Oct/Nov 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

Hallelujah! The Welcome Table

Review by Barbara Newton-Holmes

Hallelujah! The Welcome Table.
Maya Angelou.
Random House Trade. 2007. 240 pp.
ISBN 9780812974850.

Maya Angelou's Hallelujah! The Welcome Table is a celebration of family, friends and food. Originally published three years ago only in hardcover, it's now available in paperback. Subtitled "A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes," the book interweaves stories from Angelou's life, from school days in Arkansas to the social life of an international celebrity, with recipes evocative of the times. It's a great collection of American cooking, especially "down home" Southern dishes, providing family "hand-me-down" recipes to supplement or rival those from your own grandmother. Twenty-eight rich stories are associated with nearly seventy-five recipes that provide a range of dishes from rustic to sophisticated, from first to last courses.

A performer and film director, as well as autobiographer, Angelou recreates her memories of culinary associations with lyrical language, humor, and the perspective of a lifetime. They are told like short stories, often using dialogue to make them come alive before our eyes and ears, using language that reverberates with Angelou's own rich voice. In "Short Ribs ŕ la the Big Easy," she begins:

"Can you cook Creole?" I looked at the woman and gave her a lie as soft as melting butter. "Yes, of course. That's all I know how to cook."

Angelou tells how she learned to cook Creole overnight from old Papa Ford. "Back in 1943, when I first saw him at my mother's house in San Francisco, his good looks were as delicate as an old man's memory and disappointment rode his face bareback." But he'd been a chef on a Pullman dining car and a fry cook in the Merchant Marine Corps. He told her the basic ingredients of Creole cooking and she added these to her mother's recipe for short ribs of beef, which follows the story.

Another essay, "Pie Fishing," relates the story Angelou's grandmother (called "Momma" by Maya and her brother Bailey) always insisted upon telling before making her "unimaginably good" lemon meringue pie. Mrs. Townsend, the protagonist in the story, "was an old woman who had made it very clear that she loved young men." The pie was the ultimate entry on Mrs. Townsend's "Young-Man-Catching Sunday Afternoon Dinner" menu (all included in the book): chicken and dumplings, fried yellow summer squash, and green peas and lettuce. When made according to the recipe, the pie IS "unimaginably good," bearing no resemblance to the acid-yellow rubber that often passes for lemon meringue pie; it's light and gentle, tangy but not sour.

Other stories from Angelou's childhood include "The Assurance of Caramel Cake," "Momma's Grandbabies Love Cracklin' Cracklin'," "Potato Salad Towers Over Difficulties," "Liver to Grow On," "Recipes from Another Country," and "Independence Forever." Each one is associated with at least one recipe: a whole range of cakes, corn bread, beef stew, collard greens, potato salad, fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, mustard and turnip greens with smoked turkey wings, liver and onions, meat pies, and bread pudding.

Later stories reflect Angelou's travels and friendships with other famous people. They include recipes for the roasted turkey and corn bread stuffing that Angelou prepared while in Bellagio, Italy at a Rockefeller Foundation Study and Conference Center; a recipe for veal medallions and one for paté follow a stay in Paris, and an onion tart is associated with an evening in a London drawing room. We are given recipes for Decca's Chicken Drunkard Style (from Jessica Mitford), Dolly McPherson's Chicken Livers and Gravy, and a dish Oprah Winfrey called "Suffocated Chicken."

The recipes are all written simply, with uncomplicated ingredients, although some of them like crackling, tripe, and smoked turkey wings might require a specialty shop. This is no fad diet cookbook! There are eggs and butter, sugar and shortening, bacon, even lard—especially in the more traditional Southern American dishes. But the results are pure comfort food. This is, after all, a celebration of cooking and eating, not a prescription of how to eat every day. The index lists many key ingredients, as well as the titles, making it easier to find recipes for ingredients on hand or in season. For example, mushrooms figure in Beef Wellington, as well as Smothered Chicken and Veal Medallions.

Hallelujah! The Welcome Table is dedicated "to every wannabe cook who will dare criticism by getting into the kitchen and stirring up some groceries." Although aimed at beginner cooks, some recipes assume knowledge of basic kitchen skills, like cutting in shortening and cutting up a whole chicken. However, the thoughtful addition of mini-recipes provides instructions for making components that can be used in other recipes, such as caramelizing onions, bouquet garni, puffed pastry, and meringue.

Beautifully designed with plenty of photographs, Hallelujah! is a delicious addition to the shelf of any cook, whether a beginner or a seasoned chef.


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