Angelou fondly recalls the “summer picnic fish-fry” with characteristic high spirits. As narrated in her fictionalized memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou explains this was the biggest outdoor event of the year” in the African American Stamps, Arkansas.  It’s at this community picnic that ten-year-old Marguerite Johnson wants to read. Her momma says that she must help with the barbecue. Instead, the willful little girl finds a grove hidden away to enjoy herself. When she wants to relieve herself, she accidentally meets her friend, Louise Kendrick, leading Angelou to begin a digression that never ends.

The picnic was well attended, especially by the church and social groups, the members of which arrived laden with mounds of food. Assuming that more makes it better, friendlier, more memorable, Angelou says, “The amount and variety of foods would have found approval on the menu of a Roman epicure.”  It’s a gourmand’s banquet that Angelou passes off as fun. She describes it with a visual gusto; color vibrates and textures clash: “Pans of red chicken, covered with dishtowels, sat under benches next to a mountain of potato salad crammed with hard-boiled eggs. Whole rust-red sticks of Bologna were clothed in cheesecloth. Homemade pickles and chow-chow, and baked country hams, aromatic with cloves and pineapples, vied for prominence.. . .On the barbecue pit, chickens and spare ribs sputtered in their own fat and a sauce whose recipe was guarded in the family like a scandalous affair.. . . . Orange sponge cakes and dark brown mounds dripping Hershey’s chocolate stood layer to layer with ice-white coconuts and light brown caramels. Pound cakes sagged with their buttery weight, and small children could no more resist licking the icings than their mothers could avoid slapping the sticky fingers. 

The menu also includes White Lightning, [ pure grain alcohol], Coca-Cola, other soft drinks.

*The title is taken from Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.” A 1979 film adaptation directed by Fielder Cook with a screenplay by Maya Angelou and Leonora Thuna omits this picnic.

Featured Image: Th dust jacket design is by Janet Halverson.

See Maya Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1969.