MAYA ANGELOU IS TALKING TURKEY—and ham, leg of lamb and grilled beef—as she tells the friends assembled in the sunroom of her Winston-Salem, N.C., home about the centerpiece of their house-party weekend: dinner for 150 the next evening to honor Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, a dear friend. Champagne has been uncorked, and the stereo is playing a yet-to-be-released ballad that Angelou cowrote with two of her guests, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
Suddenly Angelou, 66, stops midsentence and cocks her head. Then she pads off in stocking feet to the kitchen, two rooms away. “A good cook has to have good ears and a good nose,” she says, stirring a boiling pot of crowder peas and okra for Friday’s supper.
Also, good hand-eye coordination, if—like Angelou—you insist on preparing meat for masses of people. The next morning she’s up at 6:00 to begin wrapping the ham and breaking down a 59-pound baron of beef. Though caterers will supply the side dishes, “I always think catered meat tastes like cardboard,” says Angelou, who supported herself as a Creole-style cook in her late teens. Watching her expertly slice up the huge slab of cow, guest Norman Lear jokes, “If I ever need a bypass, ain’t no one cutting me but you.”
By midday the beef is on the grill, and Angelou, whose 14th book—a children’s story called My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me—appears this month, has changed into a purple-and-gold tunic and matching head wrap. She gives a last appraising look at the food-laden tables in two billowing party tents that cover most of her yard, including the basketball court. “My friends are of an age where we sit and drink wine and throw our glasses at the hoop,” she jokes. (Twice divorced, Angelou has one son, Guy Johnson, 49, a personnel analyst in Oakland, and a grandson, Colin, 18, a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta.)
Typically for Angelou, invitations have gone out to an eclectic mix of people—everyone from Oprah Winfrey and social activist Angela Davis to Winston-Salem’s white power brokers and the retired couple across the way who bring Angelou vegetables from their garden. “Friends mean a lot to me,” says Angelou, who gathers nearly 100 people each year for Thanksgiving dinner in her 18-room brick colonial home. “I come from a very small blood family. So you do make family.” Moreover, she is fearless about mixing friends of different races and cultures and sexual persuasions. “I know very well that if they meet and have any time to talk they’re going to be liking each other,” she says. Adds Oprah: “Maya has the ability to draw people together. You always know you’re going to leave feeling more whole than when you came.”
To kick off the evening, Angelou welcomes her “Nobel and noble” friends and ceremoniously leads guests of honor Morrison and Rita Dove, the U.S. poet laureate, to the head of the buffet line. After dinner Angelou announces, “It’s time to do our dance thing.” With the first strains from the jazz band, Angelou—who danced with the young Alvin Ailey—begins sweeping guests out onto the floor. As the crowd begins to groove, Dove exclaims, “Maya’s done it again!” Admits Angelou, taking a brief breather: “My desire to have fun is so great I believe it’s contagious.”
LINDA KRAMER in Winston-Salem