Angelou tells us about the time she was expelled from school for being afraid to speak–and her mother baked a delicious maple cake to brighten her spirits. She gives us her recipe for short ribs along with a story about a job she had as a cook at a Creole restaurant (never mind that she didn’t know how to cook and had no idea what Creole food might entail). There was the time in London when she attended a wretched dinner party full of wretched people; but all wasn’t lost–she did experience her initial taste of a savory onion tart. She recounts her very first night in her new home in Sonoma, California, when she invited M. F. K. Fisher over for cassoulet, and the evening Deca Mitford roasted a chicken when she was beyond tipsy–and created Chicken Drunkard Style. And then there was the hearty brunch Angelou made for a homesick Southerner, a meal that earned her both a job offer and a prophetic compliment: “If you can write half as good as you can cook, you are going to be famous.”
Maya Angelou is renowned in her wide and generous circle of friends as a marvelous chef. Her kitchen is a social center. From fried meat pies, chicken livers, and beef Wellington to caramel cake, bread pudding, and chocolate éclairs, the one hundred-plus recipes included here are all tried and true, and come from Angelou’s heart and her home. Hallelujah! The Welcome Table is a stunning collaboration between the two things Angelou loves best: writing and cooking.
This cookbook combines 28 vignettes (they could be called short stories or flashes of memory, too) centered around a particular recipe or meal menu, often connected to a friend or family member that made an impression on Angelou at some point in her life. The cookbook progresses from her younger years growing up in her grandmother’s store to learning to cook Creole cuisine out of absolute necessity to recollections from later years and mentoring relationships. It’s a story of a life, food and how it helps people to interact and connect with each other, and how cooking and hospitality can be used to understand the human condition.
The prose sections are easily the best part of this cookbook. Angelou offers a variety of experiences and stories: some poignant, some funny, others tragic, courageous, homey and inspiring. The selection is superb and ranges the entire emotional spectrum, much of the twentieth century, and geography that varies from the American South to Europe to California and back. It's a window into Angelou's extraordinary life and experience as an African-American woman, artist and academic. She lived, and wrote beautifully about it.
The food doesn’t sound half-bad, either (see: understatement, definition of). There’s a mix here of southern comfort food, Cajun, traditional American classics and French fare. It’s a combination born of a lifetime of moving, settling in somewhere new, and adapting to a changing world and new friends. The recipes themselves are focused on main courses and sides suitable for lunch or dinner, and a few desserts. It’s not very vegetarian-friendly or health-conscious, though there is one section at the end dedicated to vegetarian recipes.
I tried two recipes: Crackling Corn Bread (Maya’s grandmother’s recipe, which she claimed was better than other peoples’ Sunday cake), and Pickled Peaches. The peaches were a success! Different than anything I’ve ever made before, in a good way. They’d be perfect served with (regular) cornbread, chicken, and green beans. The Crackling Corn Bread… was a flop. I think this may have been due to my source of cracklings (chicharrones) more than the recipe itself. It did smell amazing while it was baking! But here, have the recipe that worked:
6 medium nearly ripe peaches, peeled and pitted
3/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 cup orange juice
1 tablespooon whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
Put peaches in large post, add sugar, salt, vinegar, juice, cloves, and cinnamon sticks, and cover with water. Boil for 30 minutes. Take off stove, and let cool. Put in refrigerator in its own liquid. Discard cinnamon and cloves. Serve cold.
One downside (if you want to call it that) of the cookbook is that the recipes have few “fine” directions. For example: Water necessary for the recipe isn’t listed in the ingredients section. There aren’t any warnings like “do not overstir,” no mention of how many minutes to mix, or how fine to chop the ingredients. The recipes are clearly meant to be more of a guide than precise chemistry. If you’re the kind of cook who interprets things loosely and puts their own spin on recipes, this method will suit you down to the ground.
Hallelujah! is a treasure of a book, whether you try the recipes or not. It’s worth owning for Angelou’s stories alone, though the food sounds mouth-watering as well.
Recommended for: anyone who likes good food and a story well-told, and especially anyone interested in food culture and the American South.
Interested in other food-related posts? Check out Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking!