MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally today, if you pass through New York City in the 1960s and you had a craving for fried chicken or buttermilk pie, the place to go was the Little Kitchen, a tiny restaurant in Manhattan's East Village, that is if you could get in. The place attracted some of New York's brightest lights, bandleader Skitch Henderson, Pearl Bailey, Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem - all drawn by the magical cooking of Pamela Strobel. Her following was such that she was invited onto TV shows which led to requests for her recipes so Strobel published a cookbook and opened another restaurant.
But by the late 1990s, anybody looking to taste that famous spoon bread or smothered pork chops was out of luck. Both restaurants closed. Strobel disappeared, and "Princess Pamela's Soul Food Cookbook" fell out of print. But after 45 years, the cookbook is back largely due to the brothers who found a ragged copy at a vintage booksellers.
Matt and Ted Lee are the founders of the Lee Brothers Boiled Peanuts Catalogue which ships Southern specialty food ingredients to ambitious or homesick cooks around the country. They're also food writers, cookbook authors and the host of a Southern cooking show. Matt Lee joins me from Charleston, S.C., to tell us more about Princess Pamela and her cookbook. Max, thanks so much for speaking with us.
MATT LEE: Thanks, Michel, for having me.
MARTIN: So did you know about Pamela Strobel before you ran across her cookbook?
LEE: We actually met her in person back in about 1994 when we were first starting our Boiled Peanuts mail order catalogue and we were peddling our Boiled Peanuts around the East Village. And there was a restaurant that proclaimed the cuisine of South Carolina, and so that was the first place we started.
And we knocked on her door. It said please knock. It was always locked, and she peeled back the curtain and sized us up, cracked the door open. And we gave our pitch, and she was like no, thanks and closed the door. And that was our one experience with the great Princess Pamela.
MARTIN: Did you know that she was the great Princess Pamela? Or did you just think this lady's kind of rude?
LEE: Not at the time really. We just happened to be proximate to her. We were around the corner, and we learned what an outsized character she was in the East Village, and her cookbook was not on our radar screen at that time, but we came to understand what she stood for. And we were just so delighted that there was someone very fiercely defending Southern food in the middle of New York City.
MARTIN: So tell me about this. I mean, I'm guessing because Southern food is your passion that you are - I guess you're constantly looking for cookbooks, right?
LEE: Well, yeah. I mean, we quickly segued from selling Boiled Peanuts to actually writing about food history and Southern food in particular. And that's when we began to collect Southern cookbooks. And this one book stood out from 1969. It was very early in her career. The recipes are incredible, really deep dive on South Carolina cooking before the war, very sophisticated combinations of ingredients like hog chow and turnip greens, pigtails and butter beans, 12 different permutations of sweet potato confections.
But also because the package - the, you know, vessel that it was published in was so inferior. It's this crumbly little paper bag just sort of like a dime store, airport newsstand kind of paperback. And we bought it and added it to the collection and immediately recognized that it was something special and...
MARTIN: Did you remember that you had actually met her at the time?
LEE: Yes. We made that connection. I mean, that was part of the electric moment in finding the book for the first time was like here's someone we met and sort of like moved on from. But she clearly meant so much more and that there were so many mysteries there, so many unanswered questions about why did this cookbook happen?
Her restaurant was tiny. It was miniscule and didn't get much attention by the 1990s when we discovered her. At the same time, we knew people who had been to her restaurant who raved about it and who for them an experience in her restaurant really defined what it meant to be a New Yorker.
MARTIN: Well, you were saying in the introduction that you couldn't get a seat. I mean, it was basically her first restaurant. The Little Kitchen was basically a speakeasy. You had to know to ring the bell to be let in.
LEE: It was a very exclusive province that she created, and this was her magnificence on full display. I mean, she got to control your experience there and that was a privilege. And you were treated to the most exquisite food and cultural and music evening of your life.
MARTIN: Well, just to mention - because I don't think we mentioned it up to this point that her restaurants also doubled as jazz clubs, too. So it sounds so glamorous, but you quickly learn she had a pretty hard life. Can you tell us a little bit about that? And it is - it's actually kind of painful to hear, but will you tell it?
LEE: Absolutely. She grew up in a household in Spartanburg, S.C., that was very involved in professional cooking. Her mother was a professional pastry chef, and her grandmother operated sort of a neighborhood hub. People from around the neighborhood would stop by their house to experience her cooking and hospitality. But her mother had an illness, probably cancer, and ended up dying.
But then her grandmother died two years later. And so she was basically orphaned at age 10, and by the time she was 13, left Spartanburg with a paper suitcase, cooked her way through kitchens in Winston-Salem and Virginia Beach and made her way to New York. It's the great migration. You know, it's a great migration story.
MARTIN: The thing about this cookbook that stands out is it's not just the recipes. It's these little poems sprinkled throughout.
MARTIN: Yeah. Do you want to...
LEE: ...Quite established how much there is of her in this book. It's not just the recipes. There's a poem with almost every recipe. They paint a portrait of a very complex woman. I mean, she was an independent businesswoman, and a lot of the poems referenced that.
MARTIN: Read one about that. Yeah.
LEE: Opposite the Johnnycakes recipe she has - (reading) every failure has got a piece of success in it. It ain't easy to build success out of bits and pieces like making a tasty dish out of leftovers. But it is the sweetest and most satisfying cooking there is.
MARTIN: And there's one more that I wanted to read. It's right before corn cakes where she says (reading) kids come around to my place waiting to get some milk and cornbread. Seeing them pinched-in faces is like looking into the mirror of yesterday.
And just as you were saying, I mean, orphaned at 10 and worked her way up into having this kind of glamorous New York kitchen - on the other hand, I mean, isn't that what makes the rest of that history all the more heartbreaking is that you really don't know what happened to her? You have no idea. And I read in one interview that you'd actually gone so far as to hire a private investigator to try to find her. You don't know whether she's living or dead. You don't know what happened after the restaurants closed.
LEE: I mean, this project has held so many interesting paths and twists and turns and mysteries. And one of them, the greatest one, is what happened to her? And we've done the genealogy. We've gone through all of the available public records and tried to establish what happened. She published her cookbook. That's a great achievement, but there's a lot of work to be done to fill in the gaps and to preserve stories like these.
MARTIN: Well, Matt, thank you. This was such an interesting kind of detective story, love story, cookbook all rolled into one.
LEE: It's an American story, and it's been so fun to work on it the last three years. Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: That was Matt Lee along with his brother Ted. He republished "Princess Pamela's Soul Food Cookbook." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.