When Klan members drove Papa (William T.) Darden out of Alabama in the late 1920s, he migrated North to Newark -- a dandy dressed in two-tone clothes and driving a two-tone Nash, says his daughters, Norma Jean and Carole Darden.
In Newark he resumed his medical practice, married, and fathered two daughters who grew up to recount such down-home, family tales in a cookbook as refreshing as the recipes from which its title -- "Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine" -- is drawn. The paperback version of the book ($2.50) is available through New York publishers Fawcett Crest.
For all its references to Watermelon Sherbet and Cousin Kelly and Artellia's Barbecued Spareribs, "Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine" is not just a cookbook, but a family album. It is a tribute to black ingenuity, depicted through the family's beauty secrets, folklore, remembrances and achievements.
"My father is very proud of saying when he came out of Tuskegee, Ala., that everything he had was made by black hands except his two-toned car," Norma Jean Darden told women at a workshop, "Beauty Secrets From the Kitchen," a highlight of a recent LifeStyle '80 seminar.
The beauty secrets were created by Darden Aunts Lillian and Alice during eras when black women never heard of Revlon, and Johnson Products didn't exist. Included in the book are directions for making Honeysuckler perfume and anti-wrinkle cream. Rubbing cucumbers on the face is advised to soften skin. And egg whites are recommended as skin toners.
"I've seen Norma do a facial while she was cooking," said Carole Darden. "If she had a recipe that just called for egg yolks she would put the egg whites on her face and keep cooking."
To combat dry skin, Carole said she stopping washing her face with soap and reverted to Aunt Lillian's oatmeal-and-water facial. "Can I tell?" Norma Jean interrupted and then blurted quickly, "Carole had acne as a child." "Watermelor rind is also good," Carole went on, unperturbed.
"Yes it is, but I've always been afraid it would attract flies," dead-panned Norma Jean, to the delight of the crowd.
Through the pages of "Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine," we meet some of the forerunners of the Darden wit. People like Grandad William Sampson, a Kentuckian of pioneer stock born in 1865. The Sampson family built homes, tilled the land, raised animals and bees, and worked on the railroad until he died at nearly 100 years old.
He had two striking physical features, a long, flowing, white beard and six fingers on each hand. Chided in his older years for talking to himself, he allegedly replied, "I can't think of a more interesting person to talk to." From the book Mom Sampson's Spoonbread (Our Favorite) 1 cup yellow oatmeal 1 teaspoon salt 2 cups boiling water 3 large eggs, well beaten 3 tablespoons butter 1 cup milk
Slowly add cornmeal to the boiling water, stirring constantly until thick and smooth. Add butter and salt and cool to lukewarm. Then add eggs and milk. Beat for 2 minutes, pour into a greased casserole and bake in a preheated 375-degree oven 35 minutes, or until golden brown. Spoon out while piping hot and pass more butter! Yield: 8 servings.
A sampling of "Beauty Foods," also from the book:
Cumcumber: Renowed for their beautifying abilities. So rub a slice over your face and neck. It will soften and smooth skin by refining pores. Also eat them raw with a little salt.
Potato : Peel and grate a little white potato and place under the eyes.
Good for relieving swollen bags and dark circles if you've been crying or are just tired.
Peaches, Cream and Honey : Aunt Lil takes this one literally. Whip up a little heavy cream (1/4 cup), mash 1/2 peach and mix with 1 tablespoon of honey. Apply to face and leave on for 15 minutes. Enjoy licking your lips! Stored in refrigerator, remainder will last for two weeks.