When you walk into Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, the unassuming restaurant serving authentic southern cuisine and award-winning peach cobbler will have you coming for the gumbo, collard greens and fried chicken and leaving as a storyteller sharing your own memories around food.
Owned by Norma Jean Darden, the restaurant has become a Harlem, New York icon since opening its doors 21 years ago on Halloween day. “We couldn’t see who our guests were,” jokes Darden. However, since then, the former model turned restauranteur has seen a diverse and hungry roster of diners at her cozy eatery located across from Morningside Park.
Fashion Meets Food
Before there were thoughts of fresh ingredients, menus, family recipes and catering events, there was the fashion runway. A model with the Wilhelmina agency for seven years, Darden worked for fashion powerhouses Anne Klein, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren and also appeared in commercials and print with Vogue, Harper Bazaar and ESSENCE magazines to her list of credits.
Darden was one of eleven models selected to take part in the historic fashion event known as The Battle of Versailles Fashion Show in 1973 where French designers battled their fashions against American designers in a special effort to raise money for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles. Darden was later honored in 2011 with a Style Award by the Huffington Post.
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When an illness ended her modeling career, she went to work for a Black fashion designer who asked her to bring a dish that everyone could enjoy after one of his fashion shows. Darden and her sister Carole made a quiche that would change the trajectory of her fashion career once again.
When they received an inquiry about their catering services, Darden says she told the person, “We’re not food people. We don’t know anything about this. And she said, ‘My budget is $5000,’ and I said, ‘We’re in,’” she laughs.
From there, the sibling duo, who still work together to this day, started Spoonbread Catering that continues to excite taste buds 25 years later.
Eating One’s Words and Preserving Cultural History
Shortly after starting their catering business, the Darden sisters wrote a cookbook, “Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences of a Black Family,” in 1978 that sold more than 200,000 copies before being reprinted as a paperback.
The book’s title also inspired Darden’s one-woman Off-Broadway show in the late 1990s. Her play, “Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine,” traveled the country telling stories of her family history as she prepared food which the audience ate. “I was the only playwright who could eat their words. I was one of the first people to do a play with food. I cooked while I told stories and then they ate after intermission and then they told their stories about food. And boy did we get some strange stories,” says Darden.
Her own stories included finding out that her paternal grandfather was a slave and only nine-years-old when slavery was abolished. Something the family didn’t talk about. She also shared stories of being one of thirteen children and how they spent summers in North Carolina with aunts and uncles.
“We got put on the train with a little name tag and went to Wilson, North Carolina every summer. We would ride all night and have a shoebox lunch (fried chicken, deviled eggs, carrot and celery sticks and a box of raisins). Then we get to Wilson and our aunts and uncles would be there and that was our summer,” says Darden.
Before ending its run, “Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine,” was described as a show that embraced “the commonality of all folks who cherish family life and love to eat.”
Becoming a Harlem Icon
Four years after starting their catering business, Darden opened Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too in the storefront right beside Spoonbread Catering. “We didn’t know anything about being in the restaurant business, because we were caterers,” says Darden, but over time they managed to figure it out.
Now a cultural spot offering dishes inspired by her family that are also in the cookbook, the restaurant has welcomed some of Harlem’s top elite diners including President Bill Clinton who told Darden that they had the best collard greens.
Family photos adorn the restaurant’s wall as well as press clippings that diners can look at as they enjoy a weeknight dinner or Sunday brunch.
Catering clients over the years have included Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and the late Minnie Mandela as well as clients as far as Washington, D.C.
Darden says she keep the staff small and calls in extra help when catering needs require. Having helped so many staff members launch their own catering businesses, she also influenced one of R&B’s hottest singers who was working as one of her catering waiters along his road to stardom.
Darden says at an event years ago, singer Maxwell saw her and shared how he used to work for her and how much he learned. Unknowingly, Darden says she asked him, “What was your name back then?” And he replied, “Maxwell,” she chuckles.
Continuing the Legacy
It is hard to visit Harlem and not hear the name Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too when looking for authentic, made from scratch soul food. Darden and her team will be joining the more than 60 participating restaurants and food vendors once again at this year Harlem EatUp! on Sunday, May 18. Foodies and soul food enthusiasts can look forward to sampling Darden’s crispy catfish with peach slaw and cilantro and buttery cornbread.
Since starting five years ago, the event has been a great vehicle for introduction Miss Mamie’s to those returning or visiting Harlem for the first time who are not familiar with the restaurant. It also gives Darden another opportunity to share her story and her family’s story through food, one plate at a time.
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