Laurie Colwin – Cookery Writing for COVID times

I’ve recently been reading Laurie Colwin’s More Home Cooking, her second book of witty and warm cookery essays, mainly taken from articles she wrote for the now defunct Gourmet Magazine.

The late Laurie Colwin, born and based in New York, was initially known for her fiction writing, first publishing in the New Yorker, followed by three volumes of short stories and five novels. But it’s her two volumes of essays on home cooking that sit on my bookshelf.

Her writing makes me smile; it truly makes me happy. I can relax about my cooking in her company. She’s a self-confessed ‘refined slob’, a slap-dash cook. But she has such panache that she gets away with it every time. She’s very happy to tell you about her kitchen disasters, some of them fairly monumental. Do you think Nigella is going to fess up that her ‘fish looked like Hieronymous Bosch’s vision of hell’?1

Perhaps I’m drawn to her because her focus is a little more European than American (she was married to a Latvian) and, although I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with America, the Trump years have, sadly, cooled my ardour. But I can relate to her because she’s so obviously a normal person: she’s a harried working mother who lives in a tiny Manhattan apartment ‘a little larger than the Columbia Encyclopedia’ and has a freezer ‘about the size of a postage stamp’. She’s the master of ‘easy cooking for exhausted people’ and raves about slow cooking. But her recipes do have a reputation for not being very reliable. No surprise then when I read her recipe for vegetarian chilli which made no mention of spice whatsoever. But,somehow, I was still drawn to the feeling of warmth that this recipe would give me. How does that work?

There is not one photograph and just the occasional line drawing in these two volumes, which is surprisingly refreshing. In this lockdown world where everyone on social media is trying to sooth our fevered brows with pictures of the beautiful food they’ve created at home, her description of rather chaotic family gatherings, which are just as much about the food as about the people she’s brought together, are deliciously energising. Right now, I’d give my right arm for a noisy, disorderly extended family dinner with a roast chicken and all the trimmings, a hot steaming pudding and plenty of laughs and hugs.

Maybe that’s why I’m so cheered by reading her essays. Her writing is appealing to the world we used to know. The world where we could shop in a busy deli or a crowded farmer’s market, not just the soulless, too brightly lit, almost empty supermarkets. She’s reminding us of the times when we could have our favourite friends over to eat hearty food and talk long into the night. When we could hug and kiss and not worry about the consequences.

In our world where we’re just beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, where we can tentatively start to plan for next year (dinner with more than just a few friends, a great, noisy, raucous, non-socially distanced gathering), Laurie Colwin’s writing is making me excited about cooking again as it reminds me of why I do it. To feed the souls of the people I love.

1Since first writing this post Nigella Lawson recently wrote in The Guardian ‘had I read Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen before starting (to write) How to Eat, I’m not sure I’d have bothered.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s