Many people know Maya Angelou as a poet, civil rights activist and revealer of why caged birds sing. What fewer know about Angelou, who died yesterday at the age of 86, is that she was a passionate — and acclaimed — cook.
Like so many of us, she learned to cook at her grandmother’s knee. Raised by her grandmother in Arkansas until the age of 13, she was often sent into the garden to pick beans or potatoes. She would wash them in the well then deliver them to the kitchen, where her grandmother prepared them on a wood-burning stove.
“She would say ‘Now sit down, Sister, and watch me,’” Angelou told me during a 2009 interview. “It’s good to be able to say ‘my grandma, my grandpa.’ It just tells you that somebody’s there before you. The tradition of cooking and serving the breakfast, the main dinner, and even something light in the evening, like yogurt and cornbread, like my grandmother used to do, it tells me that I’ve come from somebody. It didn’t just start with me.”
Angelou reveled in real food, crown roasts and short ribs and fried meat pies, the hearty fare that feeds body and soul. But holidays were a time to put on the Ritz. She often spent Christmas with her close friends, the Motown artists Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, she told me, and was in charge of dessert. She loved to make a trifle, she said, building its colors and textures into a beautiful crystal bowl, or a caramel cake. “Generally something festive,” she said, “so I can show out.” Angelou published two cookbooks, “Hallalujah! The Welcome Table” (2004) and “Great Food, All Day Long,” (2010), both with Random House.
She took as much care with her cooking as with her writing. And to her they were similar exercises. You have to know the way a red pepper will act in hot oil, she said, as clearly as you know how a particular verb will behave in a sentence. She wielded the emotional value of a meal as deftly as she did the lines of her poems, considering each ingredient and its impact. And she often entered the kitchen with a fully formed vision.
“I plan meals not only for their nutritional value but for their beauty,” she said. “I plan them around who’s going to eat them and when. … I go into the market with the mind made up for really seeing the food already prepared on the table. That helps me choose the best for what I’m going to do.”
Just as she encouraged young poets to read poetry, to read it aloud and to hear its cadence, she advised novice cooks to read cookbooks. And not the fancy ones. She numbered her own collection somewhere around 300, she told me, and they ranged from the essays of MFK Fisher to the cookbooks she received at the supermarket for 89 cents after buying $200 worth of groceries.
It would be tempting to say Maya Angelou was a humble cook, but she struck me as no more humble about her cooking than about her writing. In interviews, she insisted on being addressed as “Dr. Angelou,” not “Maya,” not “Ms. Angelou.” But this doesn’t mean she was haughty. Rather, she seemed to me confident and strong and, more than anything, defiant. I dare you to take this from me, her manner seemed to say.
That trait comes through loud and clear in “And Still I Rise,” her powerful tribute to the human spirit. I thought I’d be clever and apply the title to her biscuits or her cornbread. But that would just be … wrong. So even though it has nothing to do with cooking, we wanted to share her reading of that poem here (and, yes, also a recipe for her crown roast of pork.) Thank you, Dr. Angelou. For everything.
Maya Angelou was at least as accomplished in the kitchen as she was on the page. She reveled in hearty, soul-nurturing fare, such as this crown roast. This recipe is adapted from her 2010 cookbook, "Great Food, All Day Long" (Random House).
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 3 apples, peeled, cored and cut into large dice
- 8 pitted prunes
- 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- 8 pounds pork ribs (ask butcher to trim into crown roast)
Prehat the oven to 375 F.
In a large skillet over low, heat the butter. Add the apples and prunes and saute for 3 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and set the prunes aside in a separate dish. Let cool.
In a small bowl, mix together the garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper and olive oil to form a paste. Rub the paste into the meat. Place the meat in a shallow roasting pan and roast for 30 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 F and roast for another 2 to 3 hours.
Remove the roast from the oven once the internal temperature reads 145 F on an instant thermometer.
Place a prune on the end of each rib and return the meat to the oven for 20 minutes.
Remove the meat from the oven. To serve, transfer the cooled apples into the center of the crown roast.