By Colm Ashe
In terms of social prevalence, bigotry and sexism have decreased dramatically over the last century. However, many still remember a world where minorities and women were considered second-class citizens. Darlene Sells Treadwell is one of those people.
In her new book, “The Bittersweet Taste of the American Dream,” the 74-year Setauket native tells the true story of her grandmother — a Native American with African roots and a special knack for cooking who fell prey to a cutthroat corporate money game.
Treadwell, who currently resides in Georgia, will be traveling to Long Island this weekend to present copies of her book to the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library and the Three Village Historical Society. She will hold a book signing event where she will share her family story with the attendees. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Treadwell by phone.
What can you tell me about your grandmother?
Her name was Ms. Emma Francis Calvin Sells of Old Field, Long Island, New York, and she was apart of the Setauket Indian Tribe. She was also of African American descent. She was the daughter of Clifford and Abby, and married Charles Augustus Sells of Setauket on Jan. 11, 1917, at the age of 18. She was my heroine in the kitchen. I always imagined her as a Black Native American Julia Child. If she was around today she would be on all these new cooking shows! Instead, she died heartbroken and disillusioned from her trust in the big buys and the industry… that they would do the right thing.
How did the cooking industry take advantage of Grandma Em?
They stole her recipe. They began the process slowly, never blatantly, but persistently eased knowledge of the recipe away. I have a letter from The National Biscuit Company asking her to bring in four bags and to identify the ingredients. She even tried to reach out to her hero, Jackie Robinson, to intervene when she realized she’d been had. This transgression prevented her from accumulating her rightful place in history. I have all of the proof in the book: letters between attorneys and employees at the National Biscuit Company, names and signatures, her recipes.
When did she realize her recipe had been stolen?
1949. She was at the supermarket when she saw the first ever Ready-to-Use Corn Bread Mix on the shelf — with her recipe on the back of the box. She dropped to her knees crying in the middle of the aisle, realizing the last 12 years of working with the National Biscuit Company to make her dream a reality were nothing but a scam.
How was the story passed on to you?
When Grandma Em died at the age of 74, we slowly went through her list of belongings. We came across a blue hat box. And this was handed to me, that’s how I wrote the book. Upon opening, I unfolded years of sentimental holdings to her heritage, her recipes and her lost dreams. It was given to me to decipher what went wrong and slowly, piece by piece, I carefully, and tearfully, read her notes and recipes. And I could feel her frustration and pain and suffering as she waited patiently for news from patent attorneys and inventors. I read and wept as they lead her on and on, sent her to their New York offices in vain, to sit and wait and wait. From 1937 to 1949.
Why did you want to write this book?
I want to make peace with this injustice and I want to see if they want to right a wrong. No civil attorney can help me because the companies can change one ingredient and it’s no longer litigable. Plus, it’s too late. That corporation (now called Nabisco) benefited from the free labor and ideas of my little old grandma. I wanted to give Grandma Em the power and the humanity that was denied to her that time in history. I just wanted to … publicly honor her ingenuity and entrepreneurial achievements. I’m the last surviving member of the family. I’m 74. When I’m gone, that blue hat box is gone. I wanted to write the book so she could receive her accolades. I did not want to die with her story untold. I don’t want to publicize myself. I really just want to give honor to my Grandma.
Will you be holding any book
signings in our area?
I’m doing a book signing at the Three Village Historical Society. They have an exhibit on the Setauket Indians now — the tribe my grandmother was apart of. I’ll be there on Sunday, July 3, from 2 to 4 p.m., but the reading starts at 3.
You can join the Times Beacon Record at Darlene’s book signing as she recounts this tragic, yet hopeful story of a local Setauket legend who deserves her place in history. The Three Village Historical Society is located at 93 North Country Road in Setauket. For more information, please call 631-751-3730.