Updated: Apr 23, 2019
Rumbling down the tracks, windows fogging in the sweltering heat of a southern summer, the train carrying 4-year-old Norma Jean Darden and her sister Carol was on the last leg of its long journey from New Jersey to Alabama. The pair perched on the edge their train seats in their traveling clothes. Norma, fashion-conscious from a young age, held herself up with especial pride due to her newly acquired outfit. Her sister was looking equally regal at the ripe age of 3, and the only deviances from their formality were the now-empty boxes on their laps, still emitting a faint mouthwatering scent of homemade fried chicken. It was this trip to their aunt and uncle’s for the summer, a ritual which would repeat itself until Norma turned 12, which would sow the seeds of a romance between Norma Jean Darden and food.
“In the 1940s? You and your sister rode the train down to Alabama by yourselves in the 1940s?” The question comes out in spite of me, a burst of incredulous curiosity and wonder. Norma appears somewhat confused at my outburst, but laughs a dainty laugh and dips her head in assent. “We sure did, the two of us every summer.” Now she is the head chef at Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, a soul-food pillar of the Upper West Side, where she sits across from me with an expression of friendly bemusement, as though she cannot see anything noteworthy about two young African-American girls traveling alone through the South during one of its most terrible eras of racial violence.
With a smile that melts your heart like butter on biscuits, and surrounded by the family photos decorating the walls of her restaurant, it is almost difficult to imagine Norma anywhere else. Even as my pen frantically attempts to keep up with her increasingly energetic recollections, I keep stopping, pausing to imagine her in each new scenario. The cavalcade of astonishing experiences continues, only occasionally broken when she purses her lips, ruby red to match her nails, and attempts to recollect some particularly piquant detail. One of these happens now, as Norma tries to recall whether she and Caroline were 12 or 14 when, visiting a clothing store with their aunt, the manager instructed a salesperson to, “See what the n****rs want.” This particular appalling incident understandably disenchanted Alabama for the two young girls, and while her sister Carol would return to Mississippi in the 1960s as a voting rights advocate, Norma would not return to the South for a long time after that summer.
She cannot have had much time to miss Alabama though, when the next years of her life brought her all over the world as a fashion model for the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency (a size 8, she proudly notes). Nor do I—hearing about her work with designers like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Emmanuel Kahn, and Zandra Rhodes—have much time to wonder about how this whirlwind fashion tour somehow led her to a life of sweet potato pie and collards. Lucky for me, Norma answers the question I haven’t gathered my thoughts enough to ask. “I remember talking to this British editor at Vogue about my grandfather who was a slave,” she recalls with a tone so casual, it almost masks the singularity of the words themselves, “and she says to me, ‘You must have so many great recipes,’ which is where it all started.”
From there unfolds another odyssey: going to see her sister when she returned, convincing her to co-author a cookbook of family recipes, and flying around the country to interview all of their surviving relatives—just for starters. The main course of excitement arrived when their newly published cookbook, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, flew off the shelves and was even covered by a local TV channel. Despite being engrossed in her description, Norma does not forget to inform me that the same cookbook was recently named by Southern Living as one of the “100 Best Cookbooks of All Time.” That list includes The Joy of Cooking, by the way, and I don’t think Irma Rombauer ever met Calvin Klein.
Norma breezes through the remainder of her tale, and like the smells of frying bacon or cornbread it conjures up, the last morsels of the story leave my mouth watering and hungry for more. After the TV story, she tells me, herself and Carol were inundated with requests from all over to personally recreate the food from their now famous cookbook. The number of entreaties grew so high that eventually the pair caved and opened a catering company serving true soul food. Hard work combined with high demand swelled the business, and when the landlord wanted the Darden sisters to open a restaurant in the vacancy next door so badly that he promised to sell it to their competition if they didn’t, life took another unexpectedly delicious turn.
That turn took Norma and Carol down a 21-year path at Miss Mamie’s which they remain on to this day, blissfully churning out food as delicious as it is authentic. Inspired by a mother from North Carolina, and a father from Alabama, their menu contains a wide array of soul food staples: BBQ ribs, fried chicken, fried short ribs, catfish, meatloaf cooked by Norma, and favorites like biscuits and peach cobbler from Carol, the resident baking talent. The collard greens coming out of the kitchen at Miss Mamie’s deserve their own novel: the smoky, unctuous flavor of bacon mingles with the unmistakable freshness of farm-to-table greens, until each bite seems to melt the steel-gray outline of Harlem’s silhouette against the sky, into the baking sun and lazily dangling Spanish mosses of the South.
With my questions exhausted, and my mind in the sort of sated stupor like that kind slipped into after a fully satisfying meal, I stand up to put on my jacket and thank Norma for her time. After offering me sweet tea or “something just to nibble on,” for the third time, Norma waves away my words as if it really were nothing at all for her to devote two hours of a work day to retell her life story to a stranger. She smiles at me again, the enormity of her warmth and understanding gained through a lifetime of labors and triumphs, contained in a simple twitch of her lips. I push in my chair, open the door, and reflexively begin the walk down to the subway with the scent of home-cooked food still on my clothes, and my mind a thousand miles away, on a train rumbling through the Alabama heat.
Based on an Interview with Norma Jean Darden, Head Chef at Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too
366 W 110th Street, New York, NY 10025