For Maya Angelou, the holidays bring family and friends to the table to eat, to laugh. and to one-up each other.
"This is a time when people get to 'show out,' as my grandmother used to say," says Angelou, poet, memoirist and civil rights icon. "Moe is going to try to out cook Joe. It becomes amusing and delightful."
Angelou, whose second cookbook, "Great Food, All Day Long" (Random House, 2010), features holiday-worthy dishes such as crown roast and prime rib, helped a generation understand why caged birds sing. But what about how to make prefect veal chops?
"I'm a cook, a serious cook," she says. "I plan meals not only for their nutritional value but for their beauty. I plan them around who's going to eat them and when. It's ceremonial, for jubilation or commiserating over something."
Which makes Angelou's cooking very much like her writing. The 82-year-old Pulitzer winner approaches the kitchen with the same respect for ingredients that she gives her words.
"You have to examine and be familiar with every element," she says. "So you should know a red pepper, what it will do in a skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil, how it will look. How if you give more heat what will happen to it. You know the materials well."
Despite a fractured childhood shuttling between the families of her estranged parents, Angelou learned to cook much the way everyone wishes — at her grandmother's knee.
"She would say 'Now sit down and watch me.'" Angelou says. "I loved her so much that I followed her around. People would say, 'You got your shadow with you again.' I watched her carefully."
When Angelou lived with her mother as a teenager, she watched again, learning shortcuts like using a gas stove and making shortcake with store-bought cake, luxuries her grandmother in rural Arkansas didn't have.
"My grandmother didn't know anything about that," says Angelou, who was usually put in charge of the scrubbing and chopping of vegetables. "I learned both techniques."
Cooking can be a gateway to creativity of all kinds, Angelou says, if you pay careful attention to the craft. "I ask folks to read poetry, to read it aloud, so they can hear the music, the melody of it," she says. "I would encourage a person who wants to cook to buy cookbooks."
Angelou estimates her own cookbook collection at somewhere around 300 volumes.
And at this time of year, she says, cooking for others takes on a deeper meaning. "When a person cooks for me, I like to think of the cooking itself as a gift," she says. "I'm always glad and really so grateful to anyone who cooks for me. And I love to cook for others."
Angelou cooks for her friends, Hall of Fame songwriters Ashford and Simpson, every Christmas, when she is their guest. As per tradition, she creates the dessert, sometimes a trifle, sometimes a chocolate cake, but always something festive. Her other tradition involves people she has never met, and likely will never meet again.
"I like to spend one day during the holidays either serving food at a shelter or preparing food to be given to one," she says. "We're told in the Judeo-Christian bible that it's more blessed to give than to receive. And sometimes we just receive."
Now "82 plus," as she says, the Pulitzer winner has seen Christmas changes over the decades. And though like many people she is concerned about the commercialism of the holiday, she says she still loves the other sentiments it inspires.
"I like that families still try to come together," she says. "Quite often when we go to homes, to give, we find a lot of young people, black and white, washing dishes, trying to seriously be part of the community and to justify the space they occupy."
CROWN ROAST OF PORK
Start to finish: 4 hours (1 hour active)
1 tablespoon butter
3 apples, peeled, cored and cut into large dice
8 pitted prunes
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
8 pounds pork ribs (have butcher fashion into crown roast)
Heat the oven to 375 F.
In a large skillet over low, heat the butter. Add the apples and prunes and saute for 3 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and set the prunes aside in a separate dish. Let cool.
In a small bowl, mix together the garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper and olive oil to form a paste. Rub the paste into the meat. Place the meat in a shallow roasting pan and roast for 30 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 F and roast for another 2 to 3 hours.
Remove the roast from the oven once the internal temperature reads 145 F on an instant thermometer.
Place a prune on the end of each rib and return the meat to the oven for 20 minutes.
Remove the meat from the oven. To serve, transfer the cooled apples into the center of the crown roast.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 894 calories; 639 calories from fat (71 percent of total calories); 71 g fat (26 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 233 mg cholesterol; 15 g carbohydrate; 46 g protein; 2 g fiber; 334 mg sodium.
(Recipe adapted from Maya Angelou's "Great Food, All Day Long," Random House, 2010)