Plates of perfectly fried catfish, buttery macaroni and cheese, and savory collard greens: Southerners dining at a restaurant owned by Norma Jean Darden ’61 might easily find themselves homesick. The offerings at Darden’s two Spoonbread eateries are the sort of serious soul food usually found below the Mason-Dixon—no small feat in a landscape littered with pretenders. Perhaps most remarkable, though, is that Norma Jean Darden is a former fashion model from New Jersey.
Growing up in Newark, Darden helped her mother prepare favorite childhood treats like homemade lollipops and a decidedly northern specialty: snow ice cream. “We would catch the snow when it was falling,” she says, wistfully remembering safer environmental days, “and take it into the kitchen and put in a little vanilla and a little sugar and a little milk… and you had snow ice cream.” An adolescent Darden took home economics classes where she specialized in tuna casserole. Except for a six-week catering course at The New School years later, this was the extent of her formal culinary training.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, the statuesque Darden had a successful career as a model. Though she was constantly watching her weight, her work took her to the world’s tables, cultivating a love of great cuisine. Modeling also brought a chance meeting with the food editor at Vogue, who, after learning that Darden’s family was from the South, made the assumption that Norma Jean had great family recipes hidden away. A model writing a cookbook would be a novel idea. Darden, who’d been eating out for the better part of a decade, called her sister, Carole ’66, expecting the younger sibling to laugh. She didn’t. The younger Darden sister had had a prophetic dream about the two of them working on a project together.
As Norma Jean’s modeling career was coming to an end, the sisters gave the cookbook a try. The project led them back to their childhood and to their southern roots. They revisited family in North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama and Ohio to talk about food. “It just opened up a treasure trove of memories and reminiscences,” Darden says. “ ‘I ate this.’ ‘I did that.’ ‘When I got married we had this dish for our reception.’”
The result was a landmark cookbook, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine (Main Street Books) that combines recipes with family history and photographs, using food as an entry point into the life of an African-American family making its way from Reconstruction to contemporary America. “We were the first book to organize ourselves in that way,” Darden says. “And now everybody does it.”
The cookbook led to a catering company, Spoonbread, Inc., and then to the restaurants––Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread and Miss Maude’s Spoonbread, both in Harlem and named for Darden’s mother and an aunt, respectively. No snow ice cream, no tuna casserole, but an abundance of her family’s culinary heritage nourishes the diner’s soul. For Darden it’s all been a delicious surprise. “If anyone had told me when I finished Sarah Lawrence I would end up in food,” Darden says with a smile. “I would have just given them a hearty chuckle.”
She still runs the catering operation—“That’s the fun part”—and is publishing a new cookbook later this year, tentatively called Spoonbread Celebrations. The 25th anniversary edition of Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine is scheduled for 2004, a release Darden hopes will coincide with the opening of a third Spoonbread restaurant, this one in midtown Manhattan.
— Lynn C. Pitts MFA ’03