Watching Maya Angelou in her kitchen was almost as good as watching her on stage. In fact, she sometimes seemed more at ease chopping and mixing and creating in her kitchen than she did delivering lyrics or dialogue.
She appeared to enjoy being a hostess far more than being a guest -- a world apart from her good friend Decca Mitford, who was often seen walking through her own parties with a handbag on her arm and cigarette in her hand, pretending she was a guest.
Decca once told me, "it's much more pleasant to be entertained, rather than to be expected to make others at ease."
Occasionally Maya would concede to the guest role and accept her friends' invitations to join them for dinner at their homes. It was during one of those rare times when she accepted our offer for dinner at our house. That was where the Salad Spinner story had its beginning. Many decades later, its conclusion is still elusive.
Maya and I were both living in Sonoma County, and experimenting with peace and quiet.
I loved our country home spread out over a few acres, and especially loved having my own garden. Most of all, I enjoyed and took great pride in harvesting my homegrown salad ingredients after our guests started to arrive.
I had learned most of what I knew about preparing food from my Aunt Pearline, who transferred her Louisiana skills to me. Tradition prevailed in her kitchen. Back home, you harvested your greens and other vegetables, washed them good, spread them out on a clean dish towel and patted them down with another dish cloth. That’s how you got rid of excess water and any other undesirables such as dirt or bugs.
Maya was in the family room, which was part of the kitchen, as we prepared dinner. Of course I hoped she would notice the freshness of the salad, but I didn’t call attention to it.
Everything going into the salad was washed and drained in bowls lined with cloth. Only then were they chopped, separated or broken down into bite-sized pieces. That was the way we had always done it, and I was proud of the tradition. I thought Maya, having lived in the south herself, would appreciate the custom.
But a few days after our dinner a large box arrived at our house. It was a gift from our cherished guest and her family, and inside was a strange item: two bowls, one with drainage holes all around it, nested inside a solid bowl, with a spinning top as a cover.
My husband Bill and I read the instructions. Still uncertain, I put some washed greens inside the inner bowl with the holes and added the spinner. I pushed down as hard as I could to make the spinner move. I pumped with all of my strength to make the center swirl and watched the liquid that had been attached to the leaves hit the wall and drain into the outer bowl. Then I realized I had to be careful, and not overdo it and bruise the leaves. They were the foundation for the mixture of vegetables of all colors and shapes and taste that would make the salad healthy. But the leaves would serve as a background for all the other colors and textures that create the "cornucopia" we call “salad."
More Than A Spinner
I thought of the symbolism and how it reflected on Maya’s journey through life. Pumping the spinner and trying to get rid of the excessive water that drags all too many people down -- that matched her vision and efforts to bring all of the stuff that is good for us together, in one place, to nourish and feed our hunger.
So often it takes just one person with a strong determination to drive a whole device, or a movement. The challenge is to make sure the person with the hand on the lever really cares about the fragile leaves she is whirling. To recognize that it’s the mixing of all the flavors, colors, and the textures, that result in a great, healthy and special dish.
As one who respects Maya’s passion and commitment to value all around us, I asked myself how can I cultivate a new vision of my own place in life?
How can I embrace a strong desire to soldier on with others, and accept that I am just one small part of the creation of something good? When will I accept the fact that my contribution will be to find satisfaction in being part of the solution?
The most important part of this rather simple ‘thank you gift story’ is envisioning a single person with power to push a lever that forces unwanted elements to go away. I do not want to know if she intended some sort of sublime message for me to acknowledge my own power -- or simply wished me to make a better, healthier salad, with less exposure to germs.
A Bigger Meaning
What matters is my admiration and acknowledgment of her power and mine.
I think people like me are scattered all over the world. Treasuring our encounters and trying to live up to her ideals and expectations that we live our best lives.
During our last interview on KQED’s This Week in Northern California back in 2012 (see above), I asked her why she had spent so much of her life reaching out and supporting others.
“I owe it to another person to say what I’ve learned. I’ve learned that it’s wise to take responsibility for the time you take up and space you occupy," Angelou said. "I think that each one of us lives in direct relationship to the heroes and sheroes we have. Always and then always.”
Maya, so many of us have chosen you as our "shero" and embraced your vision of bringing people together. We agree that we need to be responsible for the space we occupy. Hopefully each of us will find a 'salad spinner' -- an object or words that make us put our hands on the levers that trigger our imagination and move us to action.
Oh, how we need your spirit in our lives to get through the time in which we are living.