The following is a lovely tribute to Maya Angelou written by Grace Fiandaca
Maya Angelou’s recent passing has generated a lot of well-deserved tributes to her courage, her creativity and her generous and loving spirit. These qualities found expression in her life and work in a variety of ways, but most notably as a poet, memoirist, teacher and storyteller.
In her private life, she was known for her culinary skills and her love for entertaining. She combined these in her cookbook, Hallelujah! The Welcome Table—a Lifetime of Memories with Recipes, in which she relates stories from her life in vignettes, each one centered around various dishes, followed by the corresponding recipes. But it is the synergy of cooking, of sharing a meal and of storytelling that are the real “recipes” in Maya Angelou’s cookbook.
Nearly a decade ago, I received this wonderful book as a Christmas gift and a few short weeks later, my family added its own story to one of her recipes. My teenage son was spending the weekend at his dad’s house and my daughter, a college student at the time, was living near the university. It was my husband’s birthday and we anticipated having a weekend to ourselves. We spent the morning at a local farmer’s market and returned home, only to find my fiercely independent daughter curled up on our couch wrapped in her favorite childhood blanket that she had retrieved from the back of our linen closet.
Needless to say, we were taken aback. When we rushed to her to find out what was wrong, she cried her way through her story of how she had dropped in on her boyfriend of four years that morning, only to find him in the arms of another woman. It was a no-brainer for both of us that our weekend plans had changed. The only thing on our agenda was trying to shore up her broken heart.
Saturday night the three of us stayed up late watching her favorite old movies. When my husband grew tired and announced he was going to bed, I wished I could follow suit, but I knew I couldn’t rest until my daughter was ready to drift off to a peaceful sleep. She was a night owl and I figured she was probably just getting her second wind.
But my martyrdom was going to require more from me than slouching on the couch staring at a TV screen. Her thoughts had turned to sweets and she suggested we bake something. Not being much of a baker, I wasn’t too enthusiastic, but I grabbed my new cookbook anyhow. We leafed through it until we landed on the chocolate éclair recipe; it was an easy decision.
Neither of us had ever tried to bake éclairs, but that didn’t stop us. We worked together to make the filling, icing and shells, all from scratch. It was a long, messy process and hours past midnight by the time we finished. The éclairs had an unconventional look to them and the kitchen was a disaster. But the first taste test revealed that we had whipped up some melt-in-your-mouth scrumptious goodies.
We felt exhilarated by our success and by the enjoyment we experienced working together. Also, while caught up in the fun and challenge of baking, my daughter’s attention shifted away from her broken heart for a while—clearly a good sign. Of course, her heart wasn’t completely mended that night, but she was off to a good start down that long road, and our baking adventure remains a sweet memory. (It was just a few months later when she met a wonderful young man, who became part of our family when they married five years ago.)
As a writer and longtime fan of Maya Angelou, I was thrilled to find myself standing in front of her several months later, cookbook in hand. After she autographed my book, I blurted out my story about her chocolate éclair recipe. She nodded in that knowing way a woman does for whom heartbreak is familiar territory. She bestowed on me her radiant smile and I imagined it was over the age-old wisdom revealed in this moment of grace we shared, of women connecting through tales of heartbreak and of how healing happens around the baking of bread and in the sharing of a meal.
Whether or not that’s what she thought, I’ll never know. But I do know she led by example, challenging us to dive more deeply into our own stories, so that we might widen our embrace for those of others.