I adore cookbooks and I own thousands, both 3D (what I call hard covers and paperbacks) and virtual cookbooks. But when I discovered Laurie Colwin’s cookbooks Home Cooking and More Home Cooking my standards changed. I expect more out of cookbooks now.
I first became aware of Ms. Colwin while reading Gourmet magazine. She wrote a column for that great, defunct tome and I looked forward to reading it every month.
I was very upset when I heard she died in 1992. She died in her sleep. She was only 48 years old.
Then, I learned that she wasn’t just great at writing about food – she was a great writer period! She wrote ten books: five novels, three collections of her short stories, and two cookbooks (one published posthumously from her Gourmet columns). Of course, I immediately bought the fiction and read every word.
And loved every word. She used such wonderful spare prose. And did not use contractions, which I think made her writing richer. (There’s nothing I despise more in writing than the lazy contractions “would’ve” or “might’ve.” Write out the words, for pete’s sake!)
But there was nothing like her writing about food. With a simple sentence about a pot roast, your mouth would start watering. I had to stop after every chapter and think about it and sigh and wish I could write that well.
In the essay “Friday Night Dinner” she describes serving her fabulous meltingly tender pot roast and crisp and flavorful potato pancakes to friends and says, “People often eat this in total silence in which case you may assume that you are not going to have any leftovers.”
Just stop a minute and let that sentence sink it. It says so much. The food is fabulous. The guests are appreciative. The party is cozy and wonderful. No commas, no extraneous words, not even any descriptions of the food! Now that’s good writing.
Every recipe has a story and a history. She describes tackling homemade bread, figures out how to make a great dinner party menu that will satisfy everyone’s weird allergies and peccadillos, and how to make the best gingerbread.
I haven’t tried many of her recipes; I prefer just reading the stories. Although I will say that her Bloomer Loaf is spectacular, and her Pot Roast recipe is just sublime. You should make them right away. I’ll wait.
The essay I love most, along with many other people, is called “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” She describes her first apartment, about which she says, “It is lucky I never met Wilt Chamberlain because if I had invited him in for coffee he would have been unable to spread his arms in my room, which was roughy seven by twenty.” She didn’t have a kitchen sink, but she had dinner parties and dance parties in that small place.
She talks about the child’s desk that served as a coffee table, about her Meissen plates that she loved, and her routine during the work week and on the weekends, when she browsed New York’s rich farmers markets.
But the essay really is about the weird things people eat when they are alone. Think about it. When my husband isn’t at home, I make myself sweet potatoes glazed in honey and brown sugar. That’s all I eat. Or I have some sourdough bread, toasted and smeared with cream cheese. Weird stuff like that kind of defines you.
Ms. Colwin ate eggplant when she was alone. She ate it “fried and crisp, stewed, sludgy, hot, and cold.” She ate eggplant “constantly, with garlic and honey, eggplant with spaghetti, eggplant with fried onions and Chinese plum sauce.”
That is kind of weird.
She ends with this paragraph: “Now I have a kitchen with a four-burner stove, and a real fridge. I have a pantry and a kitchen sink and a dining room table. But when my husband is at a business meeting and my little daughter is asleep, I often find myself alone in the kitchen with an eggplant, a clove of garlic, and my old pot without the handle about to make a weird dish of eggplant to eat out of the Meissen soup plate at my desk.”
Buy this book. If you don’t know anything about her, you are in luck. Because you can discover all of her writing in one fell swoop.
I envy you.