More Home Cooking
These two books of food essays are usually near the top of the stack of magazines and books next to my bed. They are as satisfying and transporting as the best bedtime stories from my childhood.
Laurie Colwin was a fairly prolific novelist whose death at age 48 in 1992 shocked her band of loyal readers who had gotten used to running to the bookstore at two-year intervals to buy her latest offering. What? No more Laurie Colwins to look forward to? Ever? ( I think I remember hearing she died of some rare kind of heart problem.)
Laurie Colwin's novels are often populated with intelligent, interesting people who work in genteel intellectual jobs in New York and live in charming old apartments in Greenwich Village. A characteristic of all her novels is her depiction of domestic details, which are every bit as precise and appealing as the intimate drawing rooms in Vermeer's paintings. Colwin's characters don't just "have dinner", they have roast chicken with herbs served on charming, chipped flea-market china placed on a worn oak table with an antique Mason jar of daffodils in the center. (See this month's Literary Bites for a snippet from a Laurie Colwin novel.)
Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are Colwin's only non-fiction works. In these two collections of food essays Colwin gets to lavish all her attention on the kind of domestic details that she could only allow herself to pause for briefly in her novels. One of my favorite essays is "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant". She describes her first apartment ("the size of the Columbia Encyclopedia") with such fondness that washing dishes in the bathtub and feeding friends from a two-burner hot plate sounds like about the best adventure you could have.
Just scanning through the Table of Contents, how could you not want to make a beeline for essays with such titles as "Repulsive Dinners: a Memoir", "Desserts that Quiver", "Stuffed Breast of Veal: a Bad Idea", or "Wonderful Lentil Soup"?
Laurie Colwin was a food writer I can relate to. She was a food lover, not a food snob. She says without even a hint of apology, "I am not a fancy cook or an ambitious one. I am a plain old cook." (Me, too.) Like a lot of us food lovers, she had cookbooks by her bedside "with all the little pages turned down". She knew that planning a dinner party with kids underfoot is not easy: "It is impossible to concentrate on a recipe when your seven-year-old calls out a thousand times from the dining room, 'Mom, what does this spell?'" She totally understood what a major accomplishment it is to produce your first Thanksgiving dinner:"Aside from your initial ride on a two-wheeler or solo outing as a licensed driver, there is nothing as liberating as the first Thanksgiving you organize entirely on your own."
There are one or two recipes accompanying just about every essay in both books. I've tried a few. The Old-Fashioned Gingerbread was good, but kind of dry. The Broccoli Soup which she said she could eat a gallon of didn't inspire anyone at my table to ask for seconds. But I don't read her essays for the recipes; I read them for her writing.
In the essay, "Why I Love Cookbooks" Colwin says, "I realize the reason I love (them) is that (they) leave out all the other stuff. You don't have to find out about family relationships....there's no novel! It's just the food." (I guess a novelist needs to get away from novels sometimes.) In both Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, she pretty much "leaves out all the other stuff". If, in real life, Colwin had writer's block, marital problems, noisy neighbors, or painful bunions, you don't hear about it here. Her relationships only come up in the context of food. You know she was married because she writes about her self-catered wedding and her Latvian mother-in-law's bread. You know she doted on her young daughter, because she crops up often in the essays as trick-or-treater, gingerbread connoisseur, kitchen helper.
Again, on the appeal of reading cookbooks: "You want comfort; you want security; you want food..." Maybe that's why cookbooks make such good bedtime reading: they are engaging but not agitating. The same applies to Colwin's food essays. When I read them, I can escape into Colwin's sanguine version of her life, a world where the worst that can happen is a bad dinner, and even that can be turned into a good story.
But sometimes as I'm cozily ensconsed in one of her essays I think about the fact that she is dead. And it just seems so hard to believe because her writing has such an immediacy. Maybe it's those domestic details, like the fact that her 1942 edition of The Joy of Cooking was "held together with duct tape", are so tangible, so anchored to the everyday facts of life, that death seems unthinkable. I feel sad for her daughter and her family and friends who I feel I am acquainted with after reading these two books. In the introduction to Home Cooking Colwin writes, "One of the delights in life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating." If Colwin were alive, those lines would have a simple, bright feeling. Knowing that she isn't, I take them as cautionary reminders to savor and seek out those delights while you can. Because you never know.