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Maya Angelou Through the Lens of Food

Maya Angelou Through the Lens of Food

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Circa 1994

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Circa 1994

Queen mother and poet Maya Angelou died on Wednesday. She was born in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri but lived in two worlds: urban black St Louis which she described as “a gold-rush town” with speak easies, gambling joints, and houses of prostitution and Stamps, Arkansas a country town with a saw mill, cotton, gin, and lots of farm land. Angelou's seven autobiographies and cook books demonstrate she had a serious interest in food. In St. Louis she Grandma Baxter made her mark and a good deal of money in part as a well connected political boss peddling votes in exchange for favors. Her Arkansas grandmother, a cook and country store owning entrepreneur, also did well. The urban and rural worlds that Angelou grew up in makes for some interesting contrasts. For example, in Stamps she tells us that we harvested peanuts “raw from the field and roasted [them] in the bottom of the oven on cold nights. The rich scents used to fill the house and we were always expected to eat too many. But that was a Stamps custom” Angelou recalls. “In St. Louis, peanuts were brought in paper bags and mixed with jelly beans, which meant that we ate the salt and sugar together and I found them a delicious treat.” Portuguese slave traders introduced many South American plants to the coast of West and Central Africa including peanuts before the 19th century. Overtime African farmers incorporated the plant into their fields and cooks into their meals. 

Chicken and Peanut Stew


1/2 cup cornmeal

Salt and freshly ground pepper

One 3 1/2 -pound chicken (or vegan chicken substitute) cut into 8 pieces, rinsed and patted dry

1/4 cup canola oil

2 small onions, coarsely chopped

1 jalapeño--stemmed, seeded and minced

1 cup water

1/2 cup white wine vinegar

1/2 cup raw peanuts (2 1/2 ounces)

8 unpeeled garlic cloves

1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1 1/2 -inch chunks

1 1/2 pounds long thin eggplants, sliced crosswise 1 1/2 inches thick

2 small yellow squash, sliced crosswise 1 1/2 inches thick

1 bunch scallions cut into 2-inch lengths


Bread the chicken with cornmeal, salt, and pepper. Fry chicken in a large skillet or casserole until golden brown and transfer it a large platter. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat and add the onions and jalapeño and cook over low heat until just softened. Add the water, vinegar, peanuts and garlic, season with salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Return the chicken, cover, and simmer over low heat until tender and cooked through, around 45 minutes. Put the chicken on a platter. Add sweet potatoes, eggplant, and yellow squash to the casserole. Cover and cook on low heat until the vegetables are tender, perhaps for an hour. Put the chicken back in the casserole, mi in the scallions and simmer until the scallions are tender and the chicken is hot, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and it’s ready to serve.

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