Some time between 1927 and 1929 in Spartanburg, S.C., she was born Pamela Strobel, or Addie Mae Strobel, or maybe Mary Strobel. The records are unclear. What is apparent, though, is Pamela Strobel, the woman who would become Princess Pamela, the soul food queen of New York, knew who she was even if the definition eluded everyone else: "With all them famous folks comin' round to my place, they always advisin' me, 'Pam, be sure to always be yourself.' Never knew anybody could be otherwise."
At only 13-years-old, Strobel left her Spartanburg home an orphan, having lost both her mother, Beauty, who had worked in Massachusetts as a pastry chef, and "Grandmama" Addie, with whom Strobel lived with in S.C. Strobel writes in her cookbook, "Grandmama was strict, with everybody ... Grandmama stayed home and cooked all the time, especially if pound day was coming." Using what she learned in Addie's kitchen, Strobel worked her way up from washing dishes to cooking chops at a restaurant in Winston-Salem, N.C. From there she moved to a mobile kitchen in Newport News, Va., where she met "shake dancer" Visee Dubois. In 1950, Strobel and Dubois moved to New York City.
Strobel would eventually open Princess Pamela's Little Kitchen in 1965, an eatery that was both a microcosm of the slow South and an intimate space harkening back to a 1920s-era speakeasy. She'd crack open her door when customers came around, carefully surveying faces and allowing only a select few to enter. These lucky diners included the likes of Andy Warhol, Diana Ross, and another Spartanburg native, Alexander Smalls, who says about the master of soul food, "Pamela was an experience — a raging phenomenon who had the ability to have her way with you, and be done with you so satisfyingly you begged for more."
In her restaurant, Strobel adhered to her own version of Southern hospitality, meaning on any given day she served whatever she damn well pleased, from fried chicken and collards to oxtail stew with cold potato salad. If customers inquired about a specific dish, like when former New York Times' food critic Ruth Reichl's friend queried about the absence of sweet potato pie, Pamela demanded they leave.
"For her, the customer was not always right. You were a privileged person in her personal space," says Matt Lee, who worked fervently for nearly four years to republish Strobel's 1969 cookbook with the help of his brother, Ted, and Rizzoli Publishers. This book will be the first in the Lee Brothers Classic Library, a series of reissued vintage and out of print cookbooks. James Beard Award-winning author Matt says that, "this is the most exciting project we've ever worked on. There's still so much to do. The openness is exciting."
Princess Pamela's Soulfood Cookbook was originally published in 1969 by Signet as a "10 cent paperback, with crumbly newsprint paper," says Lee. The Lee brothers discovered this fragile gem in 2004 at a used bookstore in New York City, and over the years collected originals to give as gifts. But Lee knew that Strobel's 147 recipes, from hoe cakes to okra fritters, along with her accompanying poetry on every other page — "I get a deepdown quiet feelin' when I'm cookin' — like taking a walk or fussin' with flowers" — needed to be repackaged in a more accessible way. "We wanted to put her incredible words and recipes into the hands of a new generation, of people fascinated by cooking," says Matt.
The idea of a Southern restaurant in Alphabet city was "exotic" in the '70s says Lee, "I can only imagine how exhilarating and transporting that experience would've been." An unattributed preface from the original cookbook makes an appearance in the new hardback edition, reading, "In these and all of the mundane nuances which comprise a way of life a common characteristic can be seen, touched, and — tasted. Call it Soul." Strobel fully embodied, embraced, and breathed soul, in both the way she cooked and served her food. At a certain hour in the evening, after she and her one employee, Ada Spivey, finished baking, frying, and plating, Strobel would lock the door of her restaurant, slip on a shimmering gown, and grab a microphone, joining the jazz band (present every night) as the sole vocalist.
And then, in 1998, Strobel disappeared. There is no record of her death, although some posit that maybe she was buried in New York's Hart Island, home to more than a million people, many John and Jane Does. The Lee brothers even hired a private investigator to seek out clues about where Strobel may have landed, but nothing ever turned up. There aren't even very many photos of the commanding chef. There are her words, though, that resonate still, "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.'"