me was, “Did you run away?”

I said, “No, ma’am.” And I kept asking her if she had a room to rent. Finally that lady said she had a mother-in-law in a wheelchair about a block away. “Maybe you can stay there, because she’s holy and righteous,” she said. And I did, and she was.

Early mornings, I’d go look for work right here by the R.J. Reynolds tobacco plant. You had a lot of little restaurants around there because of those thou- sands of people. Well, there was this little place on the corner, where a lady had already said I was too young. So
I decided to go see her at home when she was sick.

“You’re too young, honey, what can you cook?” she said.

I wanted that job so bad! So I said, “Well, who is gonna cook the food for lunch?”

Pretty soon, she’s send me to the restaurant to help the salad lady. When I got there, I saw this high sink was filled with dishes, and I couldn’t even reach the sink! So I looked out back, and there were some Coca-Cola crates, and I kept piling them up until I could reach the sink.

I washed those dishes, and after that, I took the chops out of the icebox, and I made chops and I made steaks. You know how you take the steak and flatten it out and then fry them off and then make gravy? You talk about something good.

I even started making the slaw my own way that day, and pretty soon the salad lady made it that way. When I started there, I couldn’t even lift the frying pan down without someone helping me!

That was the beginning of what I’m doing now. I learned a lot from Mrs. Smith, and I loved her. The only day I wouldn’t go work there was Sunday, but I’d go anyway and sit with her in that little restaurant because that luncheonette was her life.

I think I learned how to cook the best food in the world between Mrs. Smith and my grandmama, and I’m trying to keep my place what our food is about. I try to keep the music that goes with our food, the jazz. I have to pay for the musicians out of the chicken money and it’s hard. And I sing hard. But I’m from staunch stock, and don’t you forget it. —Pamela Strobel

Steamed Shrimp
2 pounds shrimp, unshelled
4 bottles of beer*
Salt and pepper
Tabasco

Melted butter

With kitchen shears or sharp knife make a slit down the back shell
 of each shrimp. Devein but do not shell. If you do not have a shrimp steamer, use a saucepan for the liquid and a wire rack for the shrimp, making sure that the bottom of the rack does not touch the boiling liquid. Pour beer into the bottom part of the steamer or into the saucepan. Bring to a boil. Place the shrimp in the top part of the steamer or the wire rack. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and Tabasco. Place over the boiling beer, cover tightly, and let steam until the shrimp turn pink—about 15 to 20 minutes**. Arrange shrimp on platter and serve with cups of hot melted butter. Each person will peel his own shrimp and use the butter for dunking. Serves 4.

EDITORS’ NOTES: This technique of deveining but leaving shells on is super old-school and very special.
*Use a commercial lager like Budweiser or Rheingold.
**Shrimp will turn pink in about 5 to 10 minutes.

I’m in the restaurant
business ’cause I know
cookin’, but there’s
more to it.
I love people. I really

do love people.

There’s a selfishness

in most and a bit of hate and
a little cheatin’—
but if

yuh keep on

smilin’ and

talkin’, the

humanness

do come through

and the lovin’
kindness they

got for somebody

someplace.

Pork Spoon Bread
1 pound ground pork

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground sage
No. 1 can of tomatoes (2 cups)
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 tablespoon minced celery
3/4 cup yellow corn meal
1 cup milk

3 eggs, well beaten

Place the ground pork in frying pan and break up with a fork. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and sage and mix well. Fry until brown and cooked throughout. Drain o the fat and reserve. Combine tomatoes, onion, and celery in saucepan and let boil for several minutes. Gradually stir in the corn meal*. Cook until thick, stirring constantly. Stir in the milk and heat through. Combine the beaten eggs with the pork, 1/4 cup** of the reserved fat, and the corn meal mixture. Turn into a casserole*** and bake at 375°F for about 45 to 50 minutes****. Serves 4.

*EDITORS’ NOTES: Triple celery and sage; double onion and pepper; use 1/2 teaspoon more salt.
*Add the milk with the corn meal, and add more if necessary.
**Ground pork these days is super lean, so use bacon drippings or vegetable oil to make up the difference.
***A 9-by-11-inch casserole.
****Consider topping with shredded cheese 15 minutes before completion.

Fresh pork sausage

is like a sweet prayer.

It may not bring you anythin’
good

but it make everythin’ bad
a mite easier

to swallow.

Buttermilk Pie
3 eggs, separated

2 cups sugar

½ cup butter

4 tablespoons flour
2 cups buttermilk

1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 9" pie shell, unbaked

Cream together the egg yolks, sugar, and butter thoroughly. Add the flour and beat. Stir in the buttermilk and lemon juice. Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold into the buttermilk mixture. Add nutmeg and pour into pie shell. Bake at 300°F until firm—about 45 to 50 minutes.

Everybody ask
me how come
I kin do all my cookin’
in that closet-
space kitchen.

For anyone been in as
many tight spots 
as I have,
sweetheart, it’s easy
as buttermilk pie.