In my baking cupboard, at the very back of the top shelf, there is an open bag of wheatgerm. It has survived one house move and more than six years of ownership, and it is depleted by only one loaf’s worth. Laurie Colwin is to blame.
I first read Colwin’s Home Cooking (1988) right at the start of my journey into food and cooking, long before I’d jacked in my career to train as a pâtisserie chef. At the time, I’d never baked a loaf. In one of the essays in that book – ‘Bread baking without agony’ – Colwin describes her own first foray into baking, in which a friend guided her through an exhausting day of proving, kneading and shaping. She wrote, ‘The result was a perfectly nice loaf of bread, but after spending an entire day in its service, I expected something a little more heroic.’
This candour marks much of Colwin’s writing and, as someone new to the food world, I found it deeply refreshing. She wasn’t romantic or pretentious about food, as other food writers were. She was honest and practical, and she didn’t stand on culinary ceremony. She found another way to bake bread, one which allowed her to fit the bread around her life, rather than the other way round. This sounded more like my kind of cooking. So I followed her recipe, even going so far as to track down the wheatgerm that she used, which I eventually found in a health-food shop (and never again encountered in a bread recipe) – and much to my surprise, I ended up with a delicious loaf of bread. Imbued with a newfound confidence, I quickly moved on to other recipes, hence the forgotten wheatgerm. But without Laurie Colwin, I would never have got started.
Laurie Colwin was an American writer who produced five novels, three collections of short stories and two volumes of essays and recipes, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking (1993). She wrote for the New Yorker and was a regular and much-loved contributor to Gourmet and Mademoiselle magazines, where her columns focused on the intersection of food and life. Her kitchen essays have a cultish following in the food world – Home Cooking was posthumously admitted to the illustrious James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame – but her work is not nearly as widely known as it deserves to be.
Long before Nigella’s Kitchen and Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries invited us into their homes, mixing personal narrative with domestic culinary instruction, there was Colwin. She was the original ‘writer in the kitchen’ (which happens to be the subtitle of Home Cooking), the proto-food memoirist – conversational, untrained and inexact, but with buckets of enthusiasm and practical nous.
If it sounds diminishing to describe her as a ‘domestic’ writer, then it shouldn’t. This was the realm in which she revelled and which she championed. As she put it, ‘It is not just the Great Works of mankind that make a culture. It is the daily things, like what people eat and how they serve it.’ Food is life, and Colwin served hers up with jokes and trivia, delightful diversions and strange segues. She wrote about her husband and small child, and her ‘Lilliputian’ apartment which witnessed both her dinner parties and her hangovers. She illuminated what it was like to be a woman in her own kitchen in a serious way, but without ever taking herself too seriously.
She was also, to me at least, laugh-out-loud funny. Consider her reflections on a friend’s neat shelf of preserves:
There is nothing more daunting than to visit someone’s country house and see a jelly cupboard actually filled with homemade jam and jelly, neatly labelled, row upon row. I once visited a classic supermom on an island in Maine: no running water, no electricity. One wood stove and an outhouse. Above her stove was rigged a massive jelly bag, which dripped into a kettle. She and her children had collected wild apples, and she was making a jelly out of them. I am a worm, I thought to myself.
Her essay titles themselves speak volumes: ‘Desserts that quiver’, ‘Jam anxiety’, ‘Turkey angst’, ‘Alone in the kitchen with an eggplant’.
She was also extraordinarily perceptive about the ways in which people actually cook and eat. ‘If you ask an experienced cook what dish is foolproof, scrambled eggs is often the answer. But the way toward perfect scrambled eggs is full of lumps.’ Instead, Colwin offers a simple beef stew, which is truly a far easier thing for a kitchen novice to master. When she writes about the amateur cook going into the kitchen ‘armed with a chinois and a copy of Edwardian Glamour Cooking without Tears in order to produce a lobster bisque’, I feel as if she’s watching me at 25 trying to host a dinner party.
Colwin has opinions, but she is disarmingly self-aware about them being just that. ‘As everyone knows, there is only one way to fry chicken correctly. Unfortunately, most people think their method is best, but most people are wrong. Mine is the only right way, and on this subject I feel almost evangelical.’ This is the kind of authority that compelled me to buy that bag of wheat- germ. She is both eminently practical and – for a control freak like me – maddeningly elliptical, instructing the reader to ‘Make the polenta in the ordinary way’ or ‘Boil the potatoes – the amount depends on how many people you are feeding’. I suspect that few of her devotees read her for her recipes. It may have been her recipe that propelled me into bread-making, but now, with more experience under my belt, her laissez-faire instruction in that very recipe – ‘You can preheat the oven or put it in a cold oven, it matters not a bit’ – is enough to give me conniptions.
Perhaps my favourite thing about her is that she, like me, was greedy. It’s always refreshing to read about a woman who loves food without shame. Here she is on roasting turkey for Thanksgiving: ‘A nicer person would throw in the neck, but I am not a nice person, and I roast the neck, which I then eat all by myself in the kitchen without a trace of guilt, because I did all the work.’
Colwin’s practicality is reinforced by the elegant economy of her prose, where a throwaway phrase often serves to paint a vast canvas. Writing about Thanksgiving, and the need to tailor how you serve your turkey to the number of guests, she sums up with one word something that took Proust 4,000 pages: ‘Although turkey is delicious in itself, it is burdened with context.’
Colwin was an Anglophile through and through, particularly when it came to food writing. She adored Jane Grigson, Margaret Costa and Elizabeth David (as well as Edna Lewis and Marcella Hazan). One of her favourite novelists was Barbara Pym. Her love for old-fashioned English food is deeply endearing; her first encounter with double cream – something not really found in America – is one of my favourites. She cannot identify the immovable thick-enough-to-stand-a-spoon substance in the jug. ‘This is cream?’ she gasps. So enamoured with it is she that she persuades (or bullies) a friend to bring a pot of double cream in his hand luggage when he flies to America. He emerges from Customs ‘carrying a dripping bag out in front of him as if it were a wet fish. His coat sleeves and his shoes were covered in double cream. Predictably, the lid had slipped and covered him in cream in transit; the customs officials spoke gently, as if to an insane person. “We have dairy products in the United States, too, Mr Davies.”’
The peculiarities of English food also precipitated one of Colwin’s finest passages, in which she takes a Sussex pond pudding as a slightly unusual hostess gift. For the uninitiated, Sussex pond pudding is a very old-fashioned British recipe in which a whole lemon and large quantities of butter and sugar are boiled inside a suet pastry case, the lemon infusing the sauce that forms inside the pastry. ‘It never occurred to me that nobody might want to eat it . . . My hostess looked confused. “It looks like a baked hat . . .”’ But poor feedback never seemed to bother Colwin. ‘The others ate ice cream. I ate almost the entire pudding myself.’
In fact, Colwin is probably at her most engaging when describing her culinary disasters – a topic that most food writers avoid, bar one benign example to show that they are as fallible as the rest of us. By contrast, she reels them off with something approaching pride. ‘When it finally emerged from the oven, this fish looked like Hieronymus Bosch’s vision of hell, with little nasty-looking things spilling out into a pallid-looking puddle of undercooked fish juices.’ Or consider her attempt at meat fondue:
While we waited we ate up all the bread and butter. One of the Alices began to eat the béarnaise sauce with a spoon. The other Alice suggested we go out for dinner. Once in a while we would dip a steak cube into the oil to see what happened. At first we pulled out oil-covered steak. After a while, the steak turned faintly gray. Finally, I turned one of my burners on high and put the pot on the burner to get it started. Thereafter we watched with interest as our steak cubes sizzled madly and turned into little lumps of rubbery coal . . . Then we went to the local bar for hamburgers and French fries.
Laurie Colwin died in 1992 of an aneurysm. She was 48. When Ruth Reichl became editor-in-chief of Gourmet in 1999, she found in her office 400 letters of mourning sent in by readers. While I was trying to find out more about her, I came across an article in the New York Times from 2014 entitled ‘A confidante in the kitchen’. Beneath the article were hundreds of comments from people all over the world who hadn’t known her but felt as though they did. They talked about her kitchen essays much more than her novels. And they actively missed her.
This is how I feel, too. Laurie Colwin was an extraordinarily skilled memoirist – it’s impossible to read her and not feel as if you know her. The way she wrote about food feels like a direct precursor to a whole movement of cookery writing by food writers who welcome us into their homes. That’s what Home Cooking is really about: home. A warm, welcoming place, with bread in the oven and soup on the stove. As Colwin wrote, ‘No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.’ This is how I felt as I made that first faltering loaf of bread, and that feeling is still with me.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © Olivia Potts 2021
About the contributor
Olivia Potts is an award-winning food writer and the Spectator’s cookery columnist. Her first book, A Half Baked Idea, is available now.