When The Lee Bros. first stumbled upon a copy of “Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook: A Mouth Watering Treasury of Afro-American Recipes,” they knew right away they needed to do something with the book beyond shelve it in their personal library.
“We found an old one – it was crumbly newsprint in paperback,” Matt Lee says. “We loved it.”
Published in 1969, “Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook” was written by Pamela Strobel, a former Spartanburg resident-turned New York City restaurant owner who served the likes of Andy Warhol, Diana Ross, Ringo Starr, and Gloria Steinem.
After discovering the book in a vintage shop, the two Charleston cookbook authors and TV hosts (“Southern Uncovered with The Lee Bros.”) embarked on a quest to find the author. So far, all their efforts have been for naught.
Published when Strobel was 40 years old, the book is not the down-home cookbook the title suggests, Lee says. The recipes in “Princess Pamela” show a level of culinary knowledge only a trained chef – or the child of one – would have. In Strobel’s case, her mother Rosella had been the head pastry chef at Spartanburg’s Elite Restaurant.
“It was mis-published and wasn’t given a proper vessel,” he says. “We want to make it accessible to a larger audience.”
The Lee Bros. have now edited and reprinted “Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook: A Mouth Watering Treasury of Afro-American Recipes” as the first in a new Lee Bros. Library Series highlighting out-of-print cookbooks.
A relatable princess
Heidi Trull of Grits & Groceries in Belton hadn’t heard of “Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook” until she was asked to cook for a special sold-out event at M. Judson with The Lee Bros. honoring Strobel.
But it didn’t take the Grits & Groceries chef long to get on the same page as Princess Pamela.
“It was like reading a book I wrote,” she says. “I sat down and didn’t get up until I finished it.”
Because of Strobel’s poems and explanations, Trull says, she connected with the New York chef.
“It’s a piece of her. You feel like you know her,” she says. “We would’ve been friends.”
Having left her home at 18 to pursue her culinary career, Trull empathized with Pamela’s strength and struggles as a 14-year-old, stepping off the bus in New York City.
“At her age and the time of America? Black women weren’t doing that,” Trull says.
The paper trail
The process of tracking down Strobel’s history before the reprint led the Lees on a search through New York City, Virginia, North Carolina, and eventually back to Spartanburg.
Strobel’s mother, whom she refers to as Beauty in the cookbook, died when the restauranteur and author was 10 years old, and her grandmother died a year later. When Strobel was 13, she began her trek north, stopping in Winston Salem, N.C., and Newport News, Va., to work in various kitchens before making it to Manhattan in 1950.
But following the closure of Strobel’s speakeasy-style East Village restaurant, The Little Kitchen, in 1998, the then 70-year-old chef vanished without a trace.
The brothers even hired a private investigator and a librarian from the New York Public Library to track Strobel down. Nothing. They even sought out her long-time cook Ada Spivey. Again, the brothers hit a dead end. There are no property records, no death certificate, and no surviving family that The Lee Bros. know of.
One of the reasons for the difficulty is that Pamela is not Strobel’s given name, but one she took on later. Like her grandmother, Strobel’s actual name was probably Addie Mae, but she could’ve been Mary, too.
“It’s a tragic fade out,” Lee says.
The Lee Bros. will be in town to discuss their project at a May 21 book signing at M. Judson Booksellers. The duo hopes being so close to Strobel’s hometown will help them find out exactly what happened to Princess Pamela.