Norma Jean and Carole Darden, children of a Montclair, N.J., physician and graduates of Sarah Lawrence College, discovered their ancestors because they decided to write a cookbook of family recipes.

"Everyone has a potential "Spoonbread and Strawberry Win' in their family," said Norma Jeanm former high-fashion model, now aspiring actress and writer. "It's worth preserving and writing down."

The vignettes of family members, complete with family album photographs which introduce each chapter of recipes, are what set the book apart from other collections of family recipes. But work on it, which began 5 1/2 years ago, met a lot of dead ends.

The Dardens went to Petersburg, Va., Wilson, N.C. Opelika, Ala., Delaware, Ohio, Africa and points in between and still couldn't trace their forebears back any further than their grandparents. It's unlikely they ever will.

"A lot of people who were slaves were so anxious to be free, when they were they never talked about being whipped or such, they talked about tomorrow. They were trying hard to forget," Norma Jean explained. "We know our father's mother's mother was half Cherokee and our (paternal) grandfather came from Green Country, N.C. The rest is speculative, but we surmise he was from a well-to-do plantation where they put a lot of time into his training.

"He never talked about his parents. He may not have known too much about them and you see," said Norma Jean, sitting in her sister's comfortable apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, "the next generation didn't want to know too much about slavery. If you are trying to assimilate, if you are part of America's upward mobility, you aren't going to question a parent who was once a laborer too closely until you have a better perspective yourself.

And sometimes when you get the answers you aren't too sure you wanted them.The Darden sisters know even less about their real maternal forebears because their natural grandmother died when she was quite young, and because one of their ancestors was a white overseer, a fact that some older members of the family would just as soon forget.

"There are some things we cold write about, but living members of the family don't like it."

So, a genealogist might not find the family tree in the front of the book correct, but those who believe that the nurturing parents are the true parents will disagree. The maternal "grandparents," those who raised the Dardens' mother, were really her older sister and her sister's husband.

"It's just so insificant to me," said Carole Darden-Lloyd, a social worker who spent many years in foster-care work. "I don't like to talk about it. Miscegenation is the story of black Americans. There is such sensitivity among black people about white blood."

The book does not dwell on the unpleasant, often terrifying, aspects of life for blacks over the last 100 years, but the Dardens would not have been born in Hew Jersey if it hadn't been for the Ku Klux Klan. Recounting how their father, "Bud" Walter T. Darden, moved from Alabama, they wrote:

Bud night have stayed in Tuskegee had it not been for a local white doctor, who, as fate would have it, was a Klan leader. The Klan doctor had wrongly diagnosed a child's factured arm and sent the child away with only a bandage. Bud put a cast on the child's arm. 'Professional pride' forced the Klansman to demand Dr. Darden's immediate departure from town. At first our father rejected the ideam but Brother John, with his sixth sense, encouraged him to go north.

Such incidents are far outnumbered by descriptions of happy, domestic scenes in which hard work is often rewarded with success. Food is often the focal point. Describing their mother, Mamie Jean Sampson Darden, they wrote:

For many years she had been childless, so when we finally arrived she liked nothing better than feeding us. We were poor eaters, so she had to be creative with food, and she was. Surprises, sherbets, soups and basics-oh what lovely treats we remember from Ms. Mamie Jean!

"It's a family iwth a lot of hope. They managed to be happy despite what was going on outside. There was a stong, sustaining fiber," Norma Jean explained and then reflected: "I don't think happy is the word so much as positive."

It's an attribute that has been handed down to the Darden sisters. They don't discuss the insults to which they were subjected as children unless prodded.

"All children grow up thinking if they behave, everyone will love them. I remember going into a store and being asked to leave," Norma Jean explained without betraying any bitterness. "It's shattering to a child. Just being treated with disrespect, being called 'nigger' in the South. Not Montclair. You cold avoid prejudice more easily in the North than South."

One of her experiences on a visit to an aunt in the South kept her away from there for years:

"Carole was so cute, I was sure she could melt anyone's heart, so I got her all dressed up and sent her in to get a hot dog at a refreshment stand at a drive-in movie (in North Carilina). But no one would serve her. I couldn't believe it so I was through with the South," she says now with a laugh. "I never wanted to go back. I went on strike."

Carole, who is four years younger, visited the southern branch of the family alone after that, Norma Jean didn't go back until she and her sister began research on the book. "I couldn't believe the strides that were made," she noted.

While they found their search for their antecedents frustrating-"Such was the effect of slavery and its resulting destruction of family ties"-their search for family recipe treasures was enormously successful. "As children, we had always been intrigued by the women in our family as they moved about in their kitchens, often preparing meals for large numbers of people. Each one worked in a distinct rhythm, and from the essence of whom they were came unique culinary expressions. They rarely measured or even tasted their food but were guided we guessed, by the aroma, appearance, and perhaps some magical instincts unknown to us."

Unwritten recipes tend to be sketchy so Norm Jean and Carole " . . . cooked a lot (and ate a lot), creating miracles and catastrophes in order to pinpoint measurements . . ."

They have managed to recreate their Grandfather Darden's plum wine, Mamie Jean's chicken fricassee, Uncle Glen's 8-year black fruitcake and, of course, all the recipes on expects to find in a cookbook whose roots are southern.

The Christmas menu, one the Dardens will prepare this year at their father's house in New Jersey, is similar to holiday feasting featured in "Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine," (Anchor Press/Doubleday, $9.95.)

WALTINE'S AMBROSIA

(10 to 12 servings) 8 oranges, peeled and sliced 1 fresh coconut, grated 1 medium-size pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into chunks

In a large crystal bowl, place a layer of sliced oranges, a layer of fresh grated cocount, a layer of pineapple chunks. Continue above routine until bowl is filled. Top with a layer of coconut. Pour extra orange juice, if desired, over mixture. Chill and serve.

MATTIE'S GREEN STRING BEANS

(8 servings) 3 slices bacon 2 cups water 1 small onion, halved 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 pounds green beans, whole, with tips removed 1 small pimiento

Place bacon in a 1-quart saucepan, add 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, cook for 10 minutes. Add onion and salt. Cook for about 1 1/2 minutes. Add string beans. Boil for 15 to 18 minutes. Chop pimiento into small cubes and mix with beans for decoration.

PECAN MUFFINS

(10 to 12 muffins) 1 cup whole wheat flour 1 cup all-purpose white flour 4 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup milk 1/3 cup honey 2 eggs, beaten 1/3 cup melted butter 1/i cup chopped pecans*tSift each flour, then measure 1 cup of each. Add baking powder and salt and sift twice more. Scald milk. Stir in honey. Let cool to room temperature. Stir in beaten eggs and melted butter. Add to the flour mixture, stirring just enought to moisten. Add chopped pecans. Stir only until mixed. Mixture should look lumpy. Fill greased muffin cups 2/3 full. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 25 minutes or until golden brown.

MIXED GREENS

(12 to 15 servings) 2 ham hocks or 1 1/i pounds salt pork 2 quartes water 5 pounds mustard greens 5 pounds turnip greens (and small turnip attached to turnip greens, peeled and quartered) Salt and pepper to taste

Boil meat in 2 quarts of water for about 1 hour. In the meantime, prepare greens, removing damaged parts and stems. Wash 3 or 4 times or until rinse water is clear. The leaves of mustard and turnips are fairly small and do not required cutting before cooking. Instead, add whole leaves, turnips, and seasoning to the boiling water; cover and cook rapidly about 25 minutes or until tender. When done, cut greens with a knife and two-pronged fork while still in pot.

SYLLABUB

(4 servings) 2 cups heavy cream 1/2 cup sugar 4 tablespoons rum or brandy Nutmeg

Whip the cream until stiff. Fold in sugar and rum or brandy. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for 1 hour or so. Serve in shervet glasses or punch cups with a faint dusting of nutmeg.

ROAST GOOSE

(8 servings) One 8-to 10-pound goose Stuffing 1/2 pound prunes Apple cider 5 medium-size tart apples, peeled and sliced 1/2 cup slivered almonds 1 teaspoon grated orange rind

For the stuffing, soak prunes in enough apple cider to cover for several hours. Remove prunes from cider and combine with apples, almonds and grated orang rind. Reserve cider. Wash goose well, removing any extra fat from the inside. Place a roasting pan and stuff with fruits. Roast goose in a preheated 350-degree oven for 3 hours. Baste with reserved apple cider.

UNCLE GLEN' EIGHT-YEAR BLACK CAKE

(Makes 2 or 3 cakes) 1 pound butter 1 pound brown sugar 10 eggs 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1 teaspoon ground cloves 1 1/i teaspoons mace 1 wineglass (1/2 cup) red wine 1 wineglass (1/2 cup) brandy 1 cup rose water 1 pound all-purpose flour, sifted 2 pounds seedless black raisins 2 pounds currants 3/4 pound citron and candied fruit 1 cup chopped black walnuts

Cream the butter and brown sugar, then add eggs, one at a time, beating each before adding. Mix in spices, wine, brandy, and rose water. Sift in half the flour, blending well. Mix the other half of the flour with the raisins, currants, citron and nuts. Add this mixture last.

Pour into three 9-inc loaf pans or two 10-inch funnel pans, lightly greased and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. Then turn oven down to 275 degrees and bake for 2 1/2 to 3 hours until firm. Cool to room temperature and place individual cakes in rustproof lidded cake tins. Pour 5 to 6 tablespoons of dark rum evenly over each cake, seal tightly, and store in a cool, dark place.

Every 3 months, continue to add 5 to 6 tablespoons of rum for the next 2 to 4 years, depending upon your patience. Then thoroughly wash and dry cake tin. Wrap cakes securely in wax paper, replace in cake tins and seal. The cake can be eaten at any time but improves with age. The longest Uncle Glen waited to serve this holiday treat was 8 years.

LUCY'S CREAMED ONIONS

(6 to 8 servings) 2 pounds small white onions 3/4 cup water 1/2 teaspoon salt

Remove skins from onions. Place them in a small saucepan. Add 3/4 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Simmer until tender. Don't overcook. Drain water. Prepare cream sauce:

Cream Sauce 1 cup evaporated milk 1 tablespoon margarine 1 tablespoon flour 1 bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon salt Paprika

Melt margarine in top of a double boiler, add flour and stir until smooth. Stir in evaporated milk. Cook until thickened, stirring constantly. Add bay leaf and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook for 5 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Add sauce to onions, simmer for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with paprika just before serving.