Welcome to Her Table Maya Angelou Shares Warm Stories, Tempting Recipes in Memoirs

Article excerpt

Byline: Jane Ammeson Daily Herald Correspondent

With the same sweet, strong voice she uses in her award-winning poetry and best-selling books, Maya Angelou now turns to a favorite and long enduring passion - food.

"I've always wanted to write about food," she says, explaining why she authored the recently published "Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes" (Random House, $29.95).

"I know that all over the world in every culture when friends or families or people get together to celebrate or to mourn there's always food," she says. "Every rite of passage, whether it's marriage or funerals or people coming of age, there's always food and it can be used as a technique to flirt or to let someone know that I never want to see you again."

Angelou, 76, a poet, writer, performer, teacher and director who holds the prestigious Reynolds Chair at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., wrote many best sellers, including the famed "I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings" and has won two Grammy Awards in the Best Spoken Word category. She read her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," at the inauguration of President William Clinton.

In "Hallelujah!," she kneads together wonderfully re-created recollections from throughout her life with the foods that made them memorable. We taste the crackling cornbread warm from her grandmother's oven, feel her pride as she roasts a turkey and makes cornbread stuffing for a group of scholars in an Italian villa and laugh when she recounts a tale of pot roast and Brillo pads.

Southern roots

Her professional life took her continents away from her Southern upbringing, allowing her to visit people and places that gave her plenty of fodder for this book.

Raised in rural, segregated Stamps, Ark., during the early 1930s by her grandmother and her mother, she remembers being surrounded by women who cooked wonderful and satisfying food.

Cooking and serving great food was a way of celebrating and providing solace. In her book, Angelou, who visited Chicago recently, recalls being slapped by a teacher because she was too shy to talk in class. She returned home in tears and told her mother what had happened. Later in the day her Uncle Willie sent her into the kitchen where she found "the most wondrous Caramel Cake looking like paradise, oozing sweetness.

"Uncle Willie said, 'This cake can't pay you for being slapped in the face. Momma made it just to tell you how much we love you and how precious you are.' "

Friends in high places

Angelou's cooking lessons at home were augmented by a stint working as a Creole cook in a restaurant and then later, when she was living in San Francisco, by befriending other food devotees including Jessica Mitford, known as Decca to her friends, a best- selling author and member of the British aristocracy.

One memorable evening, Decca, having consumed a large amount of white wine, used the rest to cook chicken. The recipe appears in "Hallelujah!" under the title Decca's Chicken, Drunkard Style, along with a reminiscence about how the dish was created.

Another friend was noted food author M.F.K. Fisher.

"We used to go to Sonoma to visit Fisher," recalls Angelou, an avid fan of the Food Channel. "She said to me once that people wouldn't invite her over for dinner because they were afraid to cook for her. People such as Cary Grant and Loretta Young would invite them to their houses and she'd smell the food that was being cooked but they wouldn't give any to her. They were so nervous. So they'd give her drinks and then she'd go back to the hotel and eat a hotel steak. Too sad.

"But I had her over and made cassoulet and she loved it. She wrote me a letter, I still have it, saying it was the first honest cassoulet she had had in a long time. Don't you just love that? I thought the beans were too mushy."

There is also a recipe that Angelou cooked for Oprah Winfrey, back when she was a fledgling TV reporter. …