Originally published 1988, this collection of memoir-centric essays on cooking and life is insightful, funny, surprisingly practical and helpful, and still fresh and relevant thirty years later.
Beloved novelist Laurie Colwin loved being in the kitchen, especially cooking for other people. She has an upbeat, happy sense of humor that infuses her stories, often making jokes at her own expense. Her emphasis is on simplicity – she’s passionate about the simple, less time-intensive, often comforting and especially happy-making dishes.
But some of my favorite sections were the ones addressing dinner disasters or her guests’ uncomfortable reactions when dishes didn’t turn out as anticipated. Her recollections of those ambitious, often bizarre cooking projects that many new (or should know better) cooks undertake were hilarious. She always offers advice for the different paths one’s cooking might take: “If all else fails, eat out, and while you are smiling through your tears, remember that novices usually make the same terrible mistake only once.”
In the middle of my kitchen disasters, by which time I had done a lot of cooking and knew my way around the kitchen, I decided to entrap the man I would later marry by baking a red snapper, the only fish he liked. Misguided by passion, I decided I would stuff this fish with sliced grapes, small shrimp and fermented black beans. I have never stuffed a fish before, let alone baked one. I had no idea what I was doing. In fact, I must’ve been out of my mind. I had no recipe to guide me, but does love need a recipe? Does inspiration require instructions?
She describes the terrifying end result as “Hieronymous Bosch’s vision of hell.” I remember feeling so embarrassed or let down when I screwed up recipes or cooking projects, enough that it put me off really trying for years sometimes. Colwin’s stories make you feel in good company, both about the mistakes and the breaks.
I connected to it on a weird level. We share a deep love of red peppers, black beans, and putting paprika on (almost) everything. We both “came to cooking late in life” as she puts it, and beeline towards grocery stores when in foreign countries. We’re both married to Eastern Europeans (her husband immigrated from Latvia, mine is Polish/Serbian). We both had the ceiling above the shower in our first teeny-tiny Manhattan apartments spontaneously collapse (that’s a weird coincidence, you have to admit.) We both went through phases in early adulthood of eating eggplant all the time. I always thought I was so weird for that! And yet it’s a vivid, oddly meaningful memory to me of that time.
Colwin describes this phase of her life while writing about the funny but strangely important significance of eating alone: “Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they’re alone.” It gets hilarious from there, but I’ll leave it for you to discover, because this book is one to discover.
She pulls those kind of easy to overlook but actually meaningful moments from her life and weaves stories around them of the time and place and people and why the food was significant, and tells it all in this sweet, honest, friendly writing style. It felt like I found the mirror image best friend I never knew existed or that I needed!
Tragically, Colwin died at 48 from a heart attack, which in addition to being way too young and the loss of an author I would love to read 100 more books from, made me nervous in a self-centered way because, well, I hope I’m reading way too much into our weird similarities here. She does cook a lot with beef and I don’t, so there are SOME differences? I’ve never felt so sad to learn that an author I loved wasn’t living.
But I know I’m not alone in reading the book so personally like this. Colwin writes in a way that makes you want to be friends with her, and get invited to her dinner parties (which end at decent hours as parties should, she reasonably explains) even when she serves the same meals repeatedly or worse, experiments with a questionable baking project. It feels like talking to a friend, and I think the experience would be the same even if, unlike me, you run out of fingers to count the odd similarities you have in common with this person you’ll never know but feel strangely connected to across the decades thanks to her recipes and anecdotes.
I just read this a few weeks ago and I’ve already made several of the recipes I copied from it and they were fantastic (one was a little under fantastic but that was mostly on me. Some of the recipes are haphazard, mixed into one of her stories, so don’t come with exact measurements.)
I can’t believe I lived so much of my life without this book in it. I immediately recognized older cover editions so I must’ve seen it around, either in stores or people’s homes. But why did no one tell me about it? (I discovered it through the Penguin email list – they do staff favorite-themed emails sometimes, and someone sold this so well I got it from the library right away.) I’m telling everyone about it from now on. I was in a bit of a cooking rut when I read it and it snapped me out of it immediately.
Some favorite moments:
Unless you live alone in a cave or hermitage, cooking and eating are social activities: even hermit monks have one communal meal a month. The sharing of food is the basis of social life, and to many people it is the only kind of social life with participating in.
In foreign countries I am drawn into grocery shops, supermarkets and kitchen supply houses. I explain this by reminding my friends that, as I was taught in Introduction to Anthropology, it’s 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.
For those who came to cooking late in life – by this I mean after the age of 18 – many are the pitfalls in store. For instance, 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. It is no easy thing to make perfect scrambled eggs although almost anyone got turned out fairly decent ones, and with a little work, really disgusting ones can be provided.
I will never have a microwave oven because I believe they are dangerous, and totally unnecessary unless you are running a fast food operation or, like one of my cousins, you are amused by watching eggs explode.
Chicken salad has a certain glamour about it. Like the little black dress, it is chic and adaptable and can be taken anywhere.
Colwin’s stories and little philosophies are joyful, funny, charming and uplifting – I really mean that despite how cliched it might sound. The book includes recipes, actual ones and more loosely told ones, but it’s memoir/essay structured. And I recommend it whether you’re interested in cooking and “foodoirs” or not.
Verdict: 5/5, love forever, so happy there’s a sequel.
Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen
by Laurie Colwin