A Harlem mainstay, this jazz supper club was founded by saxophonist Henry Minton in the 1930s. It quickly gained popularity among local jazz artists as a place where they could not only perform their music and experiment freely, but also indulge in a heaping plate of soul food — on the house. Minton’s house band was impressive enough on its own, led by the renowned Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke. Yet its regular performers were just as acclaimed, including musical greats from Dizzy Gillespie to Charlie Parker. The creative improvisations of the band and the star-studded string of visiting artists gave way to a new style known as bebop in the 1940s and helped develop the sounds and methods of modern jazz.
Norma Jean Darden is a fascinating storyteller. Her entire life - from growing up with her southern mother, to becoming a fashion model, to opening a celebrated restaurant in Harlem - reads like a novel. In addition to her vibrant way with words, however, Norma Jean is heartwarmingly generous. As she shared her story with Manhattan Sideways, she offered us sweet tea and even cooked up a plate heaped with southern fare, made from her mothers' recipes. Norma Jean's mother, Miss Mamie, was a schoolteacher in Petersburg, Virginia. She taught first through sixth grade in a one-room schoolhouse. We went on to learn that the local doctor mentioned Miss Mamie to his son, saying that there was a lovely "schoolmarm" that he should meet. Shortly after they met, they married and moved to New Jersey where Norma Jean and her sister, Carole were born. Miss Mamie kept churning out her delicious southern recipes, and every summer they continued to visit North Carolina. When they were older, Norma Jean's sister chose a career as a social worker, while she became a runway model. With a broad smile on her face, Norma Jean told me that she was one of the groups of women who introduced American sportswear to Europe, and that the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently recognized her and her comrades for making fashion history as the first African American models to appear on the runway in Europe. Two events ended Norma Jean's modeling career. The first was the devastating AIDS outbreak in the 1980s. She sadly shared with me that most of her supporters and many members of the fashion industry were wiped out by the disease. Around the same time, Norma Jean contracted an abdominal illness, and recognized the need to make a slight shift in her career. "My father said there's not much future in running up and down the street in an evening gown. "Norma Jean began by remaining in the same industry and working in the fashion houses. One day, though, when she was asked to bring food to an event at work, her life began to head in a brand new direction. "It was such a hit, " she recalled. Shortly afterwards, she was asked to cater a meal for Channel 13, and her career in the food world took off. At first, Norma Jean ran her catering business preparing food for many terrific events, including David Dinkin's mayoral inauguration. This required her to cook for five thousand people. To this day, Norma Jean is still proud that their food, though constantly being eaten, lasted until the end of the event, while the other vendors ran out. Though she and her sister led very different lives, they had remained close and had always shared a passion for their mother's food. In 1980, they wrote the book, Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences of a Family. They then went on to have their own restaurants and in 1997 Spoonbread Too opened on 110th Street. Receiving a great deal of attention from celebrities and locals alike, Norma Jean enthusiastically shared her stories about Bill Clinton's visit where he ate the "best collard greens in New York City. " She recalled him announcing, "Get me a wheelbarrow and wheel me out of here! "In addition to collard greens and, of course, spoonbread, the restaurant is known for their fried chicken, catfish, succotash, and coconut cake, though truly, it is hard to go wrong with anything on the menu. Bill Clinton has not been her only presidential client. Over the years, Norma Jean was proud to tell us that she has served both Barack Obama and George W. Bush. "Three presidents in my lifetime! " she exclaimed. Norma Jean has also had the pleasure of preparing food for Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela's widow. As for regulars, she gets a sampling of everyone: students from Columbia University, ministers who find the restaurant quiet, and even Knicks players with "their knees above the table. "Over the years, many artists have also come through Spoonbread's door. "We used to have talent nights on Monday where people would sing for their supper, " she said, gesturing to the little red piano in the corner, which is soon to make its come-back. "I've had so many wonderful experiences through food, " Norma Jean humbly revealed, when ending our delightful conversation.
There is no question that the independent bookstores of New York are disappearing, which is why I am always thrilled to come across one that is thriving. Book Culture was originally founded as Labyrinth Books in 1997 by Book Culture's current owner, Chris, and Cliff, his partner at the time. Chris' career had begun in the 1980s when he started selling books for Papyrus Bookstore. He also worked at the old Book Forum, located across the street from Columbia, and at Great Jones Books. In 2007, Book Culture broke off from Labyrinth Books. Two new locations opened in Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side in 2009 and 2014. In 2010, Annie Hendricks joined Chris as a co-owner. I spoke with Cody, who became the store manager at 112th Street in 2013. He explained that the real estate is owned by Columbia, and so the shop sees a lot of college students, especially in the early autumn months. Book Culture's customer base, however, is varied: after all, he pointed out, the Upper West Side has not really had an independent bookstore since Endicott Books closed in 1995. Book Culture carries a wide variety of subject matter including English, anthropology, history, philosophy, and sociology. Despite how many independent bookstores have been lost, Cody has optimistically seen a trend over the last four years, which he called "a natural renaissance of independent booksellers. " He noted that chain stores are not sustainable in the literary world, since people "want bookstores to be tied to the communities. " Cody acknowledged that Book Culture has tried to fulfill its role as a community center by offering events, such as family outings and bagel breakfasts. He then went on to say that since Book Culture takes care to cater to the neighborhood, the store "oftentimes offers a better curated selection" than one's average Barnes and Noble. "In many ways it's more than just a bookstore. It's a great place to spend a couple hours. "Cody has noticed a few other recent trends. The store, he told me excitedly, had become increasingly busier. He has noticed that there has been a "return to fiction" with specifically a "growing interest in translated works. " In response, Book Culture's literature section has expanded. Customers are encouraged to spend time figuring out what interests them. He then stated, "It's rare that someone doesn't leave with a book or at least a good idea of what they'd like to read next. "
Shadowed by the leaves of a weeping willow is hidden a little oasis in the city. As I entered, I was greeted by the sight of neatly organized rows of boxed-in garden plots, and a path through the middle decorated with cobblestones. There were overhanging vines, and stray cats sunning themselves among the cabbages and the squash. On either side, of the garden were concrete walls. The Rodale Pleasant Community Garden was built from a vacant lot in 1998, so we learned from Sandy, a member at the community garden who proudly showed us her piece of land. It was Bette Midler's New York Restoration Project that is responsible for enabling this piece of land to be turned into the garden. When Ms. Midler learned that vacant lots were going to be sold, she "came in with lots of money, and said that she wanted to save the green, " Sandy recalled. Today, Rodale boasts a membership of close to fifty. They not only come from the neighborhood surrounding the garden, but men and women travel from Lower Manhattan and Midtown to care for their small piece of land. There are eighteen lots where the community is invited to plant vegetables and or flowers while also putting in four hours every month to water the plants and to maintain the garden's appearance. Together they work to cultivate a community of active gardeners in a place where nature is scarce. Sandy told us that everyone begins planting in spring, and within a few weeks, there is an abundance of food for them to eat throughout the season. Looking around, we saw signs of zucchini, tomatoes, lettuces, mint, basil, peppers and okra. Amazed at the variety, and commenting on how my husband and I could never grow anything like this when we lived in Westchester because of the deer and rabbits, Sandy laughed and said, "Here, it is whole foods for the squirrels, deer are the issue in the suburbs. "Some would say the charm of Manhattan is in its people. Some would say it is in its innovative, forever-changing spirit. Some still would disagree and say it is in its constancy. To Sandy, and many of the urban gardeners on 114th Street, the charm of Manhattan is in its gardens and green spaces. "It is a lifeline... a gift, " said Sandy, "to be able to garden, and vegetables are my thing. "