Maya Angelou's Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes

I received this book for Christmas and have enjoyed it. I've read all the text and recipes, and am now going back through the recipes to collate the ones I'd like to prepare. There is great diversity in the recipes, including the expected Fried Chicken, Corn Bread Stuffing, and various cakes and pies, to the unexpected but delightful and different Tomato Souffle, Pate, and Wilted Lettuce.

The "Memories" of the title take up the vast majority of the 218 page text. This isn't Angelou's finest literature, rather they are light essays on an amazing assortment of life experiences centered around food. From the serious and significant - an emotionally charged dinner with her mother, her grandmother baking Maya a caramel cake to show that she loves Maya after being slapped by her school teacher, cooking for M.F.K. Fisher, meeting and becoming great friends with Oprah - to the hilarious and mundane - helping a friend prepare Mexican food to woo a man, cooking Southern to get a job that has nothing to do with cooking, stretching meals when money was tight, a fancy dinner with a friend who had the nerve to put Tobasco on Veal Medallions. Each essay is followed with the appropriate recipes. There were a few essays that were stand-out, but a couple were so banal they seemed included just for the sake of a really good recipe. Most were simply charming and entertaining.

The recipes seem ok. The instructions are bare-bones, giving the slimmest of detail. There aren't any notes on ingredients, despite there being quite a few recipes that call for uncommon ones. These recipes are clearly written for people who already know how to cook, people who are very comfortable in the kitchen. It isn't that the rec
ipes are exceptionally vague, it's just that they don't provide signposts along the way. For example, the recipe for Menudos (p 104) tells you to, "simmer for 6 hours, or until tripe is tender". And if you have no idea what tripe is supposed to be like when tender? The recipe for Beef Wellington is similarly lacking. The instructions are two paragraphs in length, while most successful Beef Wellington recipes take two pages of instruction. This recipe also calls for you to make your own Puff Pastry, the entire instructions for which are, "Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Cut in shortening. Mix in egg mixture lightly. Chill for 1 hour" (p 160). If you are unfamiliar with the process or the desired outcome, it is difficult to know when the shortening is properly cut in, or what the final dough should look and feel like after you have "lightly" mixed in the egg.

For many people, I know, the lack of specific instructions is no problem. My complaint stems from knowing many other people for whom it would be a problem, for whom such instructions would lead to disappointing or disastrous food outcomes, who would conclude yet again that they cannot cook. And they would be correct, because this is clearly a book for those who already can cook, and just need ingredient measurements and general guidelines to produce fabulous results.

There are quite a few recipes I am looking forward to trying: Spoon Bread, Cassoulet, Red Rice, and Onion Tart to name a few. There are also recipes I'm glad to own, although I'll tuck them away until I have one of those weekends where cooking for two days to produce a single dish seems very reasonable: Hog's Head Cheese, Eclairs, and Tamales.

Overall, I would suggest checking this book out from the public library instead of purchasing it, for all but the most die-hard Angelou fans. It is an easy and entertaining read, but isn't necessarily the kind of thing you'd read and re-read, looking for inspiration. I think in that respect, the title is somewhat misleading, and the sub-title, "A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes" is a much more apt preview of the contents of the book.


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