On Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin

I discovered Laurie Colwin about a year after I graduated from college. I was living in Chicago at the time, and was only beginning to emerge from what I would later call the Dark Year. When I’d graduated from college, I believed that only great things awaited, that all possibilities were good ones. In the year that followed, I’d learned that this assumption was wholly false: that some possibilities were dreadful, and the worst of these possibilities were irrevocable.

In that year, I’d been desperately lonely — so lonely that once, in a taxi cab, I pulled out a scrap of paper, and begin writing down a list of anything I could possibly think of to look forward to. The list was short, and it was comprised of small things.  “Visiting dogs at the Humane Society” is the only one I remember today.

It was around this time that I picked up Colwin’s novel, Happy All the Time, and was quickly drawn in, just as I was later by her other novels. Not by the plot so much — her books are hardly plot-driven — but by the characters. In all her fiction, Colwin’s characters are quirky, sometimes difficult, and they often fumble. But they are uniquely themselves, navigating a complex world filled with inscrutable others, making peace between Who They Are and What The World Is. They felt like the friends that I hadn’t made yet (though these, thankfully, were soon to follow), and they were immensely comforting.

Colwin’s fiction isn’t dense, and it isn’t lengthy. Her books are entertaining and quick to read, probably more appealing to women than men — the literary equivalent of one of the better Nora Ephron films, perhaps. But at moments, using simple phrases and remarkably few words, Colwin captures the hearts of human beings beautifully.

For me, at that time, her books were exactly what I needed: stories about people in transition — finding love, finding careers, discovering themselves, moving from youth to maturity — that always left open the possibility of happy endings.

I forgot about Colwin for a long time. Then last year, I stumbled across this sentence she’d written:

Oh, domesticity! The wonder of dinner plates and cream pitchers…You want everything. If Mrs. A. has her mama’s old jelly mold, you want one too, and everything that goes with it — the family, the tradition, the years of having jelly molded in it. We domestic sensualists live in a state of longing, no matter how comfortable our own places are.

I realized at that moment that Colwin’s writing is as much about home and security as it is about transition and change — something I just hadn’t seen all those years ago.

With that in mind, I borrowed from the library Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Colwin’s collection of short non-fiction essays about food.

I like this book. Like her fiction, Colwin’s essays are not filled with flowery language — Colwin is about getting to the point. For example, her chapter on soup begins with five words: “There is nothing like soup.” Her chapter about disguising vegetables begins frankly, “it is amazing how many adults hate vegetables.” Or consider her take on potato salad: “It is always wise to make too much potato salad. Even if you are cooking for two, make enough for five.”

These are not essays that wax lyrical, that attempt to answer the unanswerable, or that ponder the many deepest mysteries of the universe. This book is about what is — Colwin’s own experiences tasting an ingredient for the first time, what foods she enjoys or doesn’t, her own recommendations about what’s worth trying, and how best to prepare it.

Like her fictional characters, she is witty and wholly idiosyncratic — always completely herself, whatever she’s doing — making butterscotch brownies, feeding the fussy, or acknowledging that stuffed breast of veal is, simply, “a bad idea.”

Consider this opener to her essay, “How to Fry Chicken:”

As everyone knows, there is only one way to fry chicken correctly. Unfortunately, most people think their method is best, but most people are wrong. Mine is the only right way, and on this subject I feel almost evangelical.

Or the start of her chapter on comfort foods, “The Same Old Thing:”

Many of my closest friends are sick of my baked chicken, and even when I point out that I know a million variations on this theme, they rightly point out that they have had them all, and more than once.

There’s wisdom there:

What you want is an enormous return on a small investment. Almost the only situation in which this is possible is cooking.

There are meditations on dinner parties:

After you have cooked your party dinner 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.

And there are lists of what’s necessary in a kitchen, and what’s not:

I will never have a microwave oven because I believe they are dangerous, and totally unnecessary unless you are running a fast-food operation or, like one of my cousins, you are amused by watching eggs explode.

There are also recipes…sort-of. Not recipes like you’d get in a cookbook, exactly — no ingredient lists, no detailed explanations. Almost like someone is standing with you in the kitchen, knocking back a glass of wine, saying, “okay, now sprinkle some sugar on the apples. Not too much. Sure, that’s about right.” Several recipes even include the direction to make something “in the usual way,” with no further explanation whatsoever. Last night, for example, I made Pepper Chicken with Polenta and Broccoli di Rape, and was amused to find not one, but two instructions of that type. I was told to “bake as you ordinarily bake chicken. There is no rule for this.” And I was also told to prepare the polenta in “the ordinary way.”

I respect this. Why should Colwin spend her time explaining how to bake a chicken or mix polenta? There are other books that can do this. It’s more important that she tell me she realized she was addicted to the broccoli di rape (broccoli raab) the day she found herself eating it right out of the steamer.

Colwin passed away right just before I first discovered her. She was 48 and seemingly healthy, with an 8 year old daughter — Merrie’s age, I can’t help but realize. One day, unexpectedly, her heart simply failed. It is further proof of the hard lesson I’d learned in that year in Chicago — that nothing, nothing is fair, and that there’s not much that can be said about that.

I would have liked to read more of her essays. I would have liked her perspective on today’s growing food movement. I suspect she would have enjoyed many aspects of it, and that she also would have had limited patience with too much sentimental rhapsodizing about carrots, or the way dinner has become so politicized. I also would have enjoyed imagining that we might meet someday, only to find that we shared much in common. After all, Colwin wrote, “I am not a fancy cook or an ambitious one. I am a plain old cook.” She didn’t own upscale kitchen equipment, she appreciated the occasional repulsive meal, she knew that “three meals a day seven days a week…is enough to get a person down,” and she believed in the power of a decent frittata.

You can see how I would enjoy her.

As I write, her Beef, Leek, and Barley Soup is simmering on the stove (she herself might have added lima beans, but she “would not put any kind of squash into this soup,” and she is “not fond of turnips.”). I also have her Bread Baking Without Agony recipe at the end of its rising (“whenever you happen to get home, punch down the dough, knead it well, roll it in flour, and forget about it until convenient.”). I was all excited to make her chocolate steamed pudding, until I learned that steamed pudding requires a steamed pudding mold.  I’m sure I have walked past such things eight thousand times in the thrift store, without ever realizing what they are. Now I know, and I will buy one the next time I see it at the Goodwill. I suspect she would approve of this; she herself bought all her bakeware at tag sales, never once paying more than fifty cents for a cake tin.

Here’s her chicken and polenta dinner that I made last night (not fancy, just plenty tasty, with a dry marinade of thyme, black pepper, red pepper, and a pinch of clove, with the baked chicken juices poured over everything):

In the foreword to this book, Colwin writes that

no one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.

Tonight, in our house, we’ll sit down to Colwin’s bread, and Colwin’s soup, and there won’t be a question about who was with me in the kitchen as I put together the meal— someone who seems rather like an old friend, who met me in the darkness of a cold Chicago winter when I was young and alone, who found me again in middle life when I had a family to feed…and with whom, it turns out, I still have plenty to talk about.

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11 Responses to “On Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin”

  1. 1 kate December 2, 2009 at 1:10 am

    what a lovely post.

  2. 2 Andrea December 2, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Mmmm…sounds like a delicious book!

  3. 3 Brigid December 2, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Great essay! I love Laurie Colwin, and I used to reread her books so often, they were like comfort food to me.

  4. 4 Kelly December 2, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    sounds like a great book – and that food looks tasty!

  5. 5 Jill December 2, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    Thanks for the lovely post. I’ll pick up a Laurie Colwin book at the library this week. I’m currently waiting for your boyfriend, quinoa, to finish simmering so I can eat it up. I’m glad to hear the backstory of you writing lists in the back of taxicabs.

  6. 6 Greg December 3, 2009 at 12:09 am

    I have never read Colwin. You have inspired me to look her up.

  7. 7 Kim December 3, 2009 at 4:57 am

    Beautifully put, Ali. I’m already a fellow Colwin fan, but you’ve inspired me to reread something of hers again this winter. Thank you.

  8. 8 Writ on Water December 3, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Thank you for writing about Colwin! I still have her books and they are on the “constant re-read” rotation.

  9. 9 Lemon Stand December 4, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    What a beautiful post Ali. (of course your posts have been wonderful since the beginning!)

  10. 10 mimi December 4, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    I’m so glad that you are introducing people to Laurie Colwin. I discovered her through her writing in Gourmet magazine.

  11. 11 Di December 6, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Enjoyed your post on Laurie a lot, Ali. I lived down the hall from her my freshman year at Bard. Unfortunately, didn’t get to know her very well, but at least I have the memory of her voice and the way she clipped her words. When I read her very direct approach to say, cooking a dish, as you’ve quoted, I can hear her saying it. Always practical, and very straight forward, she seemed much more mature than the rest of us. I have found most of her books in used bookstores. Thanks for jogging that memory.

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