27: Maya Angelou (1928-2014) is famous as a poet and essayist, but she was also known for her cooking skills and dinner parties. She once said, “I’m not a chef; I am a very serious cook. I have knowledge of and great respect for ingredients, and understand how they react.” She wrote two solid cookbooks, Hallelujah! The Welcome Table (2004) and Great Food, All Day Long (2010).
Dr. Angelou was born Marguerite “Rita” Johnson in St. Louis “Maya” was the childhood nickname given to her by her brother, and “Angelou” was derived from her first husband’s name. When her parents divorced, her father put three-year old Marguerite Johnson, and her four-year old brother, Bailey, Jr., on a train by themselves and shipped them off to live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson, in the little town of Stamps, deep in the southwest corner of Arkansas, about 30 miles from Texas to the west and Louisiana to the south.
Momma, as the kids called their grandmother, was a formidable cook. In her 2004 cookbook, Maya tells a delightful story about the pompous Presiding Elder from the CME church, who would always stay at Momma’s when he was in town, and then proceed to eat voracious amounts of her food.
When Maya was 14, she went to live with her mother, who had settled in Oakland. At 17, thanks to her training with her grandmother, she worked as a cook at The Creole Cafe, in San Francisco. From there, the rest, as they say, is history.
Jessica B. Harris, the famed food scholar, recounted how Maya approached cooking as performance art, as much as dancing, singing, and entertaining: “Her cooking was a virtuoso presentation that was part monologue, part dance routine, totally engaging and absolutely fascinating. There was a snippet of a song from a musical comedy at one point, a twist and a boogie at another and a flourish or two as a spice was added. It was a whole new form of dinner theater: a bravura performance calculated to astonish and delight.”
Dr. Angelou was interested in all sorts of foods. Her second cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long (2010), includes recipes we’d expect, like Oxtail Stew, and Southern-Style Green Beans, but also worldwide recipes, such as a Mixed London Grill, a Swedish hash, Pollo in Salsa, and “Pressed Leek, Asparagus, and Zucchini Terrine with Mustard-Lemon Dressing.”
Nonetheless, Dr. Angelou’s core repertoire always revolved around the dishes she’d learned in childhood. For her, these African American classics were not “just” food, but represented her ties to tradition and history. To serve them to her friends at her own “welcome table” was a powerful expression of her own identity. She said:
“Writing and cookery are just two different means of communication. Indeed, I feel cooking is a natural extension to my autobiography. In fiction, the story can be moulded to the author’s needs but in autobiography you have to tell the truth. The reader has to believe what the writer is saying or else the book has failed. The same applies to cooking; if there is no integrity to the recipes, no one will trust them.”