Welcome to the poet's table
Maya Angelou tells the stories behind her favorite meals.
At her North Carolina home, Maya Angelou poaches eggs to go along with her roast beef hash. (Los Angeles Times/Jeffrey A. Camarati)
The 76-year-old celebrated writer and poet invests something personal in each dish, whether for the hungry stranger walking into the San Francisco joint where she slung Creole hash as a 17-year-old or for the famous friends to whom she still serves smothered chicken and spoon bread. It's a quality she learned early at her grandmother's table.
The stories of the most memorable of those meals — including recipes handed down from her grandmother and mother and across the table from her sister-friends — are chronicled in her just-published cookbook, "Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes."
"Food is important not just as fuel for the body, but as devices for the growth of the soul," says Angelou over lunch at Hal's in Venice, a restaurant she calls her "joint" when she's on one of her frequent visits to L.A.
Having learned to cook from a grandmother born into slavery who labored her whole life over a wood-burning stove, Angelou's passion for food is flavored with respect for what it took for her forebears to create the dishes she loves.
"The slaves were given the worst things — the livers, the lungs, gizzards and feet. To make those into delicious things ahhhh," she says with a smile. "Have you ever had hog-head cheese? You must make it. You make it with pickled pigs' feet."
That recipe from her grandmother Annie Henderson, whom she called Momma, is in her cookbook.
The peek into Momma's kitchen is what makes this cookbook so compelling.
"With almost nothing, if you care, you can make something. That's the lesson of African American cuisine," says Angelou.
With that, she launches into the story of the caramel cake.
"Mind you now, Momma made that cake on a wood-burning stove. She didn't have brown sugar. She had to make everything. Had to have the fire at a particular heat. To hold the heat, she had to know when to put in another piece of wood, when to put in a piece of pine wood that would burn fast for a rush of heat, or a piece of walnut, for a slower burn. And the different kinds of woods would give you different flavors in your food. It was a science. An artful science," says Angelou.
Needless to say, Momma made her caramel cake on rare occasions.
As a child, Angelou became mute for a time after a period of sexual abuse — the subject of her acclaimed autobiographical story, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."
At her grandmother's table in Stamps, Ark., she began her recovery.
One day, young Maya was slapped across the face by a teacher with no tolerance for a child who could, but would not, speak. Angelou's furious grandmother returned that slap to its owner and, later, salved the child's hurt with her famous butter and sugar confection.
"She knew just what to do for everything," says Angelou. "And it would always have to do with food.
"My grandmother used to braid my hair. African hair has a part that is flat and a part that is round. Because of the round, it curls. If the person is sick or not eating properly, it will break. Whenever my grandmother braided my hair, she would take a strand of hair out of the brush. If it would break, my grandmother would gasp, 'Oh sister, Momma's got to make you some greens,' " recalls Angelou.
"I'd go out to the garden and she'd tell me what greens to get. Then she would put on a big starched apron, and she'd go into the woods and come back with maybe five leaves of something tucked in the apron. She'd cook the greens with some bark, a streak of fat and then put her mysterious things from the woods in there. And," Angelou erupts in laughter, "my hair would strengthen."
While Angelou now lives in Winston-Salem, N.C., and has a place in New York City, she has called Los Angeles home off and on since the 1950s. "I lived all over. On 5th Avenue near Exposition, in Pacific Palisades, the Lake district, Santa Monica, Laurel Canyon."