Almost every evening, says Maya Angelou, friends drop by about dinnertime. "I wonder why?" she says with a smile and that famous laugh. There is no mystery, of course, because Dr. Angelou is known for her good cooking and expansive hospitality, which means there are always people around her table.
"You feel special when you cook for others," she says. "And you feel special when it's done for you."
Dr. Angelou, one of the country's most distinguished poets and writers, was asked to write a poem and then read it at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She is also the author of the book Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes, a collection of vignettes about her life and its accompanying dishes. First published in 2004, it was recently issued in paperback.
"I learned to cook by observing my mother and grandmother," she says of her Stamps, Arkansas, childhood. "I was a Depression baby, and we were told to eat everything on our plates because of the little children starving in China. No one mentioned the little children starving right here in the United States."
Because of her upbringing, she learned to respect food as something greater than a source of nourishment. First, she found pleasure in experimenting with the creative component of cooking, marveling at the fact that two or three ingredients, mixed together in a certain way, made an entirely new thing. "Every ingredient is important," she says.
She also learned about food's restorative powers. "I am convinced that if you have a rift with someone dear to you, if you want to ameliorate a fragile situation, food can help."
But food, for Dr. Angelou, is much more than a way to soothe discord—it's a joyful part of life. "My mother cooked a dish called Spanish rice," she recollects. It's a simple dish of rice cooked with sautéed onions, garlic, green bell peppers, and tomato sauce, and served with chicken. "When my mother invited me over to eat Spanish rice, I knew I would hear good news. And I always did! We shared a lot of good laughs eating it."