At the Table with Maya Angelou
"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."
They may be judges, police officers, homemakers, academics, doctors, or businesspeople. Nevertheless, she says, the teams "get heated," each one trying to outdo the other with their decorating prowess. It's not a competition; just good fun accompanied by a lot of laughter and good-natured jostling. By the time the tree is hung with all its finery, everyone is ready for Dr. Angelou's homemade chili, cornbread, and ice-cold beer. The competitive spirit gives way and everyone unites over the delicious food.
More often, Dr. Angelou cooks for a few friends. One of her favorite simple meals is roast chicken with hot bread, but she also has a soft spot for a dish she first tasted about 30 years ago at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Called Spaghetti Caruso, it's made by lightly sautéing chicken livers in butter before adding them to tomato sauce. "The livers finish cooking in the sauce," she says, and cautions that you "don't want to cook them too long, or they won't be tender."
When her mother and grandmother cooked, she recalls, it never seemed like work, and yet platters of food, beautifully presented, would appear on the table and uplift the spirits of guests. It's a precious lesson that she learned from the women in her family and that makes her own table a most welcoming one.
Maya Angelou's Recipes