Mindful Eating and Maya Angelou

Earlier this year, I had the honor of interviewing Maya Angelou about her new cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long. To say I look up to the woman is about as accurate as saying Minnesota is ‘sort of’ cold in December—a major understatement. As I considered what to post this Thanksgiving week, nothing seemed more appropriate than sharing her insight. Angelou approaches conversations with strangers, even so-nervous-they-could-pee-on-the-floor journalists ;), food, cooking and daily life with incredible poignance, dignity and grace. With food, family gatherings and feasting upon us, we can all stand to take a few tips.

Joy, Patience and Hot Dogs: Cooking with Maya Angelou
By August McLaughlin (Originally published by EHow Food)

Photo: Steve Exum/Getty Images

It should come as no surprise that one of the most influential voices of contemporary literature brings poise, intention and palpable joy to her kitchen. Dr. Maya Angelou, the 82-year-old renaissance woman known for her dramatic prose, activism and passion for the arts, history, education and civil rights, has had a lifelong love affair with all things culinary.

“I’m a serious cook,” she said. “I love to plan the food. I enjoy the cooking of it. And I will plan the whole meal while I’m in my bathtub.”

Self-Commitment

Angelou’s food fervor met challenges when a medical exam revealed serious risks for hypertension and diabetes. She had to lose weight. Her first attempt at healthy eating involved replacing decadent ingredients with low-calorie alternatives.

“But I was starving!” she said. “So I decided to cook the way I always cook, just not eat as much. I gave myself my word that I would not have seconds. It’s the most wonderful thing, you know, when you give yourself your word in private — secretly. You feel like a ninny if you go back on it because you’ve been there all the while.”

She prepared and ate every recipe in her latest cookbook, “Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart,” and relished every bite. Meanwhile, her weight-related health concerns diminished.

Simply paging through her cookbook is enough to push your salivary glands into overdrive. Recipes such as chicken tetrazzini, barbecued spare ribs, pumpkin soup and “all day and all night” cornbread are interwoven with heart-warming stories and personal insight. In her typical way, Angelou draws you into not only her kitchen, but her life.

Abandoning Rules

Rather than abide by diet rules, Angelou recommends listening to and fulfilling your cravings. If your taste buds are screaming for fried chicken and you sit down to a T-bone steak, you’re liable to eat the entire steak — and perhaps seconds.

“It’s because your taste buds haven’t been satisfied,” she said. “If you can get what you really want, cook it the way you want it cooked, five or six spoonfuls or forkfuls can hold you. Then you can say, ‘I’ll come back to this in two or three hours. But right now, that’s exactly what I want.'”

In her book, Angelou observes that people often keep eating long after they’re full. “I think they are searching in their plates not for a myth, but for a taste, which seems to elude them,” she writes.

For this reason, her recipes aren’t divided into meal-specific categories, but instead organized by themes like “A Brand-New Look at Old Leftovers” and “Waking up the Taste Buds.” The result? A cookbook geared toward fulfilling moment-to-moment cravings, rather than following the established mealtime norms. Have fried rice for breakfast, if you want, or her omelet with spinach for dinner. All bets are off.

Seeking Pleasure

One of Angelou’s most beloved culinary experiences involves a youth favorite: the “simple everyday” hot dog. However, she’s developed a version for a grown up palate. Angelou tops a grilled, Hebrew International hot dog with her homemade chili. “Then I get a cold, frozen beer stein out of the freezer and open a wonderful freezing bottle of Corona beer. It doesn’t get much better than that,” she said.

Patience, Angelou believes, is a significant ingredient lacking in Americans’ diets. “Our children, for the most part, have their major meals at counters and various places where they eat standing,” she said. “I encourage people to sit down. Have some patience with themselves.”

To this end, she suggests planning meals beforehand to avoid stressful rushing around while cooking. Sit down to enjoy meals in a peaceful, pleasing atmosphere. And don’t reserve your best dishes, silverware or food for guests.

“I serve myself with the best I have,” she said. “I make a pretty table. There are some white roses on my table right now. I’m looking at them. And I’m having a nice glass of pre-lunch, good white wine… Pretty soon my assistant and I will have a great, sort of a chef salad, served with English biscuits.”

Because that’s precisely what she craved.

*****

To view the original article, visit: Joy, Patience and Hot Dogs: Cooking with Maya Angelou. (You’ll also get her recipe for Chili Guy, a scrumptious dish named after her son.)

******

Simple Ways to Eat More Mindfully
Most of us eat way too fast, while paying little attention to what we’re eating, how much or why. (“Where did my fries go?!” You know you’ve been there… ;)) Eating mindfully, with awareness of our bodies, emotions and food, promotes physical and emotional wellness. It also facilitates gratitude. Rather than focus on calories, TV, guilt or holiday stress this season, I invite you to slow it down, pay attention and say, with sincerity, “Thanks!”

  • Set your fork down between bites.
  • Eat sitting down at a table, no in front of your TV or worse, standing in front of your fridge.
  • Before eating, take a moment to observe the smells, colors and overall presentation of the food.
  • Cook! Preparing dishes automatically promotes mindfulness; you’re involved in the process and understand the effort required.
  • Cut back on mealtime distractions, such as your cell phone, laptop, TV, radio, newspaper, etc.
  • Create a pleasurable dining atmosphere. (As Dr. Angelou says, don’t reserve your best dinnerware for guests-only!)
  • Shop at your local farmers market.
  • Volunteer at a soup kitchen, Meals on Wheels or local shelter.
  • Rather than view food in terms of calories or fat grams, consider what foods and nutrients do for your body…and the pleasure food brings.
  • Eat with chopsticks. Unless you’re a pro, this slows you down. (Your relatives might shoot you funny looks as you pick turkey and stuffing up with chopsticks…Then again, doesn’t that make it more fun?? ;))
  • Say a prayer of gratitude, religious or not, before meals.

So what do you say? Will you invite mindfulness to your next feast? How has Maya Angelou influenced you in your life? Your writing?

Leave a comment

34 Comments

  1. Timely and good advice, August. And the chili recipe looks great!

    Reply
  2. I’m working on mindfulness, August. Maya Angelou’s thoughts on food make sense. So often, what we crave isn’t food but sensation. She fulfills that craving for sensation with the frozen beer stein, the white roses, and pleasing atmosphere.

    Reply
    • Well said, Pat. It’s easy to lose sight of what our bodies want and need…same for our emotional selves. Best of luck in your mindful pursuits. The more we practice it, the more second-nature it becomes.

      (Another great book you may have heard of: “The Miracle of Mindfulness,” by Thich Naht Hanh.)

      Reply
  3. Shannon Esposito

     /  November 21, 2011

    Oh wow, what an amazing experience to interview Maya Angelou! This book sounds yummy & freeing. Actually, this was a perfect reminder for me, thank you. I took a mindful eating class with my yoga instructor a little while ago and it’s such a simple thing–to really be present while you’re eating–but sooo hard to do. I try to eat organic from the local farmer’s market when possible because the food actually does taste better. There’s more flavor and it’s more intense. I’ve gotten off track lately, rushing meals like a crazy person to get everything done. This thanksgiving I will make a promise with myself to follow this advice…I may even bring chopsticks to dinner 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks for your insight, Shannon! I took a mindfulness course in college. In one exercise we spent 45 minutes eating one tiny tangerine. Sheesh! Like you said—so hard!

      I’m a fast eater, run-around-er by nature & mindfulness is a continual work in progress. But small, gradual efforts have made a huge difference. My meals are more peaceful and I respect food and my body more… both of which make for a more peaceful life. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Thank you, August for your post and bringing this remarkable women’s cookbook to my attention. After reading this I went on-line and ordered the book! Who knows, it may end up underneath other family members Christmas trees as well.
    I am always the last one to finish my meal. I either eat nice and slow, or my portions are just larger than everyone else at the table. When I owned a bar my eating habits were horrific. A bite here, run and take care of something, a bite there, run and do something else, always standing while eating and hurrying about. It is nice to sit and eat in peace now and I savor every meal. Thanks your the “mindful” tips.

    Reply
    • Oh, that makes me tear up! I love sharing meaningful books with others… Sure you can relate. I bought the book on Kindle first (had to read it FAST on a deadline ;)) but later purchased the hard copy. The photos are gorgeous… It’s a lovely book to page through, read and hold in your hands.

      Enjoy the book and keep that slow eating pace and savoring going.

      Reply
  5. That woman has great advice for just about everything. And I may just take this bit of it and make it my own. It does seem like many people don’t give enough thought to what they’re eating, and I’m one of them. My mind is always going about a million miles an hour and, unless it’s something I’ve been craving a lot, I don’t even pay attention to food when I’m eating. Thanks for the post. 🙂

    Reply
    • It’s crazy how eating can become involuntary, right? I hope you do take some time to savor your next meal, or any meal. Even eating mindfully every now and then can help. I find it helps me focus better afterwards and calms my mind.

      Reply
  6. “It’s the most wonderful thing, you know, when you give yourself your word in private — secretly. You feel like a ninny if you go back on it because you’ve been there all the while.”

    Love. This.

    A lot.

    Reply
  7. That sounds amazing. I want to immediately buy her cookbook. I too love to cook and plan meals. So much fun. Those are also great tips especially when we are about to enter the full swing of the holiday season.

    Reply
    • As a reader and writer who enjoys cooking, you’ll ADORE her book. 🙂 And using may help keep that mindfulness going through the season… Wishing you and yours happy ones!

      Reply
  8. Maya Angelou is still alive? It must be what’s she’s eating and her approach on life. Except she lost me when she said hot dog. I’ll stick with the Corona. Lol

    What an awesome opportunity August to have meet the woman. I would’ve peed my panties too. She is such a gracious lady. I bet you won’t forget that day anytime soon.

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    Reply
    • Is she ever! Lucky for all us all…

      I find the fact that a wise guru such as she cherishes hot dogs totally endearing. (Though I agree with you–not my thing!) She’s also not a fan of chocolate, which perplexes me… 😉 But I do look up to her in just about every way. Thanks for stopping by, Karen! Have a spectacular Thanksgiving. 🙂

      Reply
  9. How absolutely fabulous that you got to interview Maya Angelou. I would’ve been beside myself with giggles of excitement.

    Slowing down and being more mindful is such a hard concept for me, but I’m working on it. I love love love the idea of serving my family on the ‘good’ china. That would be so fun and I’m going to do it long after the holidays.

    Something I’ve always done and I’m very proud of, is I prohibit phones at the table and every night we eat dinner together as a family. No exceptions. If someone had a late soccer practice, we all waited for them to be home. Now that my daughter is off on her own, whenever she comes home, she makes sure that she’s here at dinner time. It’s so rewarding to sit down and eat a meal together.

    Love this post!

    Reply
    • So fabulous that you dine as a family and make your dinner table a no-phone zone. A bunch of studies show how beneficial family meals are for kids—during their youth and into adulthood. Fun for us adult-folk, too. 😉

      I find slowing down tough, too… Any pocket we can manage seems helpful. Since this interview, I drink tea or soy milk out of my grandmother’s china most every day. Really adds the specialness!

      Reply
  10. I love cooking and Maya Angelou and I loved this post! I had no idea she was writing a cookbook! I imagine it’s a great read in addition to having great recipes. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Why am I not surprised that you enjoy cooking, too?? 😉 “Great Food…” is actually Maya Angelou’s second cookbook… Her first, “Hallelujah: The Welcome Table,” is also fantastic. And you’re right—the recipes and stories pair wonderfully.

      Reply
  11. This is exactly what I want to be doing. I tend to medicate with food- eat until I’m numb. This gives me focus. Thanks

    Reply
    • Glad you found it helpful, Alica. Many of us are emotional eaters… We eat when we’re bored, sad, lonely, stressed, anxious, even excited… Mindful eating can definitely help minimize this (although some is normal and not generally cause for alarm). It can also help us realize what we’re *really* hungry for.

      Reply
  12. I confess, I haven’t heard of Maya Angelou but her cookbook and advic sound fantastic. Thanks for the great post, August. I’m definitely checking Maya and her book out!

    Reply
    • Some people know her better by the name of her memoir, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” poetry or frequent appearances on and friendship with Oprah. 😉 Her website gives you a great idea of her vast and varied work: http://www.mayaangelou.com. Hope you enjoy what you find! She’s one of the most talented writers of our time, in my opinion… And SO inspiring. 🙂

      Reply
  13. I love Maya Angelou’s poetry. It’s awesome. And I like her even more after reading about her hot dog recipe and a cold beer in a stein. My kind of lady!

    Reply
  14. Great post, August! Terrific interview! I love the idea of eating what your body craves, but my favorite was “gave myself my word, in private.” How beautiful! 🙂

    Reply
  15. Thank you for sharing Maya’s culinary advices! They are simply wonderful. I didn’t know she published a cookbook – what a great surprise 🙂

    I agree with her recommendation to listen to and fulfill the cravings. What could be more satisfying in the food department, than doing just that?

    My family always sits down together to eat dinner. Even with my kids’ hectic schedules, we never give that tradition up.

    Reply
  16. Great advice from maya. thanks for the interview, information and recipe.

    Reply
  17. You’re living the Good Life, August! You meet interesting people on a regular basis and as a result, you’ve become one!

    Reply
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