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Maya Angelou, Civil Rights Activist, Poet, and Cookbook Author, Dead at 86

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Civil rights activist and literary legend Dr. Maya Angelou has died at 86 years old. Fox 8/WGHP reports that Angelou was found dead this morning in her North Carolina home. She had reportedly been "battling health problems."

Angelou's written legacy spans genre and decades, from Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry to seven autobiographies. She was also a passionate cook, authoring two cookbooks for Random House: Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes in 2004 and Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart in 2010.

In Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, Angelou shared recipes that connected her to specific memories, moments in time, places, and people. Take, as a prime example, the introduction to the very first recipe of the book: "My grandmother, who my brother, Bailey, and I called Momma, baked lemon meringue pie that was unimaginably good. My brother and I waited for the pie. We yearned for it, longed for it. Bailey even hinted and dropped slightly veiled suggestions about it, but none of his intimations hastened its arrival."

Angelou spoke often about how food could be a form of communication. In an interview with NPR following the publication of Hallelujah! The Welcome Table she explained further: "Food served is always more than just food served. That is to say, it is more than just fuel for the body. Depending upon who has prepared the food and who has served it and with what spirit, it can uplift the--and around the world, in every culture, food is used to flirt, to be coy, a raise in the employment or to search for employment. It can bring warring factions together."

[Photo: Jemal Countess/WireImage/Getty]

In Great Food, All Day Long, Angelou turned her attention to weight loss and health conscious cooking. Even here, Angelou's genuine love for food and eating is impossible to miss. She describes how she acquired a taste for eggplant: "When I had the good fortune to eat ratatouille, and eggplant Parmesan, I came under the spell of eggplant and I expect to be mesmerized by that vegetable my life long. There are some dishes that have not caught my fancy yet, but I will not close the door."

Angelou also spoke (and wrote) often about the sometimes complicated relationship of a cookbook and its reader. She offered NPR listeners the following piece of advice when approaching her cookbook: "First, sit down. And give yourself a half-hour to read something. Have more patience with yourself." In the introduction to Great Food, All Day Long, she wrote:

Some people buy cookbooks just to read, with no intention of trying the recipes. I hail their discipline, because it is impossible to put on weight just reading about food, even if the accompanying photographs cause the salivary glands to dance wildly in the mouth.

And there are those who want to lose weight, so they choose to read books about dieting, swearing a fierce loyalty to the books' recipes and suggestions. There are those who say they would cook if they had the time, or the skills, but since they don't, they delight in reading what serious cooks are able to create. Only a few readers buy cookbooks to really cook the recipes. If this book finds its way into the hands of bold, adventurous people, courageous enough to actually get into the kitchen and rattle the pots and pans, I will be very happy.

Her bold, adventurous, courageous spirit will surely live on for a long, long time. Below, some quotes from Angelou on her cooking philosophies.

[Photo: Michael Brennan/Getty]

The Cooking Wisdom of Maya Angelou

· On not being a chef: "I am a cook. And I consider myself a serious cook. I know someone who interviewed me thought she was flattering me by calling me a chef. I'm not a chef; I am a very serious cook. I have knowledge of and great respect for ingredients, and understand how they react."

· On Southern food: "I love the slow way of cooking. I like the country foods: the greens and the beans and the cornbreads and the biscuits. Not just for the taste, but because it infuses the house with an aroma that says 'You are welcome. You're going to have some good food. It's going to take some time. And once you eat it you won't want to leave.'"

· On the first steps in cooking: "My first lesson in the kitchen: Wash your hands. If I walked into the kitchen without washing my hands as a kid, I'd hear a loud 'A-hem!' from my mother or grandmother. Now I count on other people to do the same."

· On ignoring the rules: "You can eat anything at any time ... Who made the rule that you have to have eggs in the morning, and steak at night?"

· On knowing when a dish is good: "You know, people are talking, aba dabba, dabba, dabba, and then they swallow something and there's... then someone says, 'Mm, mm, mmm,' and I know I've mixed the groceries the right way."

· On creating recipes with integrity: "I feel cooking is a natural extension to my autobiography. In fiction, the story can be moulded to the author's needs but in autobiography you have to tell the truth. The reader has to believe what the writer is saying or else the book has failed. The same applies to cooking; if there is no integrity to the recipes, no one will trust them."

Wisdom from Great Food, All Day Long

· On shopping: "It is wise for a cook to spend serious money on heavy pots. The same goes for good knives. It is wise for a cook to make friends in a local kitchen store, where there will be news about cooking classes and a good produce market, and where knives can be sharpened."

· On overeating: "I have noticed that many people eat long after they are filled. I think they are searching in their plates not for a myth, but for a taste, which seems to elude them. If a person's taste buds are really calling for a prime rib of beef or a crispy brown pork chop, stewed chicken will not satisfy. So the diner will have another piece of chicken and another piece of bread and some more potatoes, searching in vain for the flavor that is missing."

· On timing: "Plan your meal carefully. If you are cooking meat, remember it will take longer than vegetables, and some vegetables will cook before others. Do not start every dish at the same time."

· On choosing books to cook from: "Hundreds of cookbooks line the walls in my country kitchen. I can sit at the table and reach the books. Since I have read each one at least one time, I do not make a selection. I simply choose whatever book my hand falls on."

· On adapting recipes: "I rarely follow recipes from one cookbook at a time. I will study three recipes for the same dish to see how three different cooks would prepare the ingredients. I might select ideas from one, and then add my own innovation. The end results are not always successful, but the chances and changes, more often than not, offer a wonderful dish that I doubt any of the original cooks would recognize."

In the video below, Angelou presents a meal she prepared, shares a decidedly food-inspired poem, and speaks about her cooking philosophy.

· All Maya Angelou Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes [Amazon]
· Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart [Amazon]