Birthday party gives chance to pitch in
Maria and Allen Darden’s three sons have grown up helping their mother in the kitchen.
“I’ve been in the kitchen with my mom since I was really little,” Alex Darden, 22, said.
“He was my first. I put him in a bouncy seat when I was cooking, ” Maria Darden said. “He’s my pro now,” but Julian, 19, and Allen “Mookie” Darden Jr., 17, also are “very competitive” in the kitchen.
“They can chop, sauté, make a roux. I try to do things that aren’t too complicated so it doesn’t take too long and they lose interest,” she said.
When they were younger, the boys joined their mother on stage for cooking demonstrations at the Junior League of Baton Rouge’s annual Hollydays fundraiser.
“All the boys did that,” Maria Darden said. “We made spider cupcakes, witch’s brew punch, little cheese balls as pumpkins, and marzipan strawberries rolled in red sugar — all things perfect for little kids to do.”
By the time they reached high school, Saturday evenings had become cooking nights to which the brothers would invite friends.
“They were assigned recipes to prepare for our dinner. It sort of turned into a cooking contest,” Maria Darden said. “They made double helpings so the friends could share their creations with their own families.”
So, it was natural for the trio to pitch in when their mom decided to combine Julian’s 19th birthday bash with an LSU football game-watching get-together on Oct. 6 at their Baton Rouge home.
As soon as Julian Darden, a freshman at Georgia Tech, let her know he was coming home for his Oct. 7 birthday, Maria Darden began planning the party. The LSU-Florida game didn’t result in a happy outcome for the Tigers. But the birthday honoree did get to enjoy some of his favorite foods and share kitchen time with his family.
The biomedical engineering major said, “I wanted to come home to real home cooking. I always like a good Cuban sandwich, and I do like my black beans and rice. My mom’s brisket is my favorite. I think it’s the horseradish and barbecue sauce she puts on it. It’s softer than anyone else’s brisket I’ve ever had. It’s more juicy.”
“My boys are very proud of their Cuban heritage,” said Maria Darden, whose parents are natives of Cuba. “My dad studied at LSU and went back to Cuba to work with my grandfather. He escaped with my mom, who was pregnant with me, in May 1962.”
For the Oct. 6 party, her mother, Oria Marrero, helped prepare black beans, Cuban sandwiches, plantain cup tapas filled with polenta and a Cuban-style jerked beef in Creole sauce and a show-stopper flan topped with Grand Marnier-flavored fruit. Hugo Marrero Sr. doesn’t cook, so he was put to work stirring a large pot of polenta.
The rest of the family, along with friends Sara Vail Cheney and Lauren Burtt and cousin Marissa Lass, of Prairieville, sat around the nearby kitchen table piping royal icing onto sugar cookies, some of which were used on the four-layer, Halloween-themed birthday cake. Cheney, 17, and Mookie Darden, a senior at Episcopal High School, are members of a three-piece band, Hungary Hungary, while Mookie also plays guitar and sings with the band Mid-Term.
The cookie decorating, which Mookie Darden described as an art form, soon became competitive. Alex Darden, a senior at LSU, working meticulously, pointed out, “That’s my bat on the cake.”
Meanwhile, Julian Darden used the royal icing to make a colorful “Mr. Frankenstein” to pair with Burtt’s imaginative “Mrs. Frankenstein.”
“It’s times like this when all of us get together as a family that it’s a lot of fun,” Julian Darden said.
“Julian was recruited by Georgia Tech to run track,” Allen Darden said of his middle son, adding that Alex coaches the junior varsity and middle school cross country teams at Episcopal High. In the spring, he’s also head coach for the middle school track team.
Maria Darden enjoys putting together cookbooks to share with family and friends, and she started a cookbook with some of the family’s favorite recipes “when we dropped off Julian at college. Julian wanted recipes, and it was kind of therapeutic for me. I missed him.”
Julian Darden said he cooks for himself and friends. A favorite entrée is marinated and grilled chicken breasts. “Everyone eats it. None of the other guys in Georgia cook. I definitely got it from my mom. I think being from Louisiana and from a house full of cooking” makes him comfortable in the kitchen. “It makes me appreciate what she did for us all that much more.”
Oria Marrero said her daughter has always been interested in cooking and has a creative flair. “I wanted Maria to go into interior design. Instead she is a CPA. They (children) never listen to Mom.”
“I’m a Realtor,” Maria Darden clarified as she put the finishing touches on the party’s dishes. She had already made up a batch of margarita martinis, which she serves in glasses rimmed with sugar, and tossed her mango and avocado salad. The marinated pork shoulder, which had roasted for about six hours, was sliced and waiting.
Taking center stage on the dining table was the birthday cake, made with all the flavors of Julian Darden’s favorite candy bar, Almond Joy, and decorated with brightly colored cookies and black and white candles. It was time for another party at the Darden house.