I want 2022 to be a reading year where I read more and from a variety of genres. Given that I’m now on holiday from work/school (my work is school, I teach hyper-anxious, overachieving teens) and have abandoned all hope of catching up on grading, I thought I’d get an early start. I want to read more non-fiction, but since falling off the serious-reading bandwagon, I’m daunted by some of the titles in my non-fiction TBR, witness Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, or Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History, to name a few. I thought I’d start easy, short, and discrete. I read Laurie Colwin’s collection of essays, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, and thank the Twitter-friend who suggested it.
I’m hardly a writer, like Colwin, but I did learn to cook and bake during the pandemic. She’s a great companion for a cook-baker who started with the complicated (neophyte cooks’ primary error) and learned, the hard way, through the charred, over- or under-done, tasteless, and *gasp* unrecognizable, through the polite murmurs and discreet coughs (read “gags”) of dinner companions, and through awkward physical kitchen-contortions, like running your finger along a knife-edge only to slice it as if it were the main course, or flipping a fish fillet barely out of the oven and scorching your neck with scalding olive oil and butter. Colwin is funny, reasonable, irreverent, and concerned with “home cooking” at the end of a hard day than reducing balsamic like a chef whose empire draws millions, in dollars and fans.
Her recipes didn’t inspire me to attempt them: they’re dated, require ingredients not readily available, and don’t contain the precise directions a new cook-baker requires, like answering “Do you cover the pot, or not?” For example, I will never crave or make beef tea and her recipe for Boston Brown Bread would take me a whole week of vacation-time to make. Thanks to the suggestions of a few Twitter friends, Mark Bittman has stood as my steadfast kitchen companion and I’m producing, if not elaborate, then passable dishes occasionally bordering on the delicious and, as my recent chocolate-sour-cream pound cake can attest, the sublime.
I ended up enjoying Colwin’s books for her witticisms and sharp observations about food and human nature, entwined, since the 1920s and the start of diet crazes, too much with our neuroses and not enough with our souls. Sometimes, Colwin felt like my twin, as she echoed some of my life-philosophies:
“Unlike some people, who love to go out, I love to stay home. This may be caused by laziness, anxiety, or xenophobia, and in the days when my friends were happily traveling to Bolivia and Nepal, I was ashamed to admit that what I liked best was hanging around the house.”
While Colwin was a boomer, I’m of the boomer-baby-sister generation, too old for GenX, but not enough of a boomer to reap the benefits, just the underemployment. Like Colwin, I too had globe-trotting, in my case not-quite-boomer, friends and, like Colwin, I liked staying in (add reading. If Colwin had written about cooking and books, this could have been a perfect read. She does take a little stab at Proust, I did love that bit.).
One of my favourite of her essays was “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” I have a love-hate relationship with the aubergine. Being of Greek origin, I’ve eaten A LOT of eggplant: sometimes I’ve loved, most times, hated it. I’ve eaten it fried, with ouzo, and a Greek boyfriend on the side; I’ve eaten it in my first ratatouille, alone, and because I made enough to feed a group of strikers from a picket-line, I ate it for WEEKS. Once, when I was in Greece for the summer, and my family and I returned from the “beach” (pronounced by the Greeks as “bee-itz”), we found four foil-covered dishes on the kitchen table. One after another, neighbours had left a “sampling” of their lunch for us (Greeks like to eat their major meal in mid-afternoon, sleep through to the early evening, and stay up till the wee hours indulging in sharp alcoholic beverages and “mezze”). They seemed to think/believe that we were incapable of feeding ourselves, not even able to assemble food, like a salad, and would starve under their watch. As it turns out, all four were eggplant dishes. When my mother pulled her lunch contribution out of the oven, imam bayildi (“stuffed eggplant”), all I wanted was to come home to Canada and eat shepherd’s pie.
Colwin’s funniest essay is “Repulsive Dinners: A Confession”. I have a theory, like Colwin, having consumed my share of repulsive dinners, that people who present bad food to their guests have weak, underdevelopped palates and/or are cheap. I agree with Colwin: you don’t need to be a gourmet chef to produce a tasty dinner for guests. I would add, with a nicely cultivated palate and if you’re not parsimonious about grocery shopping, you can figure out where to get excellent ready-made food and shop for delicious ingredients. If you have a repertoire of decent tried-and-true dishes, like a good curry, don’t kill vegetables, make a great vinaigrette, serve up excellent cheese and bread, and do something with fruit for dessert, everyone can enjoy your meal. Colwin would agree. Cultivate your palate and open your pocket-book. (One of the worse meals I ever had came in one of my first teaching years when I attended the board’s annual staff cocktail. We filed into an enormous, drafty mansion and were invited to make use of an old-fashioned water closet with stiff, thin, high-way-motel hand-towels. As we shivered in the corners of a living-room resembling a medieval “great hall” minus the lung-saving tapestries and downed the thimble-sized glasses of sherry, we hoped for better fare to come. Through the billows of my breath, I saw a plate approach: it held three, or four curly-edged pieces of unidentifiable marbled cheese, possibly cheddar. Out of here, I thought, goodness knows what plated abomination will appear next. I made my excuses and way home, to my working-class duplex, with its full-blast heating and beef stew on the stove.) Colwin describes some horrific meals thanks to an overabundant desire to be original and/or cheap-skate-hood, and you can guffaw through them, as I did, by reading her book.
I will leave you with one of Colwin’s best lines, which I’m adopting as my kitchen motto: “I am not a fancy cook or an ambitious one. I am a plain cook.”