Reading Laurie Colwin’s HOME COOKING

Home_CookingI 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.”

20 thoughts on “Reading Laurie Colwin’s HOME COOKING

  1. Home Cooking is a great favorite of mine! I read it many years ago, but More Home Cooking is sitting on my end table right now, waiting to be read. I also feel like Colwin was my twin in spirit. It was uncanny how some of our boomer experiences paralleled. While she was cooking for protesters at Columbia during their sit in, I was cooking for protesters at a big anti-Vietnam War march in Washington D.C. Actually, what happened was, the demonstrators were being fed out of a church basement, but the food coming out of there was really poorly done, so I went in and sort of took over the place!
    Unlike you, I have always cooked since I was a child. I don’t remember not being able to cook.
    I love Colwin’s common sense approach, and knowing when to be frugal and when to splurge.
    May I also suggest Martha Rose Shulman’s recipes? If you like Mark Bittman you should like her. It’s home cooking, simple, hearty, not all vegetarian but heavy on grains, legumes and veggies.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story, I LOVED it! I promise you, if we ever feed protestors out of my church basement, the food will be delicious! As an only spoiled child, I didn’t start cooking until my mother no longer could. She was a good cook, but more out of necessity than joy. I enjoy it, though, way more than she did.

      I have oodles of Christmas gift cards for books, so I’ll surely look for the Shulman!! Thank you for the rec too. I’m also eying Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. I don’t remember who recced it, but it looks interesting. I also have More Home Cooking on my wishlist.

      While I keep a Greek Orthodox “fast” (vegetarian, rarely pescatarian, sometimes, for strict periods, vegan) for several days per week and several periods, like Lent, I’m always happy to return to carnivorous ways when they’re done. So, I like cookbooks with a variety of recipes and ingredients. There are so many Shulman’s to choose from: which ones would you recommend???

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      1. The book I am most familiar with is Recipes for Health, which is a collection of Shulman’s recipes from her The New York Times column, which is where I first encountered her. But I would go through the recipe archive on her website first, and her blog, where you can try some for free and see how you like them. http://www.martha-rose-shulman.com/archives.htm
        If I was going to buy another of her books, I would probably get one of the vegetarian ones. Although I eat meat, I am trying to cut down.

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  2. Awesome review. Adding this one to the wish list. I especially love your story about the “drafts mansion.” Good for you that you got out of there!

    Have you read Elon Kelsey’s Hope Matters? My book study group is working through it If not, I would recommend it. A realistically uplifting book for these dark times.

    Happy holidays,

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    1. And the best of the holidays to you and your family!

      And thank you! That “drafts mansion” was a hoot: there’s a kind of parsimonious old Scottish thing in Montreal (now eclipsed by Quebecois neuroses) that made for some great stories like that one. Those families are gone now; their children, long “emigrated” to Ontario, or other provinces. And those mansions have been bought up by the nouveau riche and renovated, quite garishly. At least if I ever have to do a polite nod to another invitation, there will be central heating and plenty of food!

      I shall look for your rec!

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  3. Oh this was a great post (and coincidently, perfectly counterbalances my one for today). I laughed at “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;”.

    Even two years of living covidly has not enticed me yet to the kitchen for lengthy time-intense meals though I have a repertoire of 15 minute meals which serve my family well. I do admire your late uptake of cooking and baking.

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    1. LOL!! I didn’t quite realize how funny that was until you quoted it here. And yes, your burnt tiropita is a PERFECT companion blog-post, another indication of our symbiosis. BTW, I once fell asleep studying for a Western Civ exam while making lentil soup. When I woke up, the lentil soup was a charred mess on the pot’s bottom, looking strangely like the ruins of Troy. What makes this mundane story particularly interesting is that as I recounted the tale to a friend taking the same course at a café the next day, a man at the next table wrote a poem about it and me on a paper placemat. He handed it to me before he left and I still have it somewhere. It wasn’t terribly complimentary.

      15-minute meals: the best kind. Once I gave up the complicated, time-consuming recipes, which I resented for taking time away from reading, I slowly began to amass a repertoire of the same: 15 minutes, 20, tops 30. Still delicious.

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      1. Oh for my lentils to inspire bad stranger poetry! I hope you can find it and share it here. I cooked lentils once, just months into my marriage. My brother-in-law had come over in a surprise visit so I served his and my husband’s meal and I returned to get the salad and bread from the kitchen. When I returned, I found the two of them gingerly sipping at the soup. I sat and tried mine and it was the most awful mush I have ever eaten. I grabbed their bowls and threw the food into the compost. Though it served them right for not waiting for the host to be seated before starting their meal.

        Please do share some of those 15-30 minute recipes. I too feel resentment when I am cooking which provides a lovely tang to the food.

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        1. I know! I have to find this pesky thing, it’s *somewhere* in the house. I think he ends on a note about how I betrayed Western civilization by burning the lentils. He was probably a fascist. LOL!

          I think every newly-wed had a bad lentil story: it happened to my mother too. I hate légumes, so for an Ortho who keeps Lent, etc., I eat pasta, which is faster and easier and more digestible.

          My favourite 15-minute meal is from Mark Bittman: boil and salt and prep any shape pasta, but I like shells b/c they hold the *sauce* better. Add a little reserved pasta water to the drained warm pasta, a cup of mascarpone, dashes of freshly squeezed lemon juice to your taste, a few cranks of pepper, and the zest from the lemon. Add Parm when you serve it. I even like it reheated the next day, I add more of the reserved pasta water to the cold pasta and about 1/2 cup of mascarpone b/c it tends to dry. So good! I seethe with resentment if something takes too long, though I do find baking meditative. But then I don’t do it as often.

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            1. I have invented several 15 minute pasta dishes. One is pasta with edamame beans, you steam the shelled beans lightly, saute plentiful garlic in olive oil, then toss them with the pasta, and Parmesan or Romano cheese. Or you can add some pesto if you have it. Another is very Greek inspired. Saute some onions in olive oil, add a bunch of spinach(fresh or frozen) with a little bit of water, cover and iet it cook down a bit. Then you mash together equal parts of sour cream and feta cheese, and about half as much Parmesan. After the pasta is cooked, toss it together with the spinach mixture and the cheese mixture. For 2 people, the quantity I would use is 1/2 c. each of sour cream and feta, and a few tablespoons of the grated Parm.

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          1. I forgot to add, if you garnish the feta cheese pasta with some freshly ground black pepper, and a few chopped black olives, that makes it perfect.

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  4. That sounds like some fun reading. Have you ever read Peg Bracken? She’s dated, but entertaining about food.

    _The Warmth of Other Suns_ is less intimidating than it looks! For non-fiction, it has excellent storytelling.

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    1. I haven’t, but I’ll look for her. I don’t mind dated. I’m dated too.

      It’s on the TBR, but I *just* got, in the mail today, The Dawn of Everything, clocking in at 673 pages with end notes, which I always love reading. Oh I want to read the Wilkerson too, b/c I want to also read her *Caste*.

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