This is where we had dinner the second night of our weekend in NYC. It was taken from the bus window through a light rain the next morning on our way to Grand Central. I tried taking it the night before as we left the restaurant, but my camera battery failed me miserably!
For months, ever since daughter #2 told me about this soul food restaurant she discovered in Manhattan, I’ve looked forward to having dinner at this place. Former Wilhemina model Norma Jean Darden opened this restaurant near Columbia University. I have a beaten-up copy of her mother’s best selling cookbook STRAWBERRY WINE & SPOONBREAD TOO, from which the restaurant gets its name. It has welcomed regular folks like myself and students around Columbia, plus I noticed a scattering of a few decidedly upscale clientele. Even VIPs like former President Bill Clinton felt right at home eating food made prepared just like Norma Jean’s mother, Miss Mamie, did for her lovely cookbook.
President Clinton ‘s favorite reportedly is the sampler with seafoods along with smother fried chicken and chops. I decided to order the catfish cooked like Momma did instead. Rich gravies sometimes race right through my digestive system so I couldn’t afford the risk of complicating my hour subway commute back to Queens. (Been there, done that! Learned my lesson good!) I did enjoy the obligatory sweetened iced tea, however, even if there was no room left for the delicious cobblers and pies and cakes. “Next time,” I promised myself, as I do hope there is a next time!
Being there felt a lot like being back in Momma’s or Grandma’s kitchens the way they were when I was growing up in north central Florida. Its homey and simple decor, checkered tiled floors with red strawberry printed curtains on the side windows and lace panels hanging along the front made me feel right at home. It’s the food, though, that will bring me back to Spoonbread Too on future visits to NYC. I believe the collards I tasted there were even better than that we had.
While we were waiting for our meal to arrive, Norma Jean herself appeared, and my daughter introduced us. She was about my age, still lovely and very gracious indeed. While d#2 and I were pigging out at Spoonbread, Hubby and Ben were sharing medu vada and masala dosa at Tiffin Walla, a south Indian restaurant. Tiffin is an old English word that means “light meal” and wallah translates to “one who carries the box.” Needless to say, everyone came together at home later full and more than sated.
This isn’t Miss Mamie’s recipe, but it is is more or less how Momma and my grandmothers cooked their collard greens:
Take a mess of collard greens (can vary between 2 or 4 bunches depending on how many mouths you have to feed) and wash one leaf at a time under running water, making sure it’s dirt and pest free. Then chop or tear the leaves into large pieces, removing and discarding the larger, tougher ends.
Throw a ham hock or two (let’s say one hock to 1 bunch) into a large pot and add water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook for a half hour or so (timing’s not critical here, and then add the chopped collard green leaves. Add a smidgen of sugar, turn the fire down to a low simmer, cover with a lid and cook some more. Depending on how many bunches you’re cooking, this could take between one to two hours as the greens should be very very tender and the ham will be falling off the bone.
At the end you can squeeze a bit of lemon juice in (not too much, just a tad!). If you have an aversion to meat, as Hubby does, I’ve had fair success in achieving a passable, meatless, facimile by leaving the ham hocks out totally and dousing the water with a little liquid smoke (1/4 to 3/4 teaspoons). Wait until you taste for tenderness and seasoning first, then add salt and whatever other seasoning to taste. Note: Watch to see the pot doesn’t boil dry; you may have to add small amounts of water if it starts to cook dry.
In the south, we liked to serve greens with small dishes of various condiments alongside–finely chopped onion, pickle relishes, or a red Tobasco sauce to sprinkle on after serving.
Now I know all you Yankee cooks are shuddering at this point (cooked to death, you might even be thinking!), but even Julie Child herself said vegetables should be well cooked and that means not crunchy, and we all know Miss Julie knew her stuff. So did my Momma, my grandmas, and Miss Mamie and Norma Jean Darden, too. If you ever have the good luck to eat at Miss Norma Jean’s Spoonbread Too, you’ll probably re-think veggie cooking.