“Somewhere different, somewhere fun …”
“Doesn’t matter … Maybe something new? I’m not very picky.”
We were on the phone, and had yet to greet or meet, but we were anxious to please.
Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills was still rather new. Yes, she agreed: “Let’s go.” As we did, falling deeply into an otherworldly afternoon. We noted that it was during the ’70s when whiz kid restaurateur Michael Chow opened his West Coast dining room. His reputation exploded in 1968 in London, when he was crowned a global culinary star by the Brit eaterati for introducing high-end Chinese cuisine.
We anticipated the Beverly Hills dining room with its contemporary art would intrigue our dining companion, as would the chef’s chicken satay and noodles. As would Michael’s cultural history. His father, Zhou Xingang, reputedly a superstar of the Peking Opera.
We were right on.
Arriving quietly on silent cat feet, and dressed fetchingly in a smock-like creation with a turban fashioned from an exotic print, she flashed her wondrous smile, speaking in a soft polite voice, “Oh, I do like this place. Very nice feeling, and if the food’s good we’ll celebrate.”
Her gentle personality warmed our table, others nearby couldn’t help noticing her regal presence. We made the civilized small talk that, as our parents taught us, leads to more personal and deeper conversations.
A raconteur she was, born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, later adored and beloved as Maya Angelou. At Mr. Chow’s that day, we lingered long into the dinner hour with our burgeoning friendship.
“Imagine me as the first black streetcar conductor in San Fran- cisco!” Adding that she worked as a fry cook in Cajun joints, a shake dancer in nightclubs, Calypso singer, a mechanic, performing in Porgy And Bess, performing comedy with Phyllis Diller at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, hoofing with Alvin Ailey, falling in love with a Greek sailor and the ex-husband of feminist Germaine Greer, and in San Diego serving as the madam for two prostitutes.
We discussed sharing her love of Lewis Carroll, the 17th century nonsensical poet, who wrote Jabberwocky – “We talked of many thngs … of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings … or why the sea is boiling hot, or whether pigs have wings.”
With time, she attained the gloried status of a literary diva, writing 35 books over 50 years, with a lifetime appointment as professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her lyrical debut memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, remains a bestseller. An unsparing remembrance of growing up in the segregated Arkansas with its “dust and hate and narrowness.”
More recollections flooded our memory bank after her loss this week was bannered across the front pages. On occasional moments, we visited at parties and charity events.
“Don’t forget, child, that when we party, we party …nothing else matters!”
She beamed that the “best parties were when friends cooked at home, and there were pots in the kitchen where we all went to pick and pick and pick whatever we wanted, joking and laughing and swinging to hot dance music.”
Cooking was a pleasurable pastime. Among her favorite dishes was the 12-boy curry, a throwback to British colonial times in India when 12 manservants would carry condiments (chutney, peanuts, etc.) to the tables of rich diners.