Along with M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating, the other literary inspiration for this blog came out of Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking. Colwin may not enjoy the name recognition of food writers like Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth David, or Calvin Trillin, but her book contains all the makings of a classic: a distinctive voice (wry, opinionated, and unfussy), relatable themes (cooking for one, making do with a less-than-perfect kitchen, what to cook when you don’t want to, hosting low-budget dinner parties), and, most importantly, a clear and exuberant love for simple, flavorful food. (A dead author doesn’t hurt, either: sadly, Colwin passed away in 1992 at the age of 48 due to heart problems. Her second book of food essays, More Home Cooking, was published posthumously.)
This collection of 33 short essays is a little bit memoir, a little bit cookbook, and a lot of inspiration. It is the kind of cooking storybook that inspires confidence in novice cooks and reinvigorates passion in more seasoned ones. Reading it reminded me that meaningful meals don’t require tiny vegetables or a goat roast in Burkina Faso or even a kitchen sink (which Colwin’s closet-sized New York apartment lacked: she washed dishes in the bathtub and drained them in a rack over the toilet.) Care and thought (for your guests, for your own enjoyment, for the food itself) are enough.
Colwin’s essay titles mirror her writing style in their brevity and wit, and her favorite dishes in their simplicty and straightforwardness. A few of my favorites include “Feeding the Fussy,” “Fish,” and “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” Her recipes, when they have names, are for things like “Jeanette Kossuth’s Green Sauce,” “Chicken with Chicken Glaze,” and “Black Cake”: in other words, for food that doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. These are the kinds of recipes you can memorize without trying to, easily adapted to what you have in the fridge and more concerned with flavor than appearance.
Most chapters contain a recipe or two, but preparations are as likely to be revealed within the narrative as called out under a heading with ingredients and a series of steps to follow. This free-form structure creates the sense that Colwin’s life was lived in and through these recipes, and they capture the spirit of an evening or the memory of a particular moment as poignantly as any photograph.
“As I watch my daughter taste her first this and that,” Colwin writes, “which, in New York City, means her first shiitake mushroom, falafel, plate of hummus, tree ear, bamboo shoot or chocolate mousse–I remember back to that time when my palate was clear and unsophisticated, everything was an adventure and the world was as fresh as a fish.”
May we all live and eat this way, too.