Study Guide

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Food

By Maya Angelou


Maya sure talks about food a lot. We hear about the food that Momma makes, the food in St. Louis, the food in San Francisco. Is she just really hungry, or is there something else to this literary smorgasbord?

We're going to take a stab at this one. Throughout Caged Bird, there are a lot of changes in scenery. The differences between the urban and rural settings are expressed in many ways, but the differences in food are the most mouth-watering.

In Stamps, the whole community (men and women) come together to preserve all the food for the year (4.19). For breakfast, they eat thick slices of meat they have cured themselves. (In order to get fresh meat, the children have to go to the white part of town, where people have refrigerators.) Peanuts are brought in from the field and roasted at home, as a treat.

What does all this tell us about the people in Stamps?

  • They are a tight-knit community
  • They work together for the common good
  • They aren't well off, so they cannot afford for the little food that they have to go bad 
  • They aren't very delicate and refined 
  • They are accustomed to living off of the earth

The city slickers in St. Louis and San Francisco are quite different. In the city, everything is bought, not made. Maya and Bailey eat thinly sliced deli ham and place little leaves of lettuce on their sandwiches (10.6). Here, peanuts are salted and eaten with sugary jellybeans in paper bags. (Yum.) Their grandmother eats German brätwurst, and their mother takes them on a world tour of ethnic restaurants (26.34).

This is an entirely different world. Food doesn't come from the earth, but from stores. There are luxury foods other than candy bars. And there are enough ethnicities in the city to host a food tour.

Bottom line: pay close attention to the food in this novel. When it pops up, it's not just delicious, it's meaningful.