The Darden sisters, Norma Jean and Carol Darden Lloyd, currently living in Manhattan, have immortalized their magnificent Montclair home and family history in a 1978 book now reaching its fifth edition, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine.
Their parents, Dr. Walter Darden and his wife Mamie Jean, had acquired their Montclair property at 266 Orange Road in 1946. The house employed a butler, a maid and a gardener. Dr. Darden built the garden apartment complex behind their home as a business venture.
Dr. Darden, was born in Wilson, N.C. He was an alumnus of Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C., and of the Howard University Medical School in Washington. He moved to Newark to join a colleague and stayed on in private practice. He was one of the first black men to be a guest in the audience of the then-segregated Cotton Club of Harlem where he acted as physician.
Among his patients, friends and Montclair houseguests were Sara Vaughn, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstein, the Duke Ellington band, as well as Sammy Davis Junior. From the sports world, Larry Doby, Jackie Robinson, Monte Irving and the Newark Eagles baseball team that meet frequently at the Darden house. The Dardens with Harold Shot and Congressman Peter Rodino did fundraising and organizing for the Montclair chapter of the NAACP. The Dardens were also affiliates of education pioneer Mary McCleod Bethune and hosted her often in their home in Montclair.
Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine intends to be a historical family cookbook, but it is of even greater value as it presents an exceptional social history. Norma Jean and Carole Darden also have two restaurants in Harlem – Miss Mamie’s at 366 W. 110th St., named after her mother, and Mrs. Maude’s at 547 Lenox Ave., named after her aunt.
Both graduates of Sarah Lawrence, Carole was a social worker, Norma, a Wilhemina model before they wrote the 1979 cookbook that launched them into the celebrity food world.
The recipes and family stories in Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine came from their Southern roots: corn pone, spareribs, peach cobbler, banana pudding. Their grandfather, Charles Darden born before the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, was a great inspiration also. Papa Darden, a former slave that became an undertaker was quite known for his recipes for fruit based wines and pine needle beers.
A request to cook for a Channel Thirteen event led to the birth of the Darden Sister’s catering company. Catering has its own challenges they say, like one time they packed up Norma Jean’s Porsche in front of their home on Orange Road before doing a catering gig and the huge quantity of coleslaw began to create a big white puddle under the car. Another time, an order of fried chicken fell out of the back door of the delivery van and was stolen by onlookers waiting at a bus stop. Norma had to buy more chicken and two fryers and then find a hiding place where she could prepare it on the fly at the event. Years later, when a space opened next to the catering kitchen, it seemed natural to open a small restaurant.
When the cookbook came out, despite its glorious history, the Hahnes Department Store in Montclair declined to sell the book. In an interview on the Martha Stewart Show, where Norma Jean was presenting her story, she said that she had learned many recipes from her father. Stewart smiled and asked, “Oh, your father was a cook?” Norma Jean smiled back at Stewart who had apparently not read the book and replied, “No my father was a medical doctor.” The audience giggled.
Today, the Darden House is the lovingly preserved home of Senator Nia Gill, Thurston Briscoe, and Bradley Gill.