The Hot Seat: Maya Angelou

America's foremost living poet lost her pants and lives like a rock star.

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Illustration: Dan Park


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What prompted you to write a second cookbook?
I'm a serious cook, and people would come from all over to eat my food, and they constantly ask, "Sister, is this in the cookbook? Is this in the cookbook?" I thought, Well, maybe I will try one more. Then I realized that over the course of a year, I had lost about 45 pounds.

You just noticed that one day?
I noticed it by my pants. I wear slacks a lot, and when I put them on and...my pants fell off. [Laughs] It really had more to do with portion size.... I didn't cut butter out. Just moderation in all things.

What's the hardest thing for you to moderate?
It might be cream. And butter. It might be wine? I do like wine a lot. My New York friends are so sophisticated, they said I couldn't have a wine cellar cause I didn't have a basement. So I built a little house outside, near the greenhouse, and I call it the West Wine Wing. [Laughs]

Are you a wine snob?
No, not really, because I drink Washington State wine, Chateau Ste. Michelle. I just found something I like. I'm not lazy, but it's comfortable for me. Because it's not broken, I see no reason to fix it.

That makes sense. You wrote that you tried some "silly and lugubriously serious" diets before you ended doing portion control. What's the silliest diet you ever tried?
[Laughs] Well, I think the silliest was grapefruit and something. You only eat that one thing for four days. And of course, you become scaly or sick or something stupid.

Not to mention irritable.
I know, very short-tempered. I did hard-boiled eggs at one time. And that was silly.

That gets you your protein.
Of course, but to what end? You have protein, so you get even snarlier. I love to cook. I really enjoy it when my work is going badly. Years ago when I was married, I was writing a book and the book stalled. I don't believe you get writers block, but something happens. It wouldn't budge. So I got out of bed one night, went to my kitchen and made chocolate clairs.

In the middle of the night?
Yes, this is about two in the morning. I had never made chocolate clairs before. When I opened the oven, the clairs looked like French bread. Huge things! [Laughs]

Where is it easier to mess up, in the kitchen or on the page?
Oh, equal mistakes. At least on the page I get to see it again and have an editor and a copy editor. But if I make a mistake in the kitchen, I've ruined good ingredients. I've been careless at remembering what fire will do to ingredients. I very rarely make that kind of mistake.

Do you cook with gadgets?
I have a lettuce spinner. And that means a lot to me. And I have a huge George Foreman.

What do you use it for?
Hot dogs, mostly. Chili dogs, about every two weeks, maybe once a month in the summer. But I'm lucky because my housekeeper loves chili dogs too. Goes with the job!

Do you have any other processed-food guilty pleasures?
Not really. Just hot dogs, and those are Hebrew National. Those answer to a higher power.

You're friends with Oprah; do you cook for her?
I cook for her all the time.

Is she a good eater or a picky eater?
Oh, wonderful. She'll fly down here for a meal. She loves my butter chicken.

So no giant clairs for Oprah?
After that I learned to make profiteroles. It's the same batter. You make something the size of a button and it'll swell to the size of a golf ball.

What's next in your writing?
Actually, I'm looking at some poetry. I'm just letting it happen. I might do a travel book; I have a bus, a Star Coach. It has a bedroom and a shower and two toilets.

Like a rock band has when they go on the road?
Like a country & western star! So I travel around the country in that. I might do something with that.

What do you cook on the road?
Simple things, really. I do salads and sometimes a fried meat like veal.

Sounds fancy. Probably better than how Bon Jovi eats on their bus.
[Laughs] I don't know.

Angelou reads from her book Great Food, All Day Long on Wed 11 at Barnes and Noble Union Square

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