Friday, April 11, 2014

Food writers looking for remembrances of Princess Pamela

[Image from the East Village Eye via Ephemeral New York]

We received this email the other day:

Princess Pamela ran Princess Pamela's Little Kitchen on East 10th Street starting in the 1960s, and later in the less-glorious years, Princess Pamela's Southern Touch over on 1st. During the heyday Dizzy Gillespie was going. Miss Pamela wore a red wig, was known to sing and host bizarro salons, and let you in only after chatting you up at the door and approving of your entry into the fold. I have been completely captivated by this lady and surely its a story worth telling — at this juncture though we are not even sure what became of Pamela.

The request comes from an assistant working with Charleston, S.C. and New York-based food writers Matt and Ted Lee, who often freelance for Travel + Leisure, Bon Appetit and The New York Times. They have their own recollections of Princess Pamela that they'd like to build on. "As Pamela is famously elusive, they are casting a wide net trying to find any definitive details."

You may email the writers here.

Here's one remembrance from blogger Mangozeen:

Princess Pamela had a well-deserved reputation for orneriness. After ringing the buzzer, she checked you out and a woman in a white nurse's dress came to get you and walk you up to the restaurant that looked like it had been a railroad apartment. On a good night Pamela would drunkenly sing along with the jazz quartet. Their shining glory was a prominently displayed picture of Jackie Kennedy. I lived across the street. My hillbilly girlfriend and I went a few times. Once we climbed the stairs. Princess Pamela took a look at us she said, "We're full." I peeked inside. There wasn't a soul in the room, but she said, "Come back tomorrow." And we did.


bowboy said...

I'll never forget the menu, "We got chicken, we got ribs, wachuwant?"

Anonymous said...

I remember the 1st street location. Went there twice with my mother and a neighbor (we lived on the block). Pamela was ornery and the bill was out of line. The food was OK but not too memorable. The only reason we went a second time was the birthday boy wanted to go.

Scuba Diva said...

I never went to either of Princess' locations; the one time I called their 1st street location, I was asked how many were in the party. I said, "One," and was hung up on.

I read a review of one of her places—probably by Jim Leff, who founded Chowhound—and a memorable line was, "Princess cooks, and I don't mean the food."

Brian Cullman said...

I never saw the place on 1st, but I was a semi-regular at the 10th St spot in the 80's and - I think - into the early 90's. There were signed photos of Jackie Onassis, Idi Amin (not sure if they ate there on the same night...that might've been interesting), Muhammad Ali, assorted B-list personalities, and a large oil portrait of Pearl Bailey. There was a large armchair placed in front of that portrait with a velvet rope around it, insuring that the chair would be free for Ms Bailey if she decided to show up.
Sometimes there was a tiny New Orleans band tucked into the corner of the room. Miss Pamela always threatened to sing for us, but the most I ever heard was her humming along to the music from the sidelines. She was a strange and slightly psychotic hostess and made it clear that you were there to please her, not the other way around. One night when I was ordering dinner (there was fried chicken or pork chops, and you had a choice of collard greens, yams, black eyed peas or cornbread), I asked for black eyed peas, and she spun around and snapped at me: "BLACK PEAS? YOU WANT BLACK PEAS? YOU THINK BLACK PEAS ARE PEAS BLACK PEOPLE EAT? THAT'S WHAT YOU THINK?" I'm not usually fast on my feet, but that time I changed the subject and simply complimented her on her shoes, some emerald green pumps that were clearly brand new. I asked where she'd gotten them. It worked. "Oh hush now," she purred. "These old things? I'm not telling you nothin'! Why next thing, you be waltzin' in here yourself with a pair!"
-- Brian Cullman

Anonymous said...

I just found this because I was clearing out boxes of photos and remembrances, and came across Bobby Vidal's business card from Princess Pamela's. My one and only visit there was after the 1982 nuclear disarmament march. Members of Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament (PAND) gathered there for music, food and lots of drinks after the march. I wish I could claim clear memories of the night, but it was not to be. I do remember having to knock and be admitted and the music was great. Whatever I was drinking took care of the rest. I had always intended to return, but shortly after, I moved to New Orleans. Dee Kearney

checkcoffee said...

I was a starving actor living on the Lower East Side from 1983 to 1993. Princess Pamela and I became friends of a sort. I rarely saw her cook. That task was usually performed by a meek woman in the back named Ada. But Princess Pamela supervised. I'm sure Ada followed Princess Pamela's recipes to the letter. The food was terrific and Princess Pamela was often open late, so I went there whenever I could afford it. I had a side job working for an artist in Soho,as a favor to Princess Pamela I refashioned the derelict light box above her establishment and refitted it with a properly lit business sign that I made. It read "Princess Pamela's Cuisine of South Carolina". Before that, there was nothing to indicate she even had a restaurant on First St.and First Avenue. A few notes: She never gave out her recipes-no matter how much I begged Ada or her. But I occasionally saw Princess Pamela carry in shopping bags from time to time and take them back to Ada. I swear that the secret ingredient for the breading that coated her marvelous fried chicken was crushed cinnamon applejacks cereal. One night, on my way to eat there, I saw a man get attacked and stabbed several times during a mugging just a few doors away. He fell to the sidewalk and I helped him up and thought it made sense to walk him into Princess Pamela's to call police and wait for an ambulance. Even though the restaurant was empty, Princess Pamela waived us both off, frantic not to have the police anywhere near her establishment. I was crestfallen at her lack of compassion in the face of the emergency at hand, but I realized in hindsight that all the secrecy and hole-in-the wall-ness of her restaurant probably because she was open illegally to begin with. Still, the food was magnificent. I regret once booking Princess Pamela's for Thanksgiving with friends. We were told to come at 1pm. We did. Princess Pamela was late and nothing was prepared. But we decided to wait it out anyway.
Four hours later we ate. It was good, of course, but not worth the frustration of such a long wait and the embarrassment I felt in front of my friends. Princess Pamela confessed to me one day that she had written a cookbook long ago and that all of her recipes were in it. I found it through the Library of Congress and eventually got a copy of it. I went about trying to reproduce some of her signature dishes. But there was a real disconnect between the rather plain and unremarkable recipes in the book and the much superior food that she and Ada were turning out. It was as though she left her culinary secrets untold, even in her own cookbook. In 1993 I left N.Y for L.A., the great final dumpster for all actors. I don't know what became of Princess Pamela since then, but in those days she was already dangerously overweight and her health seemed shaky at best.

Kornicus said...

You either "got" Princess Pamela" or you didn't. the experience you had at her place 100% depended on which side of the spectrum you were on.

I got her. I was at her first street location a few times and the experiences could not have been more different being there with friends that embraced this quirky, surreal, amazing place, and being there with friends that refused to just "have faith and get on the ride".

As others have written, being there was a privilege, not an entitlement and Pamela let you know that. People going there expecting to peruse a menu, make substitutions, or ask any questions in general were in the wrong place....and Princess Pamela would let you know that too. There was particular disdain for people who were there to bust on her or to dine there ironically. I was there one time with friends who were not into it, and did not get on the ride, and it was a disaster from start to finish.

In contrast, when I was there my first time, and several times thereafter with friends that were just up for wherever the night took us, the experience was Rich and warm and just amazing - the polar opposite from the one described above.

Whe I went to her palace the first time, I was taken by a friend that had been there before and she briefed me to sit back and just enjoy what was to come. My experience was magical. It was like stepping back in time, and sitting in someone living room, except the living room was like a secret, private members-only club and the food at the club was unlike anything you had ever tasted before. You felt lucky to know about it and lucky to be welcome there. Each side dish was better than the last. The sweet potatoes were like candy and the Mac & Cheese was magnificent - the best I've ever had.

The lighting was warm and dark, with an orange/reddish almost neon-glow hue. PAmela would be barking out orders to Ada, who had the patience of a saint and who had obviously been by the Princesses side for what must have been 100 years. Nothing fazed Ada. The Princess called people she liked sweetie or darlin' and she owuld glower at the people she was not fond of...or just ask them to leave - it didn't seem like there was much middle ground. If she liked you, it was like being in your Nana's house. Alternatively, much as they say about the Incredible Hulk, you wouldn't like her when she was angry.

The room sat few, there were not many tables, and there was jazz playing in the background unless you were lucky enough to be there when she felt like singing. After a few pops, she would belt out the blues with a voice that was as rich and delicious as her food. Her "You are My Sunshine" was a classic - sang from the bottom of her soul.

Being there was like being a million miles away, and 50 years in the past. I just googled her curious toi see if there was any word of her online. I was so happy to find this blog and to see how many others had a similar experience, both good and bad. I just bought her cookbook on Amazon for $50 and cant wait to make something of hers.

Thanks for allowing me to read about the Princess and to share my story. People like her, and Kenny Shopsin form "Shopsins" are not for everybody, but for those that embrace something a little different and are willing to open their mouths and their minds and just get on the ride, they are NY Treasures.

Anonymous said...

Don't know why Princess Pamela and her restaurant floated through my head 10 minutes ago, but she did. So great to find others who experienced the place - I almost thought I'd imagined it all!
I went many times to the 1st Street location and there was always that stomach churning moment of Princess looking us over before deciding we could be seated. The ever suffering Ada! And the food was fantastic - my first exposure to what we called 'soul food' at that time, and the food I would try (usually falling short) to replicate over the years. She made the only collard greens I ever liked, and the Mac & Cheese alone was worth the trip. Loved the interior and the speakeasy feel. Now I live in Sydney, and believe me, their ain't no soul food here!

Brad said...

Our first visit the Princess was absent and Bobby Vidal performed the chained-door vetting. "You cats look alright." Anyone who missed being there when Ada was running the show by herself missed a lot. She was NOT meek, and had a lot of great stories, if you got on her good side and got here talking. We inquired on the availability of a menu. "Menu? Huh. This ain't no Chinese restaurant. We got chicken and chops. You want to know how much it costs? It's under $10. Minimum."