Sisters in the Kitchen

by Phoebe Damrosch MFA ’06

Carole Darden-Lloyd ’66 + Norma Jean Darden ’61
Restaurant and Catering Entrepreneurs
Harlem, New York

In the basement kitchen of Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too, Carole Darden-Lloyd ’66 softens stiff sugar cookie dough with the heel of her palm while her sister, Norma Jean Darden ’61, searches for a rolling pin. As they work, they go over the wrinkles of the day. First an order for cupcakes went missing—not to worry, they sold the customer a sweet potato pie—and then there was the irate woman complaining about her lethargic waitress. Carole rolls her eyes. “She has much more patience, this one, than I do,” she says, nodding towards Norma, who handled the call. Finding personnel is one of Norma’s primary challenges as a restaurant owner, along with rising food costs in a neighborhood that will not support higher menu prices.

Norma opened Miss Maude’s in central Harlem after success with the smaller Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too on 110th Street, but two months after they opened came 9/11. The tour bus of 55 people became a van of eight, then a car, and then no one. “We couldn’t even get people from New Jersey,” she says, remembering how a group of parents canceled a school trip, not wanting the bus to go through the tunnel to Manhattan.

Business has since picked up, though they lean on Spoonbread Catering, where Carole does the baking, during the slower winter months. Catering has its own challenges; just recently, 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.

Carole was a social worker, Norma a model—“110 pounds and trying to stay that way”—before they wrote the 1979 cookbook that launched them into the food world. The recipes and family stories in Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine came from their Southern roots: corn pone, spareribs, peach cobbler, banana pudding. A request to cook for a Channel Thirteen event led to the birth of a catering company. Years later, when a space opened next to the catering kitchen, it seemed natural to open a small restaurant. But with each of these opportunities came new difficulties. When asked the hardest part of the restaurant business, Norma laughs. Where to begin? Perhaps it is never being able to relax.

Sitting down at a booth, Norma immediately reaches for the Red Devil hot sauce, which still has the plastic seal on it. It proves tricky to open. “If I can’t get into it, how’s the customer going to?” she says to herself. Carole brings out a plate of freshly baked, heart-shaped lavender cookies that they will serve at an event later tonight.

Norma has at least one more restaurant planned: the café at the new Museum of African Art on 116th Street and Fifth Avenue.

It was slated to open in March, but was pushed back until fall 2011. She knows not to count her fried chickens quite yet.

“If the economy picks up, I’d love to have more restaurants,” she says, resting her chin on her hand. “Otherwise I’ll just stay here and mind the store.”