Taste Harlem- Food & Cultural Tour by Ron Kapon

Since the 1920s, Harlem has been known as a major African American residential, cultural and business center. Originally a Dutch village and formally organized in 1658, it is named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. African-American residents began to arrive en masse in 1905, with numbers fed by the Great Migration. In the 1920s and 1930s, Central and West Harlem were the focus of the “Harlem Renaissance”, an outpouring of artistic work without precedent in the American black community. However, with job losses in the time of the Great Depression and the deindustrialization of New York City after World War II, rates of crime and poverty increased significantly.
Since New York City’s revival in the late 20th century, Harlem has been experiencing social and economic gentrification. Harlem’s black population peaked in the 1950s. In 2008, the Census found that for the first time Harlem’s population was no longer only a black majority, with a mixture of white and Latinos. Harlem as a neighborhood has no fixed boundaries; it may generally be said to lie between 155th Street on the north, and Harlem rivers on the east, 96th Street (east of Central Park) and 110th Street Cathedral Parkway (north and west of Central Park) on the south, and the Hudson River on the west.

As of 2000, Central Harlem had a black community comprising 77% of the population, the largest indigenous African American community by percentage in New York City. The majority of African Americans moved out as more and more foreigners began to move in. Central Harlem is the most famous section of Harlem and thus is commonly referred to simply as Harlem. West Harlem, consisting of Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights is predominately Hispanic. African Americans make up about a quarter of the West Harlem population. Morningside Heights has a large number of White Americans and is home to Columbia University (my alma mater), Barnard College, and New York Theological Seminary. East Harlem was originally formed as a predominately Italian American neighborhood, but it is now predominately Hispanic. Italian Harlem was formed when Southern Italian immigration began in the late 19th century. The area began its transition from Italian Harlem to Spanish Harlem when Puerto Rican migration began after World War II. In recent decades, many Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants have also settled in East Harlem, which is also known as El Barrio. The area is also home to over 400 churches.
At a recent Harlem Week seminar I was intrigued with the discussion about the gourmet renaissance in Harlem. In the past two years at least twenty new restaurants opened there. I have eaten at Melba’s, Billie’s Black, Harlem Tavern, Hudson River Café, Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too, Café Lucienne, Red Rooster and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. It was at that Harlem Week seminar that I was told about Taste Harlem and Jacqueline Orange.

Since 2007, Jacqueline Orange has been the founder, owner and operator of Taste Harlem, introducing visitors and New Yorkers alike to the culinary delights, lively art scene and rich history and architecture of Harlem. A major bank merger in 2005 took Orange away from corporate life and inspired her to step away from a desk job and pursue a dream of owning and operating her own tour company. On an early visit to New York, this Chicago native had discovered Harlem and fell in love with the diversity and vibrant energy of the neighborhood. “With the creation of Taste Harlem, I felt as if I’ve been able to incorporate all my past business experience into researching the latest happenings in Harlem. I am spending time with people, sharing something I love- great food, inspiring music art, and a living history.”
On a beautifully sunny Saturday morning (10AM) our group of 6 met at Sylvia’s Restaurant on 126th Street & Lenox Ave. Sylvia Woods, the “Queen of Soul Food,” founded the restaurant in 1962. Her 4 children now operate the family-owned businesses after her passing in 2012. Besides the restaurant and catering hall there is a nationwide line of Sylvia’s food products and two cookbooks. http://www.sylviasrestaurant.com.
This was a walking tour. Private tours have the option to tour by bus or trolley with artists, historians, architects and actors as tour guides at Taste Harlem Tours. In addition to the food stops we stopped by The Sol Studio, a local art gallery, where they were setting up a new art exhibit and a privately owned brownstone with a beautiful garden and art collection. We were lucky and found Samuel Hargress at his jazz, blues and R&B club- Paris Blues (founded in 1969). Other stops were at Make My Cake Bakery and Serengeti Teas, Coffees & Spices where we were able to sample several of their exotic concoctions. http://www.thesolstudio.com, http://www.parisbluesharlem.com, http://www.makemycake.com, http://www.serengetiteaandspices.com
Back to the food visits- http://www.patisseriedesambassades.com- Les Ambassades is a Senegalese café and bakery. Tropical Grill Restaurant (no web site) features Caribbean/Spanish food and was jammed when we arrived. The great part about this tour is there is a table waiting for us at every stop. Each restaurant has samples of their specialties and no on leaves the tour hungry. After the first stop I realized I should not have had breakfast. The walking helped me regain my appetite.

There was a short stop at the tiny Le Lee’s Baked Goods “home of the world’s most outrageously delicious rugelach.” Prior to entering the bakery they mentioned the ingredients that included nuts (I am allergic to all nuts). There was a moment of panic when I mindlessly grabbed it and had eaten part of the rugelach, Luckily I only had a slight allergic reaction. http://www.leeleesrugelach.com.

On the way to our last stop we stopped at the world famous Apollo Theater (Opened on 125th Street in 1934) and were allowed into the lobby to view a montage of celebrities that had performed in this theater. We walked along 125th Street past the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. NY State Office Building. http://www.apollotheater.org

Our last stop was at Jacob Restaurant- soul food & salad bar. He is a great businessman who closes the restaurant on Thanksgiving so he can give away food all day without any restrictions. After his first 6 months he was able to open open two additional restaurants in Harlem. His thought behind this was “if you give it will come back to you.” http://www.jacobrestaurant.com.

This was a great tour. Prices range from $65 to $95 per person. Groups of 4 or more are $75 and 12 or more-$65. One could not duplicate the food for this price. Having Jacqueline lead the tour- priceless. For a listing of her other tours go to http://www.tasteharlem.com.