It's difficult to know what to call Maya Angelou. She is an esteemed poet with nine books of verse in print. She is a memoirist whose six-volume series of autobiographies--beginning with "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" in 1970--made her a cynosure in the personal-narrative genre. She has earned numerous honorary degrees and accolades, including three Grammy Awards for her spoken-word recordings. She has also, throughout her 76 years, been known as a singer, actress, teacher, director and a dancer. Perhaps that's why she prefers to be addressed as Dr. Angelou. What other way is there to acknowledge her many endowments without the exhaustive use of hyphens?
In her latest book, "Hallelujah! The Welcome Table" (Random House), Angelou reveals to readers what her close friends have known for some time: she is also an accomplished chef. Angelou still cooks her own daily meals, bakes biscuits with real shortening and eschews the guidance of today's popular low-carb diets. "If we took food as seriously as we should, we wouldn't worry about being obese," she says. We would respect it, and not abuse it." In "Hallelujah!" Angelou shares recipes and food-oriented vignettes, written in the exuberant tone of an impromptu dinner gathering. She took time out from the kitchen to chew the fat with NEWSWEEK's Karen Fragala. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What inspired you to write a food-oriented memoir?
Maya Angelou: I've long been fascinated with the role food plays in every culture. It can be used to welcome people, to send them away from you, to flirt with them, to try to find a good job, to get a promotion. You can bring warring sides together over food. You can have the greatest of times over food. And we take it for granted. I wanted to look at the human condition. What makes us laugh? What makes us calm down? How is food instrumental in building up self-esteem?
You are known as a great culinary talent in your own right, but are there any chefs you look up to?
I like John Thorne--I've never met him, but I like his cookbooks, I like what he has to say about food. I really like Bobby Flay particularly because he's serious enough not to take himself seriously, and he knows there's good fun in food. I like a woman named Jessica Harris who writes cookbooks. Back in the day, I loved M.F.K. Fisher because she wrote so well, and she cooked so well, too. I think Emeril [Lagasse] has a real flair about his cooking. He takes chances, and I like that--but he's not silly. If you really know food, respect the ingredients, and know what heat will do to it, you can imagine a dish. It's sort of like the great jazz musicians, who went to Julliard or Berklee. Because they understood the construct of music, they could take chances. That's true with cooks.
Do you still use recipes from cookbooks to prepare food, or do you work mostly from instinct or memory?
Sometimes I'll use a book. I made a navy bean soup yesterday. I had brought up a ham bone from North Carolina, and I was going to put some Italian herbs in it, but I also wanted to put in kielbasa, which has quite a bit of garlic itself. Navy beans have a flavor, but they can be very delicate. So I went scouring through cookbooks--I may have 100 here--to see if anyone would help me. Nobody did. But in the end [the soup] was very good.
There is a scene in the book in which your grandmother explains the importance of knowing how to cut up and use an entire pig--including the head. Have you ever had occasion to apply this knowledge?
Absolutely. I was in Ghana, married--more or less--to a man who held a very big position. One day, his driver ran over a hog, and he said, "Pick it up, and take it to Maya. She'll know what to do with it." So the men came into my house bringing an entire hog and put it on my kitchen counter. The perversity natural to my spirit would not allow me to do anything but cook it. So I got the people that worked for me and we gutted it. Then we cleaned it and singed it. I baked some and roasted some, and I put some out on the servants' side. I boiled some. I sent meat to the African-American community in Ghana. It makes me think of something my brother told me when I was about 10: "Learn everything you can. All knowledge is spendable currency, depending on the market."
I was struck by the line in your book, which says: "A respect for food and its preparation could obliterate distances between sexes, languages, oceans and continents." Could you elaborate on that?
A woman named Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor wrote a book called "Vibration Cooking," and she asked, "Why do people make such a big to-do over French food or Asian food or any food?" There's no mystique. Whether the food is cooked in Milan or Haifa or in Cairo, everybody eats. And people dealing with these ingredients and trying to make them come out fresh is the same as trying to write well. The writer comes along and has to take these most common of things--nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs--and put them together in such a way that they seem brand new. The really daring cook must be able to do that as well, but be so fluent in the materials that she or he can put potatoes and meat or fowl and vegetables together in such a way that people would say, "I've never tasted it like this before." It's a wonderful challenge.
Have you ever had a culinary venture turn out disastrously?
I had the fortune of being with a man once who had Lincoln Town Car taste and a homemade-beer wallet. He would tell me at the last minute, "I've invited eight people over for dinner." I might curse him under my breath, but I wouldn't say it aloud until after I cooked and served and the other people had left. I was trying to make a West African dish, not unlike red rice, my mother's dish. But I didn't really know how to do it. I half-cooked the chicken, and partially cooked the rice. I mixed them together, and I thought the heat of the rice would completely cook the rest of the chicken. When I served it, it was bloody. I tried to recover, but there was nothing I could do, and the people got up and left.
Throughout your book, you refer to various culinary traditions, such as the Southern Sunday dinner, and a special New Year's Eve get-together with friends. What are some of the culinary traditions that you practice today?
Biscuits. I like biscuits. I learned over the years to limit my intake to one. I use Canola oil when I have the chance to do so, but one thing I will not change is Crisco for the biscuits. They're better and lighter this way. On Sundays, I like to make biscuits in the house, especially when family or friends are house guests. That, with a big pot of coffee, good preserves and butter.
Your book has recipes for tripe, fried chicken and some very rich desserts. Have you made any adjustments to your diet in recent years?
I don't eat as much as I had eaten. I've trained myself not to eat sweets. I told myself I don't like them. The truth is I'd kill for a piece of chocolate cake or lemon meringue pie. But the factories are shutting down in my body, and they don't need the fuel they once needed. There are signs on the gates: NO WORK HERE. So I just don't fill my body with a lot of things it doesn't need to use.
You were at the forefront of a movement in the 1960s of African-Americans returning to Africa for a cultural and spiritual pilgrimage. Do you continue to follow the news coming out of Africa, particularly in reference to Darfur in Sudan?
Of course I have serious concerns. I am a firm believer that good done anywhere is good done everywhere. So while I can't physically have any say in the vulgarity and the cruelty that is taking place in the Sudan, I can do good in New York. I can maybe raise some money to help some good being done in other parts of the world. I take responsibility for the time I'm taking up and the space I occupy. When I'm in New York, I'm of use in New York.
It's amazing that you have been at the epicenter of three great social movements: Ghana in the early '60s, New York's Greenwich Village in the mid-'60s and Sonoma County, California, in the 1970s. Where do you think things are "happening" nowadays?
They're happening right here. These are perilous times, and New York City is a center of the world, a place for many of the movers and shakers. I don't think that the gathering clouds of war are always the best places to be--they are important places to be--but I also think that the hungers [that come with] peace also create an important place to be. And that might be someone's morning kitchen, making coffee, serving breakfast rolls.
You recited your poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. How are you feeling about this upcoming election?
I'm hopeful that the best person is elected. I would ask whoever is voted in to keep in mind that he is the president of the Latinos, of the poor whites in West Virginia and wherever else, of the blacks, of the Jews, of the growing Arab community. He is our president, whether we voted for him or not. The moment he is voted in, he becomes president of all America. And that means, just as all Americans are responsible to him, he is responsible to all Americans. I would love to see an end to the polarization, the "they and the we." I would love to see that.