Jessica B. Harris is a food historian, an English professor at Queens College and author of 12 cookbooks on the food of the African Diaspora.
I remember the first time I was in the kitchen with Maya Angelou. It happened in Sonoma, Calif., some 40 years ago. A mutual friend had been invited to spend a week, and I trailed along. Angelou maintained a home in that Mediterranean-looking town of red tile roofs in the wine country, complete with a guest suite in which we were comfortably ensconced. At dinnertime we walked up to the main house.
The kitchen had an open plan, with a fireplace in the dining area, and I remember her burning lavender in a fire shovel, which perfumed the entire space in an aromatic prelude to what was to come.
Then it was time to cook; the meal was a 12-boy curry. She explained that the dish, a British colonial curry, was named for the number of servants who would carry the condiments to the table; the more boys, the more prestigious the curry.
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I do not remember all of the 12 condiments (or if in fact there were 12), but they ranged from chopped peanuts to Major Grey’s chutney. I do not remember the tastes of the food, only that they were richly varied and deeply satisfying.
What I do recall is the preparation. Her cooking was a virtuoso presentation that was part monologue, part dance routine, totally engaging and absolutely fascinating. There was a snippet of a song from a musical comedy at one point, a twist and a boogie at another and a flourish or two as a spice was added. It was a whole new form of dinner theater: a bravura performance calculated to astonish and delight. I was captivated, and from then on remained in her thrall.
In the days since Angelou died last week at 86, much has been written about her poetry, plays and memoirs, but little about her skills as an accomplished cook, cookbook writer and home entertainer (in both senses of the word). At that first meal I had yet to start my own career as a food historian, but I got an early glimpse of her deep love and understanding of food, and how passionately she enjoyed sharing it.
Over the years there were many other memorable meals in New York: dinners at Paparazzi, an East Side restaurant run by her manager; house parties in large apartments on the West Side; takeout from El Faro in the West Village; and home-cooked fare at the apartments of friends and members of a group that included Jimmy Baldwin, Paule Marshall, Louise Meriwether, Rosa Guy, Nina Simone and Toni Morrison.
After the 1970s and ’80s, I was never again in the center of her life in that way, but rather a constant on the periphery. Increasingly, though, we bonded over our love of good food, good cooking and the culture that is carried therein. So I was in no way surprised in 2004, when she wrote her first cookbook, “Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes,” that it mixed recipes and recounting. In print, it replicated the astonishing performance I had seen decades earlier.
Gourmet without being gourmand, she became conscious of her weight in later years. When I sit to table, I always remember her advice on dieting.
“I take a bite or two of something,” she said. “Then I say to myself, ‘Now I know what that tastes like, I don’t have to devour it all.’ ” It’s excellent advice, but requires amazing self-discipline.
Until the end, she retained a questing curiosity about culinary cultures. Despite a virulent seafood allergy, she loved eating in restaurants where she knew she was safe. She had traveled the world and retained many of its flavors in her taste buds. She cooked recipes from all over, not only items from her vast collection of cookbooks but also her own dishes, created from loving the way two ingredients combined, the way a spice set off a meat or vegetable, or simply the coordinated colors that they formed on the plate.
She especially excelled at traditional African-American foods. The slow-cooked country dishes of her youth were not just the soul-nourishing fare that she occasionally craved; she also was delighted that they also represented tradition, history, connectedness.
Dr. Angelou (her preferred appellation) loved entertaining large groups or small. Her larder was always prepared for a party, and she was the kind of cook who knew just how to put things together, effortlessly entertaining with stories and tall tales while the cooking went on. Her house in Winston-Salem, N.C., was vast, and her pride was its formal dining room and the enormous outdoor entertainment area, in which she joyously hosted gatherings with frequency. Her annual Thanksgiving celebration there was legendary.
She also regaled her wide circle of friends in New York with an annual New Year’s Day feast for which she cooked all of the traditional items: black-eyed peas, ham, roast chicken, greens, rice, candied sweet potatoes and more. For several years I made a point of attending, but I had never been to visit in North Carolina; I was just more comfortable with our one-to-one relationship and content with my spot at the margins of her life.
This year, though, an engagement took me to a conference in Greensboro, and I skipped many of the sessions to visit her in Winston-Salem. She was seated at her kitchen table dressed in a brightly hued African dress; there was a stack of clipped New York Times crossword puzzles at her right hand, an open book and a yellow pad of paper at her left, and her often-present glass of Scotch within easy reach.
Although tethered to the oxygen machine that had been her constant for years, she remained imperious and imperial: the phenomenal woman at home. It was lunchtime, and she felt like having chicken salad. Small bowls appeared, the mise en place for the salad: chicken stripped from the carcass, minced celery, a bit of minced onion, mayonnaise, salt and pepper.
She parsed them out, mixed them together, tested and tasted, verifying flavor and consistency. It was missing something, she decided — mustard. The appropriate mustard was produced and added, a final taste was made and it was pronounced ready and served up.
It was perfection. It was lunch. It was our last meal together.
“THE HEALTH-FOOD DINER”
By Maya Angelou
No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).
Not thick brown rice and rice pilaw
Or mushrooms creamed on toast,
Turnips mashed and parsnips hashed,
(I’m dreaming of a roast).
Health-food folks around the world
Are thinned by anxious zeal,
They look for help in seafood kelp
(I count on breaded veal).
No smoking signs, raw mustard greens,
Zucchini by the ton,
Uncooked kale and bodies frail
Are sure to make me run
Loins of pork and chicken thighs
And standing rib, so prime,
Pork chops brown and fresh ground round
(I crave them all the time).
Irish stews and boiled corned beef
and hot dogs by the scores,
or any place that saves a space
For smoking carnivores.
Reprinted from “Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?” (1983) by permission of Random House.