Ten years ago I had the opportunity to interview Maya Angelou about cooking, life and love. The time spent wasn’t rushed. She was generous of thought and deed. Here is a portion of the story I wrote about it:
My words sounded like a jittery chicken pecking corn through a picket fence. Maya Angelou’s voice sang in rhythmical patterns with sentences ending in slow-to-dissolve words that sounded like long, sustained tones on a priceless violin.
She was calm, wise and quick to laugh. Soon my nervousness would fade. Our topic was food when we met for a recent interview in Santa Monica. Angelou — accomplished poet, playwright, author, historian, entertainer, director and teacher — has written a cookbook, “Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes” (Random House, $29.95).
In the book, Angelou, 76, wraps treasured stories of her life around luscious, straightforward recipes. Through her heartfelt vignettes, readers will meet her cherished family — her grandmother, mother, brother and son — as well as a fascinating collection of friends, many of whom she met on her world travels.
Readers will discover that at 17, she was a chef at a San Francisco Creole restaurant, then later, marvel as she creates a home-cooked cassoulet for culinary icon M.F.K. Fisher. It’s easy to identify with her initial embarrassment at a colleague’s liberal use of Tabasco sauce at a prim Parisian restaurant, or feel her pride as she turns out an impeccable banana pudding after an ill-fated love affair folds. Angelou said that she wants readers to recognize how food brings people together.
“Food is greater than the sum of its parts,” she said. “Its parts may be salt, sugar, pepper, flour, oil, maybe butter, milk and eggs. Those are the parts that may make a cake. But its more than a cake, it’s that, and, something else. That and hospitality. That and care. That and appreciation. “So, when someone invites you to dinner it’s not just to eat. It’s that, and. That and a hug, or caress. That and approval.”
And, she pointed out, cooking can be powerful. It can snare a lover or gain a job.
“My cooking got me a couple of jobs. One was in Los Angeles from a Southerner who was longing, l-o-n-g-i-n-g for the South. This man gave me a job because I cooked spoon bread for him.”
Spoon bread, a classic Southern pudding-like mixture of cornmeal, flour, milk, eggs and butter, sent her soon-to-be boss into a dreamlike state.
“He chewed his way back to his Alabama childhood,” she said. Angelou said that cooking can be therapeutic, too. It can cure writer’s block, loneliness, even sadness.
“If I’m really lonely, or if I am very sad, I will cook and probably cook something that the person I’m mourning for would love,” she said. “And I cook it as carefully as possible. And maybe eat some of it. And he or she is almost there.”
When I commented on how cookbooks hold a special place in our lives, Angelou was quick to describe the prominent place they hold in her home in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“I have about 300 cookbooks,” she said, laughing in an affectionate yet devilish tone. “I have a counter in my kitchen that separates the kitchen from the breakfast area; all of that wall from the counter to the floor, maybe 12 feet, that is where I keep the cookbooks that I use. “And there’s one set that really was the cheapest of all, that I like the best. It’s called ‘Woman’s Day Encyclopedia (of Cookery).’ They came out in the late ’60s or early ’70s. You could buy them at the supermarket in New York for 89 cents apiece. The cruel things, they stopped selling them somewhere in the R’s, maybe rutabagas. I searched all over town for them, but couldn’t find the rest.”
Later her soon-to-be husband told her he wanted to buy her a truly wonderful gift. She requested that he find the missing S though Z books from her cooking encyclopedia. He did.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Butter for greasing casserole
2 cups white cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups cold water
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter, melted
2 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups milk
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 2-quart casserole with butter.
2. In large bowl, stir together cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt. Stir in cold water. Add boiling water and stir vigorously. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Pour into prepared casserole dish. Bake 1 hour or until firm and browned. Serve at once.
Nutritional information (per serving): Calories 173 (26 percent from fat); fat 5 g (sat 1.2 g); protein 3.4 g; carbohydrates 27.2 g; cholesterol 56 mg; sodium 400 mg.
Source “Hallelujah! The Welcome Table”