Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin: A Book Review
This is my first review as a member of The Kitchen Reader book club! I’m about a week late to the dance, but wanted to share my thoughts on this gem of a book.
Laurie Colwin’s collection of food essays is sweet, funny and down to earth, with simple and scrumptious recipes. If you have any interest at all in reading about food, get this book. It feels like a really fantastic food blog, only these stories were written WAY before blogs came into the picture. I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit in the world, one who appreciates all of the different facets of food every bit as much as I do, with an equally weird sense of humor to boot. This book had me giggling out loud on airplanes, in cafes, over breakfast and dinner, and all the other places I read Colwin’s stories. Each essay was a little nugget of pure enjoyment, and I savored them all.
One thing about this book that I didn’t realize before reading the intro was its specific place in time. It was written in the USA during the 1980s, and it is interesting to see what were the nutritional trends du jour and which have carried through to the present day. Colwin mentioned poly-unsaturated fats a great deal, as well as the effects of pollution on fish populations, the dangers of grilling (which I’m still confused about) and having to avoid salt. She has an entire essay (“Feeding the Fussy”) all about the different diets that her friends ascribe to. I was surprised to hear that folks were already worried about gluten, trying raw foods, etc. These ideas about health and nutrition seem so contemporary and new to me… it was surprising to hear them discussed in the 80s! This sentence also tickled me,
If you are wondering why you bought a home computer, you might now put it to good use and index your friends[‘ various food restrictions].
A few of my favorites were the aforementioned “Feeding the Fussy”, which I can definitely relate to. Also highly applicable to me was “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” and “Feeding the Multitudes”. The former spoke to the weird concoctions I thoroughly enjoy on my own in the kitchen, while the latter reminded me of my days cooking for a 20+ person housing cooperative.
I fold pages over when there is a particularly great quote or recipe I want to keep track of, and my poor paperback is now more folds than not. Here are a couple of hilarious quotes, to give you a taste of the comedic genius that is Laurie Colwin.
One Saturday I decided to impress a youth whose mother, a Frenchwoman, had taught him how to cook. A recipe for pot roast with dill presented itself to me and I was not old or wise enough to realize that dill is not something you really want with your pot roast. An older and wiser cook would also have known that a rump steak needs to be baked in the oven for a long time and does not fare well on top of the stove. The result was a tough, gray wedge with the texture of a dense sponge. To pay me back and show off, this person invited me to his gloomy apartment where we ate jellied veal and a strange pallid ring that quivered and glowed with a faintly purplish light. This, he told me, was a cold almond shape.
Many people, of course, have less than pleasant memories of Friday night dinners during which they were offered plates of weathered roof shingles accompanied by fried shoe heels. I myself had such a meal at the home of a college friend in 1962 and I often wonder how her mother got her pot roast to that dire combination of overcooked and rubbery at the same time. I am still digesting that meal.
And just one more:
It was years before I could come out and say how much I hated stuffing. Everyone in the world but me was fired up by an elemental urge to fill up bird cavities with this and that. At Thanksgiving time, friends would proudly confide their stuffing recipes, many of which I found personally nauseating: dried bread, prunes, oysters and water chestnuts, for example. Prunes and oysters! If such a dish were set before you at a restaurant, you would flee in horror and dismay, but when it comes to stuffing, anything goes. People get to make up disgusting combinations and than stuff their poor turkeys with them.
Colwin also shares thoughts and memories that ring so true with me, I honestly feel that we should hang out sometime. Example:
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.
When life is hard and the day has been long, the ideal dinner is not four perfect courses, each in a lovely pool of sauce whose ambrosial flavors are like nothing ever before tasted, but rather something comforting and savory, easy on the digestion- something that makes one feel, if even for only a minutes, that one is safe.
In her essay “English Food” Colwin talks about her first proper English tea and describes it as,
… until I sat down at Heals I had never had a proper tea in my life. All around us were real Englishwomen pouring tea from brown teapots. Put before us was a plate of bread and butter, a seed cake and a dish of little cakes made with candied cherries. I felt I would never be as happy again as I was that afternoon.
In 2007-2008 I went on a series of trips to England and had my own first proper tea experience.
I felt exactly the same way, and to this day my eyes will glaze over and a funny little smile will spread across my face as I recount the delicate sandwiches, clotted cream and scones, and absolutely perfect black tea I had that day. Just reading about Colwin’s tea made me miss my own, and suddenly my ever-present desire to move to England and devote myself to eating scones and sausages is rekindled. Laurie Colwin, if you’re out there, can we please be friends?
I can’t wait to read next month’s selection for The Kitchen Reader. If it’s even half as enjoyable as this lovely book, I will be having a very merry October.