Words to Eat By: Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen

7466947“Unlike some people, who love to go out,” writes Laurie Colwin in her introduction to Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, “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.” As an unapologetic homebody myself, I thought this collection of food memoirs would have immediate appeal. It didn’t, though — at least, not when I first read the book two years ago. Way back then, the essays left me unmoved, but things change and this time around I fell hard for Colwin and her slim book of wonderfully weird and evocative stories about food. Chalk my new appreciation for Colwin’s work up to my ever-evolving definition of home, if you like, as I’ve recently traded in my home of over a decade for a month-to-month lease on a studio apartment in a new city. I suspect that it was my longing for home and familiarity that made me pick up Home Cooking again, and I’m happy I did.

Home Cooking is a warm, funny, engaging read by writer who deserves more attention than she typically gets, and it often feels like a long conversation over food with a very good friend. The style is light and riddled with tangents and byways, but that’s all part of the fun; Colwin keeps meaning to give us a recipe, but she also can’t resist sharing hilarious stories on the way. This isn’t a primer on cooking or method, or not really; the amount of instruction varies from piece to piece, ranging from a full-on tutorial on bread to a light essay on nursery foods. Interestingly, Colwin doesn’t claim any superior knowledge at all here, though she certainly was an authority on food in her relatively short lifetime (she died at 48 in 1992, four years after Home Cooking was published, and its sequel was published posthumously). Her career had quite a few high points, and she can count many contributions to Gourmet and a James Beard Award among them. Still, it’s a relief to find no macho bluster or know-it-all posturing in these pages. Rather, these are quiet stories that sneak up on you with their humor and depth.

In one one my favorites, “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” Colwin celebrates all the oddities we eat when we only need to feed ourselves. She writes, “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 are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.” Another standout was “Repulsive Dinners: a Memoir”, in which Colwin celebrates the worst disasters of home cookery: “There is something triumphant about a really disgusting meal. It lingers in the memory with a lurid glow, just as something exalted is remembered with a kind of mellow brilliance.” From learning to cook in her tiny East Village flat, where she “did the dishes in a plastic pan in the bathtub and set the dish drainer over the toilet,” to entertaining friends later in life, Colwin approaches everything with a droll humor and intelligence.

You’ll find a few good tips hidden in here. On the whole, though, this isn’t a book to read for kitchen know-how so much as for the journey through home kitchens that we may recognize in our own. Read it also for the confirmation of the connections that we find on the other side of a home-cooked meal, however lousy the food turns out to be. Colwin writes, “When people enter the kitchen, they often drag their childhood in with them.” Odd and wonderful things happen in her many kitchens, ranging from epic fondue failures where the guests end up eating the dipping sauces with a spoon to good times sharing pots of soup, but each of these experiences is an exploration of memory. This book is unassuming, quiet, and brilliant.

In any case, I’m happy I revisited this book; Home Cooking is an absolute gem, and I’m so glad I was wrong. At fewer than 200 pages, this is a deceptively light read in an easygoing, anecdotal style that nevertheless covers all the deep stuff about homes, kitchens and food. Home Cooking is a book in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher and other food essayists, but as I read I was reminded too of a few of my favorite food bloggers. Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman (and her book) came to mind, as did My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss (a.k.a The Wednesday Chef) and David Lebovitz’s wonderful blog and memoir. In fact, if you’ve enjoyed any of these writers or even the essays of the great M.F.K. Fisher, you’ll probably love Home Cooking.

Melissa is writer who lives with her husband and two warring felines in Portland, Oregon. When she isn’t reading, writing, or cooking, there’s a good chance she’s trying to clicker-train her cats.

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