Norma Jean Darden never cooked during her supermodel days. And she certainly wasn’t fed Southern staples like short ribs or Louisiana catfish in between European runway gigs during the early-mid ’70s. She needed to stay thin. Plus-sized models weren’t a thing back then. In fact, just being a Black woman on the catwalk was groundbreaking at the time.
“[When] I came along it was a very segregated market,” said Darden. “It was very hard for Black women to get a foothold in any facet of fashion, and that means runway, commercials, and editorials. There was a big breakthrough at Harper’s Bazaar that was spurred on by Audrey Smaltz who gathered some of us together and had us picket Harper’s Bazaar magazine and brought attention to the fact that we weren’t there.
“They always told us, ‘Well, the white people in the South won’t buy our product if we use you.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re in the North, and it’s time to break that taboo.’”
She famously participated in The Battle of Versailles Fashion Show in 1973, a historic head-to-head between French and American designers. Darden was one of 11 Black models involved, and instrumental in introducing New York sportswear to all of Europe. And in front of Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor, she helped the American side dominate the night, putting the global fashion industry on notice for the red, white and blue.
But Darden knew modeling was a “rainbow” career. So when she was asked to bring refreshments by the designer she was working for, Darden found a new way to steal the show—through her cooking. Soon, she crossed paths with another trailblazer, David Dinkins. New York City’s first Black mayor introduced Darden to the beau monde around town, not as a famous supermodel, but as a prolific caterer. She served up meals at The Met and Whitney, places where Black New Yorkers never catered before. And bringing her soul food recipes to the scene, no less.
Since then, Darden’s catered for numerous world leaders including Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and even an emperor of Japan. She co-runs the restaurant Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too with her sister Carole. And they even wrote an oral history cookbook, “Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences of a Family” together, which later became an off-Broadway play.
“[Critic] Rex Reed said the most amazing thing—he said I was one playwright who could eat my words,” said Darden. “I thought that was so funny because I was one of the first to do a play, where you ate food in intermission and then discuss foods in the second half.”
This week, she will be feeding folks at the 8th NY Amsterdam News Labor Awards Breakfast. On the menu will be grits, shrimp creole and biscuits, with fresh berries, granola and yogurt for those who can’t eat the seafood. As for her secret recipes? There are none, says Darden.
“My secrets are all published in the cookbook, so anybody can cook our food,” she said. “No, it’s not a secret, it’s that most people don’t want to cook these days. And that’s what keeps us in business.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w