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The Poetry of Cooking: Maya Angelou, ‘Great Food, All Day Long’

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Maya Angelou gives aspiring poets and cooks the same advice: “Plan every movement. Give yourself a lot of time and always forgive yourself.” This year, the literary luminary will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for filling libraries with weighty poetry and prose, but her latest project is considerably lighter.

In “Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart” ($30, Random House), she shares her healthy, homespun dishes.

Why did you decide to start writing cookbooks?
Oh, I’m a cook! I’m a serious cook. A few days ago, someone interviewing me said, “So, you’re a chef?” and I said, “No, I’m not a chef. A chef is someone who cooks to be compensated.” I cook to be compensated by the smiles of family and the laughs of my friends.

What do meals mean to you?
In a wonderful way, mealtime is almost the most intimate time that people have together. Of course, when one is making love with someone one loves, with a beloved, that’s the most intimate. But the next most intimate time is when a person has gone shopping for the freshest produce, the finest-looking chicken or beef or fish, and came home to prepare it in the best possible way, and then presented it beautifully and sat down to eat it with a beloved — that is extremely intimate.

Has the idea of dinnertime changed in this country?
I think we dropped the ball somewhere. We’ve raised a generation of young folks who have their major meals at counters. At McDonald’s, Burger King and even at the counters in their own homes. We’re losing something so important, and it will change America. It will change who we are to ourselves and to each other and to the world.

Is cooking like writing poetry?
Yes, cooking is like writing poetry, but it’s also like building a house. You want the best ingredients. When you’re writing a poem, you hope to have a good vocabulary, and to choose the nouns and pronouns and verbs carefully. The way you put them together will determine how they affect another person. And it’s really because you’ve been careful in the choice of your ingredients and respectful of how they work together. That’s true of all the efforts in life.

Is there a meal that’s particularly poetic?
Oh, I don’t know — it depends on who’s eating or who’s preparing it and what time of day it is. But I’ll say this: Somebody made the rule that you have eggs for breakfast, a sandwich at lunch and a steak at dinner. That’s ridiculous. If you get up in the morning and want a bowl of chili, I think that’s what you should have. That can be romantic.

You’ve lived in so many places. How has regional food affected your style of cooking?
I’m respectful of the men and women cooking those things in their way. We all eat the same things all over the world: flour, corn, millet, meat and vegetables and fish. People prepare the foods in different ways, but I like the idea that I’m a human being — nothing human can be alien to me. We make a mistake in thinking there’s a mystique. What we should do, what I try to do is have respect.

Favorite recipe?
I love pears poached in port. They’re nice because the next morning you can have half of a pear, and they’re just so cool and refreshing. And since there’s port mixed in, it makes people think they’re being a little wild.

You love leftovers. Any favorites?
I love hash. If I’ve had a roast prime rib, I make a hash. I like one-pot meals. Sometimes there are those folks who don’t want to eat leftovers, but there are ways to prepare leftovers so that the diner doesn’t think it’s the original recipe.

Any advice for novice cooks?
I encourage a novice cook to read a recipe carefully. Put everything that goes into the recipe out on the counter … and plan every movement.

Recipe File: Pears in Port Wine
4 ripe, firm pears
3 cups Ruby Port wine
1/4 cup sugar
1 jigger (3 tablespoons)
Cointreau
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Serves 4
Peel the pears, but leave them whole. With the stem end intact, cut off a thin slice at the bottom so that the pears can stand upright.

In a nonreactive saucepan, bring the Port, sugar and 2 cups of water to a boil.
Place the whole pears in the liquid, lower the heat, and simmer uncovered for about 35 minutes, turning the pears occasionally, until they are tender.

Remove pears with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Increase the heat under the saucepan and reduce the liquid by half by boiling vigorously for 20 minutes to a medium-thick syrup. Add the Cointreau and vanilla.
Place the pears upright in a serving dish and spoon the reduced syrup over them. Chill for at least two hours before serving.

Serving size: One pear, or if one-half pear will satisfy, offer vanilla ice cream at the first serving.

Recipe courtesy Maya Angelou

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