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.
Ramth Orah had its modest beginnings in 1941 when a small group arrived in Manhattan from Luxembourg having escaped the Nazis. As luck would have it, there was a church - West Side Unitarian - being built on 110th Street since 1921. Unfortunately, they ran out of cash ten years into their project, and had to abandon the uncompleted church. It was here that the Orthodox congregation was able to find a home, purchasing the building in 1942. Today, the structure has been named to the National Register of Historic Places.
Cathedrals abound throughout Europe, but it is a novelty to come upon one in the United States, not to mention in Manhattan. The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, which sits on a cliff overlooking Morningside Park, seems to be taken straight out of a fairytale. It is considered to be both the largest cathedral and one of the top five largest church buildings in the world.It was Olivia, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, who sat down and spoke with the Dean, the Very Reverend James A. Kowalski. He told her that people often ask, "Why in the world would you build it so big." He explained that at the time the cathedral was being constructed in the 1890s, there were not many Episcopalians in the city, so it seemed odd to build an enormous center of Episcopalian worship. In truth, however, Saint John the Divine is much more than an Episcopalian church. The founders, mainly Bishops Hobart and Potter, wanted a "convening place" that would embrace all faiths and nations. Reverend Kowalski pointed out that an all-encompassing spiritual center was needed in New York, "A transnational city of a lot of different faiths and cultures." The cathedral was meant to be a safe place, an American Cathedral that would produce "better informed world citizens."Reverend Kowalski is very proud that the cathedral has fulfilled its founder's desires and more. He treats the church as a place where he can "put questions in front of people in a non-polarizing way," whether they focus on liturgy, art, or other topics of discourse. "We bring people together in transcendental ways." The members of Saint John the Divine have been able to intelligently converse about themes as varied as the death penalty, race, and gender.Though the cornerstone of the cathedral was laid down in 1892, the building as of 2016 is technically yet to be completed. Parts of the cathedral were steadily being built throughout the twentieth century, and in 2001, a six-alarm fire broke out, which forced their resources to go towards restoration. Some jokingly call it "Saint John the Unfinished" for this reason, but it is hard for a layperson to notice that it is a work in progress after stepping inside. The space is exquisitely detailed and cavernous - a cohesive whole rather than a century-long patchwork construction project. "We hope to create a visual, spiritual space," Reverend Kowalski explained, pointing out that the church features images from many faiths. "The roof is meant to be a great tent."Reverend Kowalski is delighted by the diverse groups that he meets under this "great tent." Though there is a small core who call Saint John their home, he clarified that the church is "not a parish." Most who come through are spiritual nomads or tourists. At any given time, there can be 200-1000 people inside the cathedral. He declared that there are often so many countries represented during services that he has to rigorously fact-check his sermons, since among such a varied group, it is likely that someone will be able to intelligently poke holes in any under-researched stories or asides.The Dean is pleased, however, that he makes more connections each day than he would in any other house of worship. For example, he spoke of one visitor who shared her story of growing up Hindu, becoming a Christian evangelical, and then being ordained as an Anglican priest. "We're truly international," he stated, and went on to say how pleased he is of the work that he has done since he joined the church shortly after 9/11. Pausing for a moment of thought, he added, "I hope it's not presumptuous to say that I hope I've made God happy." He joked that in the end, he would like God to say, "You got up to the plate and you tried to hit the ball."In addition to being such a diverse cultural center and site for philosophical discourse, Saint John the Divine essentially functions as a museum and concert venue. In 2013, they received an award as one of the top ten art exhibits in New York for South African artist Jane Alexander's anti-apartheid vignettes.Reverend Kowalski also spoke of Xu Bing, a Chinese artist, asked to hang his birds made of trash after coming to the Blessing of the Animals service - another well-known event at the Cathedral. Since 1984, people have attended the St. Francis Assisi service where precious pets are celebrated and paraded down the Nave. The doors at St. John the Divine are truly open to everyone for in the words of Reverend Kowalski, "This is the city's cathedral."
Tapas are abundant in New York City, especially in Manhattan. New York has eagerly adopted elements of Basque, Catalan, and Gallego, Spanish, and numerous other Iberian cuisines since the founding of El Internacional in the 1980s, one of the first restaurants to bring tapas to the United States. Gaudir, which opened in 2019, takes a new approach in their modern Spanish tapas restaurant spearheaded by chef Cedric Durand, a partner in Tastings NYC.The restaurant has an intimate atmosphere and a distinctive menu with tables made of tile imported straight from Barcelona. GAUDIr, a reference to Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí and the Catalan word for “enjoy,” began as a pop-up in the space that was once the home of Mountain Bird, another Tastings restaurant with a focus on poultry. When Mountain Bird recognized the need to expand (2162 Second Avenue), it allowed Chef Cedric to pursue his dream for the permanent establishment of GAUDIr.Spending time chatting and sampling some of the amazing food with the Manhattan Sideways team - and Chef Cedric, Arianna, the floor manager/bartender, and Mona, who runs the Tastings catering initiatives at both of the restaurants - we learned that GAUDIr transitioned from pop-up to full time restaurant after only a short time. Their goal for the restaurant was not only to share good food and drink, but the company has purposely sought out to create a family-like community between workers that extends to include their clientele.The wooden, home-like decor, designed by Tastings founder Alexandra Morris, reflects spaces in Spain, and to us, a snug cabin in the woods. We were served a variety of tapas dishes, many of which were modern twists on authentic Spanish dishes. Chef Cedric has made the decision to "stay true to authentic Spanish flavors without adapting them to the American taste." He went on to say that he aligns his tapas with the classic Spanish palette, in an effort to distinguish them from other New York tapas menus.We were served the classic GAUDIr salad, made with endive lettuce and Manchego cheese, in addition to grilled octopus, cod, and escalivada - an eggplant salad. Intricately crafted and beautifully plated, these dishes were just a sliver of what GAUDIr has to offer: they also serve paellas and a full Sunday brunch menu with hefty portions. Gin takes center stage at GAUDir, including a classic gin and tonic, but served with rosemary and coriander. Chef Cedric proudly told us that the Sangria comes from a secret recipe originated in his own family. He is literally bringing his childhood nostalgia to life with this menu, as he has traveled to Spain annually to vacation since he was a child - growing up in France - and these days continues to search for new decor, recipe ideas and quality gins for GAUDIr.