Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Winston-Salem recalls the welcome table of its beloved neighbor, Dr. Maya Angelou

Memorial flyer near the door at
Shabbytiques in West End.
The death of celebrated writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou at age 86 on May 28 sent shock waves around the world. Her passing was felt keenly in her adopted hometown of Winston-Salem, where shops in the downtown arts district displayed heartfelt messages and autographed photos of their beloved neighbor.

The question could not help but be asked right away, even by those who made no effort to hide their grief and tears:  Would Dr. Angelou’s legendary Thanksgiving celebrations, which united celebrities and store clerks as equals at her welcome table, continue without her?

“From what I’ve heard, the family wants it to happen,” says Chef Don McMillan of Simple Elegance, who worked on Dr. Angelou’s two cookbooks and catered the weekend-long feasts for the past several years, including last November. “My guess is that it will become a celebration of her life.”

McMillan says the celebrations, which attracted more than 200 attendees from down the street and around the globe, would start with an informal get-together on Wednesdays. Turkey and ham were served at the traditional Thanksgiving meal, along with a staggering assortment of sides, in the Visitor’s Center at Old Salem Museums and Gardens.

In the early years, when the party was small enough for friends and family to crowd around her large dining room table, Dr. Angelou cooked all the food herself. “She was especially famous for her greens and very good stuffing,” says longtime friend Campbell Cawood, who now lives in Key West. “She believed the best way to communicate was over food that was prepared in a loving way. It was heart and soul of how she got to know people.”

Nikki Miller-Ka, a private chef and popular Winston-Salem food writer, got to know Dr. Angelou when they’d see each other shopping at the same local grocery store. She kept a respectful distance until one day when she overheard Dr. Angelou ask her aide to get some fresh green beans. She confided that they were stringy and suggested okra as a better choice.

 “We talked and I helped a few more times when I’d see her,” says Miller-Ka, noting that Dr. Angelou intuited that she longed to be a writer. “She said, ‘You can’t be that descriptive without being a writer.’ She sprinkled some inspiring words upon me. I felt like she made an effort to be a mentor.”

Miller-Ka says the market experience actually was not her first run-in with Dr. Angelou. At age 6 or 7, while playing among clothing racks while her mother shopped, she careened into an elegant woman wearing a black sheath dress, pearls and a large hat. “She looked at me, pointed a finger and just said, ‘You!’” she recalls with a laugh. “I didn’t say a word and I ran back to my mother. Later, my mother looked around and said, ‘Oh, look. It’s Maya Angelou.’”

Betty Morton was similarly intimidated the first time she met Dr. Angelou. Familiar to Reynolds Wrap users as one of the white-jacketed home economics in the popular “Pat and Betty” series of TV ads, Morton helped McMillan cook a catered meal in Dr. Angelou’s home kitchen.

Maya Angelou with Chef Don McMillan
 and Betty Morton (Courtesy Don McMillan)
“It was an unforgettable experience,” Morton says. “Her kitchen was very organized, very well laid out. Her pantry had everything. She was well traveled and what I saw really reflected that. It was a warm place to be. It really felt like a privilege, not only to cook for her and her guests, but to use her things and cook in her kitchen.”

As much as Dr. Angelou’s guests looked forward to a fine dining experience, McMillan says they also enjoyed the casual western-style barbecue that followed Thanksgiving. Perhaps even more anticipated was the Bojangles fried chicken and biscuits served on Saturdays, when her cultured guests took turns reciting poetry, singing, dancing or displaying their particular artistic talent.

“It would range from children performing skits to Ashford & Simpson and people who designed exquisite jewelry,” McMillan says. “When I think of this, it is part of her persona of sharing and loving. It’s been a blessing to be part of her life.”

While it is too early to say whether Dr. Angelou’s family will want to continue the celebration without her, Old Salem will continue to block that time until directed otherwise.

“The space is reserved for this year, but of course we have not yet heard about their plans,” says Old Salem CEO Ragan Folan, whose staff has worked to ensure the privacy of Dr. Angelou and her guests. “I never attended, but I know that it was a wonderful family weekend celebration for many years. We hope it will continue.”

Sign at Miller's on North Trade Street.

No comments:

Post a Comment