It all began with an after-dinner party game. Manhattan hostess Maxine McKendry asked her guests to describe their family backgrounds. When it was the turn of the two Darden sisters—actress-model-writer Norma Jean and Carole, a Sarah Lawrence-educated social worker—they disclosed that their grandfather was a slave and their great-great-grandmother a Cherokee Indian. Exclaimed their hostess: “What wonderful recipes you must have! You should write a cookbook.”
The Dardens seized on the idea. But combining their interests in their black heritage and its food wasn’t easy. “We tried to contact the family by mail,” Norma explains. “But no one would write back. A lot of them didn’t cook by recipe, and they were all very old.” So the sisters, now both in their mid-30s, began to make research trips—whirring from Manhattan by Greyhound to old homesteads in Petersburg, Va. and Tuskegee, Ala. Finally they went to Wilson, N.C., where the family patriarch, “Papa” Charles Henry Darden, arrived in 1868 and became the state’s first black undertaker. It was an emotional odyssey that took five years, but finally produced an affecting and successful cookbook, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine (Doubleday, $9.95), now in its third printing. “We had our first draft done before Alex Haley published his book,” says Norma—though she acknowledges that Roots whetted public appetite for the work.
Reconstructing the recipes was particularly difficult. “Sorry, dearie, I can’t even remember how to cook,” said Aunt Lillian, who admitted to being 91. But she did volunteer her beauty secret, Violet Vanishing Cream, made from beeswax and violet oil. Aunt Lizzie Darden whipped up pecan waffles, and Cousin Artelia demonstrated her tea biscuits. Uncle J.B. (James Benjamin) volunteered his famous Smithfield ham. Cousin Thelma yielded her mix for Tipsy Cake, and Hilda Lockett hers for Heaven Cake (reserved for funerals where, by African custom, a feast was served).
“We found pictures we had never seen before, and from them could recreate a system of living we would never have known,” says Carole. They also collected marvelous tales of “Papa” Darden, who brewed strawberry, grape and watermelon wine (though he was a teetotaler). Then there was light-skinned Grandpa William Sampson, born around 1865, a houseboy turned farmer and master chicken chef (see recipe) who lived to nearly 100. His father, the Dardens suspect, was a white plantation owner named Percival, but they can’t prove it (the courthouse burned down suspiciously the day before Percival’s will was to be read). Even the sisters’ own father, Walter “Bud” Darden, now in his 70s, a Howard University-trained M.D. who has practiced for 50 years in Newark, contributed a recipe: the sweet potato biscuits his mother packed in his lunch pail back in North Carolina.
Last February Wilson (pop. 32,000) played host to Norma Jean and Carole Darden, with services and receptions in both the Methodist and Baptist churches so that no family or friends would be excluded. The subsequent banquet included Aunt Norma’s stuffed eggplant, Cousin Lavern’s cornbread and Uncle Kelly’s barbecued chicken. For the sisters, the joyous occasion had a note of sadness: Of the 18 family members who appeared in the book, only three are still alive. There should have been a special piece of Heaven Cake for “Papa,” the Darden patriarch, whose quest for learning inspired his many well-educated descendants. Of course, his uniqueness was recognized long before the book: A high school in Wilson bears his name.