David Reads “Health Food Diner” by Maya Angelou

The Carolina Theater, Greensboro, North Caroli...
The Carolina Theater, Greensboro, North Carolina, September, 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re nearing the end of day four of my own private NaPoRecMo (National Poetry Recording Month), and so I’ll try for once to get a post in quickly and without too much commentary. Today was Maya Angelou’s birthday. She’s a healthy, feisty, and inspiring 85  years old. As far as I can tell she is the one who writes her own Facebook posts, unlike some other favorite poets of mine who leave that work to someone else. Her most recent FB status said, “Thank you for all your kind wishes as I celebrate my 85th year. I am grateful for your kind words and thoughts.”

Interesting that I managed to get in birthday wishes for the weekend of Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s birthday, but I let slip by the recent birthdays of Billy Collins, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frank O’Hara and Robert Frost. Ah well, with the exception of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, all of the others I have posted about quite a bit. I shall have to catch up to Ferlinghetti, and share a recent interview with you this week.

But I’ve only recorded Dr. Angelou twice, recently with “Come and Be My Baby,” and also last year during NaPoRecMo, with “No Loser, No Weeper.” And with tonight’s recording it occurs to me that I don’t seem to put her big “serious” poems into my voice. I am not sure I have the proper gravitas for “Still I Rise,” and probably I’m the wrong voice for “Phenomenal Woman.”  And after hearing her read her inaugural poem for President Clinton, I don’t think my reading of “On the Pulse of the Morning” could stand up to her own.

So the one I’ve chosen to celebrate her birthday is lighthearted, though it has pissed some people off, frankly. Please keep in mind, especially if you are anti-smoking or vegetarian, poets don’t always write completely from their own point of view. The speaker in the poem usually has some personality traits and similarities to the poet, but the speaker is not always the poet herself. Sometimes we overstate things to make a point, or for the sake of humor. The story here is that Maya was at Ye Olde Health Food Diner in Los Angeles when she pulled out a cigarette to light up (she did quit smoking two decades ago though) and was chastised by the waitress.

She looked around at the pale, pitiful customers in the diner and asked the waitress whether they were newcomers, hoping to “get better.” The waitress assured her they were vegetarians who had been eating there for years, to which Maya replied, “Don’t ever tell anyone that these people have been coming here for years, and are still looking no better than they do now.”

It really was meant in good fun, and I find the poem endearing. For more about Angelou and her views on food, please check out this blog where I got the above quote. It details her cookbook called Great Food, All Day Longin which she extols the benefits of eating smaller meals, with good food in healthy moderation throughout the day. I’m not sure it will soothe the ire of some of her critics, but I am hoping to get a copy of it for my own kitchen.

Health Food Diner

No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).

Not thick brown rice and rice pilau
Or mushrooms creamed on toast,
Turnips mashed and parsnips hashed,
(I’m dreaming of a roast).

Health-food folks around the world
Are thinned by anxious zeal,
They look for help in seafood kelp
(I count on breaded veal).

No smoking signs, raw mustard greens,
Zucchini by the ton,
Uncooked kale and bodies frail
Are sure to make me run


Loins of pork and chicken thighs
And standing rib, so prime,
Pork chops brown and fresh ground round
(I crave them all the time).

Irish stews and boiled corned beef
and hot dogs by the scores,
or any place that saves a space
For smoking carnivores.

©1983 Maya Angelou from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing

11 Replies to “David Reads “Health Food Diner” by Maya Angelou”

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