Essay

The Poet’s Table

Maya Angelou’s cookbooks are a rich part of her literary legacy.
Black and white photograph of Maya Angelou.

She gave her name as Rita Johnson, although that was a lie. She reasoned that her birth name, Marguerite, was too morose-sounding, and that her nickname, Maya, was too showy for a fry cook. Rita Johnson felt just right, especially because it conjured images of what she imagined to be Creole: hot peppers, flashing eyes, sweat-soaked evenings strumming guitars.

She didn’t know a thing about being Creole, but the proprietress of San Francisco’s Creole Café, Mrs. Dupree, needed someone who could COOK CREOLE. That’s what the cardboard sign outside the restaurant said anyway. Maya didn’t think she fit the bill until she read further: “SEVENTY-FIVE DOLLARS A WEEK.”

Well, then, it was settled. With a salary like that, she could cook Creole.

It was 1946, and the girl with the made-up name was just 17 years old. Her six-foot frame made her look older; she had given birth to a son, Guy, the year before. Mrs. Dupree’s face wrinkled with suspicion when Rita first approached. But the girl’s eagerness was impressive, as was her attitude, gutsy and confident beyond her years. Mrs. Dupree hired Rita on the spot.

Mrs. Dupree, a stout woman nearing 50, had rigid demands. Rita—“Reet,” as Mrs. Dupree called her—was to arrive at five in the morning six days a week, every day except Sunday. The thought terrified Rita. At five a.m., derelicts who hadn’t gone to bed the night before still roamed San Francisco, and the streetcars loomed like empty shells in the fog. She thought she could brave the commute; all she had to do now was learn how to cook Creole.

In truth, all she could cook was rice, albeit so thoroughly that each grain separated and stood pert. What little she knew about cooking she’d learned from Papa Ford, the houseman in her mother’s 14-room boarding house on Post Street. In a past life, before his job distributing fresh linen to the building’s lodgers, Papa Ford had been a chef on rickety Pullman dining cars and a fry cook in the Merchant Marine Corps. Rita asked him to teach her how to cook Creole.

“Colored women been cooking so long, thought you’d be tired of it by now,” he told her. She had an education. Why would she want to cook? She pressed him, and he eventually relented: Anyone can cook Creole, he explained. Just dump onions, celery, green peppers, garlic, tomatoes, and red chili pepper into a pot.

Rita’s first few weeks at the Creole Café were tense. She approached cooking the way a determined toddler might approach a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle. Mrs. Dupree scribbled the daily menu on a note stuck to the steam table—menus that Rita came to regard as recommendations rather than edicts. She heeded Papa Ford’s advice and developed her own style through sheer repetition. She realized that “Salisbury steak” was just a hamburger with Creole sauce; she followed her mother’s foolproof formula for spare ribs but smothered them in what she had come to know as Creole flavors.

Cooking went from being a dense, algebraic process to something Rita could do with her eyes half-open. Soon enough, she decided how many bay leaves to put in the steamed Shreveport tripe without consulting Mrs. Dupree. As she grew more accustomed to the rhythms of the kitchen, her attention drifted to the diners in the restaurant. Most were light-skinned Creoles from Louisiana, their French patois nearly indecipherable to Rita’s green ears. These patrons sat and talked for hours after finishing their meals. The people who came in appreciated her cooking. Mrs. Dupree was pleased; her “Reet” was drawing business.

Working the kitchen eased somewhat Rita’s burden of raising her young son. Seventy-five dollars a week in 1946 was equivalent to nearly a thousand dollars a week in 2018. She wasn’t necessarily happy; life was still hard. But she could stuff her pockets with bills and take care of her son. “I may not have been happy,” she later wrote. “I was content.” Papa Ford remained skeptical. “Still don’t like you working as a goddamn cook,” he told her. “Get married. Then you don’t have to cook for nobody but your own family.”

***

Maybe the memory of Papa Ford’s reproach cycled through her head some six decades later when Marguerite Annie Johnson, the woman Mrs. Dupree had known as Rita Johnson, and whom the world had come to know as Maya Angelou, published her second cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart. It appeared in 2010, when she was 82 years old.

“I know some people might think it odd—unworthy even—for me to have written a cookbook,” Angelou told the Guardian in November of 2011. “But I make no apologies.”

Angelou had long thought of poetry as a public service, and of herself as the “people’s poet.” Her work earned international renown, a shelf of honorary degrees, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination, among many other accolades. Her autobiographies, particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), remain staples of high school curricula. Despite Angelou’s celebrity and the critical scrutiny of her work, her cookbooks are treated as afterthoughts. Perhaps she anticipated such neglect when she told the Guardian, “Writing and cookery are just two different means of communication. Indeed, I feel cooking is a natural extension to my autobiography.”

Angelou’s cookbooks are candid and confessional, and occasionally bruising in their frankness. She turns a story about buying beef liver in Stamps, Arkansas, into a reflection on navigating the world as a young Black girl. Obtaining the liver that her grandmother needed to make liver and onions demanded that Angelou trek to the other side of town, the “white part of town,” where she and her older brother, Bailey, were “explorers walking without weapons into man-eating animals’ territory.” She considered the white zone a “frozen tundra” that didn’t welcome her, a far cry from the predominantly Black neighborhood where she lived and “where every house seemed to sing ‘Welcome.’”

As revealing as these anecdotes are, Angelou knew that some critics considered cooking, or even writing about food, as beneath her gifts. She was accustomed to such judgment. In 2002, when she began writing poems for Hallmark greeting cards, then-poet laureate Billy Collins admonished her. “I think it’s preposterous,” he told the Associated Press. “It lowers the understanding of what poetry actually can do.” The Hallmark cards even inspired a Saturday Night Live send-up starring Tracy Morgan as Angelou, suggesting that many readers who otherwise revered her felt she was debasing her talent.

It was no different with cookbooks. Although several rungs above a greeting card in the cultural hierarchy, cookbooks aren’t always considered literature, even today. They’re seen as utilitarian, rote, glorified instruction manuals. Despite the popularity of food writers such as the late Anthony Bourdain, and the success of publications including Saveur, Modern Farmer, and the now-defunct Lucky Peach, some regressive critics still see writing about cooking as fundamentally unserious work, or worse, as the frivolous activity of women restricted to the home. The prolific food writer Nigella Lawson sums up this attitude: “There’s a reason why the home cook has always been seen as a lesser creature: traditionally, chefs had been male and paid; home cooking was ‘women’s work,’ unwaged and taken for granted, sentimentally prized but not essentially valued or respected.”

But Angelou’s two cookbooks are distinctly her own, and radiate the poet’s voice. She was 76 when she published the first, Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes (2004). The book’s 73 recipes are interspersed with anecdotes that buoy readers between the torments and the triumphs of Angelou’s life. Chapters have titles such as “Good Banana, Bad Timing” and “M.J. and the Doctor and Mexican Food.” Although the mini-narratives that introduce each recipe last barely more than three pages, they pack emotional wallops.

In writing about caramel cake, a dessert so extraordinary that Angelou spells its name in capital letters, she relates the following story: When she was seven years old, her mother’s boyfriend raped her, an act that traumatized her into muteness. She stopped speaking to everyone but her brother Bailey. In the classroom, she worked around her silence by writing on blackboards. Most of her teachers were sympathetic, but one, Miss Williams, wasn’t having it. “You will talk in my classroom,” Williams told Angelou on the first day of school after the latter tried to introduce herself by scratching her name on the blackboard. “Speak, speak!” Williams howled. Angelou refused. Enraged, Miss Williams struck the girl’s cheek.

When Angelou ran home, her grandmother, whom she called Momma, asked why she was crying. Angelou grabbed the nearest notebook and scribbled, Miss Williams slapped me because I wouldn’t talk. Momma marched back to the school with Angelou and slapped Miss Williams across the face. At the end of that day, a fresh caramel cake sat on the kitchen table. Her Uncle Willie told her that a cake couldn’t necessarily compensate for being slapped in the face, but it could do its part.

Other narratives are less disquieting but still hint at Angelou’s deep resolve. In the 1970s, when she and her husband Paul du Feu moved from Berkeley, California, to Sonoma, Angelou assigned herself the task of cooking a meal for her friend Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, better known as M. F. K. Fisher, the food writer whose work cast such a long shadow that the discipline is still trying to shake off her influence. Angelou decided to make a cassoulet that night, a slow-cooked casserole native to the South of France that Angelou made with pea beans, garlic sausage, roasted duck, and chicken. The choice raised eyebrows among her friends, who thought it was like serving fast food to Julia Child.

But Fisher enjoyed the meal and regaled Angelou with stories of how her reputation as a fabulous cook deprived her of the pleasures of more straightforward meals. She was dying to taste a hamburger cooked at home, she confided, or an omelet. The following week, Fisher wrote to Angelou that it was the “first honest cassoulet” she’d eaten in years.

Although cooking played a central role throughout Angelou’s life, very few of her poems deal explicitly with food. The most notable is the satirical “The Health-Food Diner,” written in 1983, in which Angelou writes without remorse of all the food she craves despite what health trends advise: “No sprouted wheat and soya shoots / And Brussels in a cake, / Carrot straw and spinach raw, / (Today, I need a steak).” Angelou treats these parentheticals as droll asides, and as opportunities to declare her most unabashed hungers: “Turnips mashed and parsnips hashed / (I’m dreaming of a roast).”

There is otherwise little overt thematic similarity between Angelou’s poetry and her cookbook writing. What binds the two is Angelou’s stylistic directness and economy of language. At its most agile, Angelou’s poetry toggles between emotional registers, often with surprising insouciance: “Food is gone, the rent is due, / Curse and cry and then jump two,” she writes in 1971’s “Harlem Hopscotch.”

Likewise, Angelou writes with supple wryness in her cookbooks. Great Food, All Day Long contains an entertaining passage in which she confesses her lifelong devotion to hot dogs. She writes specifically of her love for a Hebrew National wiener pricked with a fork, broiled, and split down the middle before being schmeared with a tablespoon of chili that had been stored in the freezer for weeks. “At that moment I will not only not answer the telephone, I will not respond, even if my name is called by someone who knows me well,” she writes.

One could read Angelou’s food writing as an extension of her self-appointed project as the people’s poet. A recipe—and the backstory behind it—can pack a punch as bracing and as uncompromising as her verse. At first blush, a caramel cake may suggest comfort and light decadence, a harmless indulgence. Angelou subverts those connotations by attaching the recipe to a memory of violence: the account of her childhood rape, its resulting trauma, and its cycles of humiliation.

She accomplishes a similar feat in an early chapter from Hallelujah, titled “Recipes from Another Country,” in which she spins a recipe for wilted lettuce into a story of racial division. She writes of her grandmother’s dislike of the Lafayette County Democrat during Angelou’s childhood in Arkansas, a newspaper that her grandmother dismissed as “written by white folks, about white folks, for white folks.” Hiding in the women’s pages one day was a recipe for wilted lettuce, served with crisp bacon slices and a medley of green onions, sugar, salt, vinegar, water, and black pepper cooked in bacon fat. Angelou’s grandmother was baffled by the very existence of this recipe. “I have to buy ice to make my lettuce crisp up, and here is a recipe for wilted lettuce,” she quipped.

Her grandmother made the dish anyway, and as Angelou ate it the next day, she wondered what a white woman on the other side of town would think about a Black family enjoying the recipe. “Would she think that a black grandmother was feeding her grandchildren the same dish she was offering to her privileged family?” Angelou asked herself. “Would she resent the grandmother or just shrug her shoulders and say, ‘Let them help themselves?’ I’d like to think she shrugged.” (Here, as elsewhere in her cookbooks, Angelou accomplishes a basic but crucial task of food writing: She makes the reader hungry.)

In an interview with Newsweek in 2004, Angelou said that she’d long been interested in a food memoir because of her own fascination with how food influences human behavior: “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.” Angelou wrote her first cookbook at the urging of friends who relished her food: the “hog head cheese” made from pig’s feet, pig’s ears, and pork roast, sliced and served liked pâté. The fried chicken she served Oprah Winfrey one morning was covered with onions, mushroom, garlic, and chicken broth. Winfrey called it “suffocated chicken.” (Angelou dedicates Hallelujah! to “O, who said she wanted a big, pretty cookbook. Well, honey, here you are.”) Some of the recipes were inherited; others, Angelou created herself.

Cooking seems to have had a therapeutic effect for Angelou. It was a way for her to soothe herself during the hell of writer’s block. If her attempts to complete a piece of writing revealed herself as a fraud in her own mind, she distanced herself from those anxieties by making six chocolate eclairs with whipped cream and custard, a process that took all night. The poor eclairs ballooned to the size of large cigars once she put them in the oven, and correcting her mistakes required painful revolutions of trial and error—a pursuit that carried her into morning.

“She was looking for a good venue to promote these recipes,” says chef Don McMillan, a friend of Angelou’s who worked as a recipe tester for both of her cookbooks. The two met in 1986 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where McMillan owns and operates a cooking school and a culinary retail store where Angelou was a frequent customer. Until Angelou’s death in 2014, McMillan regularly visited her home to cook with her. She had his cell phone number; he had her on speed dial.

Angelou spent just under eight months writing Hallelujah!, according to McMillan. The extent of Angelou’s food writing before this was penning the foreword to British-Guyanese food writer Rosamund Grant’s cookbook Caribbean and African Cookery (1988). “When Rosamund Grant invites us to join her Caribbean feasts we can almost hear reggae, sitar, and Spanish music,” Angelou writes. “I like this kind of writing and I like this kind of invitation.”

As she did with all of her other books, Angelou wrote the manuscript of Hallelujah! by hand on a yellow legal pad, according to her administrative assistant, Patricia Casey, who helped typeset the pages. Casey’s involvement in both cookbooks was mostly limited to transcription, although Angelou occasionally called on her to function as a guinea pig for recipes. “I had never had a cake with caramel icing before,” Casey says. “And I have never tasted one similar since.”

According to McMillan, “The first cookbook was based much on her life experiences. The second cookbook was pretty much based on adapting recipes that would be available at a lower calorie count but still with a lot of flavor.” To call Great Food, All Day Long a dieting book would be inaccurate (“I cannot assure that these recipes will reduce the reader’s size,” Angelou warns in the acknowledgments), but it’s a book that emphasizes portion control, insisting that one can find gratification in just a few bites and ration leftovers into four meals. Angelou had a special fondness for food writers “who were gourmets but not gourmands.” She’d always been a conscious eater—a virulent seafood allergy made her wary of where she could eat when she traveled to coastal cities like New Orleans—but later in life she became ever more mindful.

“I’m not sure what she taught me about cooking, but when it came to eating, she taught me about moderation,” says food historian Jessica Harris, a friend of Angelou’s who knew the poet so intimately that she wasn’t required to use the otherwise mandatory honorific “Dr. Angelou.” The two met in the 1970s, and Harris has vivid memories of the first meal Angelou cooked for her. It happened in Angelou’s open plan kitchen in Sonoma, where the scent of burning lavender choked the air, and Angelou made her twelve-boy curry. The “boys” that night included chopped peanuts and chutney.

On this occasion, Harris recalls, Angelou elevated cooking to a performance, with a shimmy here and a shake there. “It was a whole new form of dinner theater: a bravura performance calculated to astonish and delight,” she wrote in the New York Times the week after Angelou died. “I was captivated, and from then on remained in her thrall.”

Although Harris was initially starstruck by Angelou, the two women expressed mutual respect. Angelou listed Harris among the food writers who influenced her own food writing, alongside Fisher, Elizabeth David, Margaret Visser, and Jacques Pépin. The two also shared meals in the decades after they met, and belonged to a social circle that included such Black cultural luminaries as James Baldwin, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, Louise Meriwether, Toni Morrison, and Nina Simone.

In the week after Angelou’s death in May 2014, Harris wondered why so few writers paid tribute to Angelou’s talents in the kitchen and praised instead her poetry, plays, and memoirs. As Harris noted in the Times, Angelou’s talent for cooking barely rated a mention in the food world. Sure, she baked her caramel cake with Martha Stewart on national television, and her recipe for smothered chicken later appeared in Oprah Winfrey’s own cookbook, Food, Health and Happiness (2017). But the only notable obituary to appear in a food publication was published online at Eater. “It was another valence to the many things she did,” Harris says of Angelou’s cookbooks. “Cooking expressed another of her many loves.”

In her Times piece, Harris writes that Angelou excelled at “traditional African-American foods” that honored the traditions she’d known her whole life, foods that nodded to the history that created them. “The slow-cooked country dishes of her youth were not just the soul-nourishing fare that she occasionally craved,” Harris wrote. “She also delighted in the fact that they also represented tradition, history, connectedness.”

Angelou saw the democratic possibilities in food. That’s evident in a passage from Hallelujah!, in which she recalls how she and the writer Rosa Guy interpreted souse, a dish made from pig parts whose meaning varies wildly depending on where it’s made in the world. Angelou’s souse—anchored in traditions from Arkansas—is a bricklike loaf some may call “hog head cheese,” a mash of pig’s feet, pig ears, and pork roast that’s served like pâté. Guy’s version was entirely different, a staunchly Trinidadian bowl of pickled pig’s feet. The two women made their respective souses for a New Year’s Eve party in the 1950s and, initially, didn’t recognize each other’s dishes as souse. They nearly collapsed in laughter over their misunderstanding. “When a person relished my dish, I would look over to Rosa and smirk,” Angelou writes. “Each time [Guy’s] souse received a compliment, she would all but stick out her tongue at me.” If Angelou’s poetry often reckoned with her own heritage (particularly works such as “Still I Rise,” “The Mothering Blackness,” and “Kin,”), then she saw food as rooted in the traditions and culture of her past, too.

Angelou’s cookbooks shouldn’t be read in isolation from her larger body of work or treated as sidelines to her poetry. They offer further evidence of her literary style, unflinching in their humor and pathos. While her food writing may have been a more roundabout way to function as the people’s poet, Angelou treated a recipe, as she treated her poems, as a means to earn trust. “The reader has to believe what the writer is saying or else the book has failed,” she told the Guardian in 2011. “The same applies to cooking; if there is no integrity to the recipes, no one will trust them.”

Originally Published: November 19th, 2018

Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food writer based in New York.