I have a new favorite food writer and—like my other favorite food writer, Bert Greene—she is someone you don’t hear about every day. She whisked into my life with an aroma of days gone by and required me to do a little searching for her titles. (I still have one last Greene book that I follow on eBay and look out for in used book stores: a place I haven’t spent much time this year.) Laurie Colwin may yet still have more of a following than Greene: when I mentioned her at my writing group, there was one other reader-writer who was acquainted with her. When I couldn’t recall her name (before I read her), he said, “You mean Laurie Colwin?”
The book I read was recommended for Thanksgiving. Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen is really a series of memoir short stories (called a collection of essays because it was originally uncollected essays), drawn together by the theme of Colwin’s adventures and misadventures in the kitchen. It is very big-city, twentieth century, and a little academic, full of other people walking on and off the page in order to interact with Colwin’s food and hospitality. It covers a couple decades, from her young adulthood to her marriage and her motherhood, but not necessarily chronologically. Still, you get the gist as your read.
Her other works (mostly fiction) are
- More Home Cooking (more of the same. I’ve been told it’s good, but not as good)
- Passion and Affect
- Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object
- Happy All the Time
- The Lone Pilgrim
- Family Happiness
- Another Marvelous Thing
- Goodbye Without Leaving
- A Big Storm Knocked It Over
Home Cooking is a unique book which is a combination of story-telling and food (which is one of the things I like best about Bert Greene. Sorry. I’ll try to leave him behind, now). There are recipes, but they are sparse and random, though they look amazing. The main thing is that Colwin is endearing, approachable, relatable, and especially funny. I do have an issue with reading shorts, where I get distracted between chapters without conventional cliff hangers, but this is my defect, not Colwin’s. Still, expect to read this in short blasts, if this is you. If you are anything like me—a writer in the kitchen—you should enjoy her humor and her wholesome, witty, straight-forward and observant voice. You think you’re just reading about food and entertaining, which is already awesome, but her wry storytelling reveals much more thought than just that. Really, I loved it. Plus, it was written well enough that I am definitely going to go back and try one of her novels sometime soon.
Since I’m finding it difficult to do justice to her old-style, open, side-by-side writing, here’s an example of it:
“After you have cooked your dinner party six or seven times, you will be able to do it in your sleep, but your friends will be bored. You will then have to go in search of new friends who have never had creamed spinach with jalapeno peppers, or you will have to find something new to feed your old friends. In either case, you will be helping to keep the wheels of society spinning in an effortless and graceful way, and no one will ever know how antisocial you really are” (p100).
One caveat: even though excellent, it might not be the book to read in quarantine or under a stay-at-home order. It was a little torturous for me at this time, because it really made me want to have dinner parties and friends for tea and to generally try out new ideas and menus on others. Home Cooking is a celebration of entertaining and of food as part of relationship, as part of society. It’s about communal eating. So it depends on if you’re reading this review during the Covid-19 pandemic and also if you are one of those people who can get satisfaction just from reading about food and gatherings or if it will make you want to have one.
Are you a foodie? Do you enjoy good writing? Run, don’t walk, to get this book.
RECIPES I WOULD LIKE TO TRY:
- Extremely Easy Old-Fashioned Beef Stew
- Rob Wayne’s Potato Salad with Crème Fraiche
- Pot Roast with Colwin Snellenberg’s Potato Pancakes and Applesauce
- Yam Cake with Hot Pepper and Fermented Black Beans
- Old-Fashioned Steamed Chocolate Pudding
- Creamed Spinach with Jalapeno Peppers
- Pepper Zucchini
- Braised Fennel, Celery, Onion and Red Pepper
- Pepper Chicken with Polenta and Broccoli di Rape
- Beef, Leek and Barley Soup
- Cornbread and Prosciutto Stuffing
- Perfect Chicken Salad
- Last-Minute Soup
- Chocolate Icing
- Black Cake
By the way, it did make a good Thanksgiving/holiday read, but it certainly doesn’t need to be. In essence, it’s not very holiday-like, it just talks a lot about, as I have said, food and sharing food together.
“When people enter the kitchen, they often drag their childhood with them” (p4).
“It is perfectly possible to cook well with very little” (p16).
“It is wise to keep in mind that pots and pans are like sweaters: you may have lots of them, but you find yourself using two or three over and over again” (p16).
“…it is a fact that you can do anything a food processor can do and do it even during a power failure” (p19).
“Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest” (p27).
“You do not, of course, want to be responsible for the death of your guests, but sometimes it seems that they will be the death of you” (p39).
“For the socially timid, the kitchen is the place to be. At least, it is a place to start” (p70).
“I have been told that you have not lived until you have had swordfish grilled over mesquite. This may be true, but as Abraham Lincoln is said to have said: ‘For people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like’” (p103).
“A long time ago it occurred to me that when people are tired and hungry, which in adult life is much of the time, they do not want to be confronted by an intellectually challenging meal: they want to be consoled” (p106).
“Awful things happen in the kitchen all the time, even to the most experienced cooks, but when it happens to you it is not comforting to know that you are supposed to learn from your mistakes, especially when you contemplate the lurid-looking mess in front of you” (p140).
“Now that I am more accomplished I feel that I am in a position to gauge my kitchen disasters and chose them carefully” (p144).
“Most people eat salad dutifully because they feel it is good for them, but more enlightened types eat it happily because it is good” (p148).
“If you never stuff a chicken with pâté, you will never know that it is an unwise thing to do, and if you never buy zucchini flowers you will never know that you are missing one of the glories of life” (p179).