I arrived home at dinnertime, braindead from a long day of car and plane travel but determined to eat a home-cooked meal. “There are all these vegetables,” my boyfriend had told me on the phone, when I was in the cab from LaGuardia. “Should I do something to them? I could boil some water and put some pasta in it.”
“That … sounds good,” I said. But it sounded risky; this is a person who once cooked me a pencil-eraser textured “omelet” that contained raw onion and slices of hot dog. “Actually, why not wait till I get home? Just get some pasta and some kind of cheese, and I’ll figure out the rest.”
A few minutes later, I was staring into the refrigerator, asking myself a question I ask myself so often that by now I tend just to think of it by its first initials, as some Christians do when they ask themselves how Jesus would tackle a dilemma: WWLCD? That is to say: What Would Laurie Colwin Do?
Colwin is not a household name like Julia Child or a brand like Ina Garten or Nigella Lawson; she died in 1992, before the concept of “Food Network Star” – or the Food Network itself – had been invented. But her influence has been far reaching. In the two short books of essays about food that comprise her entire cooking-related oeuvre (she was primarily a novelist), she eschewed lessons in technique or admonishments about rules. Even more than Child did, she made the production of good, simple “home food” seem not just accessible to every cook but irresistible. She never pretended that the boring parts of cooking were anything but boring. “It is wise to have someone you adore talking to in the kitchen while you make these eggs,” she writes, “or to be listening to something very compelling on the radio.” To Colwin, the point of cooking was eating–eating with family and friends, definitely, but also straight from the pot, ravenous and gloriously alone.
Colwin’s official culinary credentials, she confesses early, are nil. She grew up in a family of enthusiastic cooks and eaters in Long Island and went to high school in Pennsylvania, then moved to New York City to attend Columbia and worked in book publishing upon graduation. Around the time that her early short stories were being published in The New Yorker, she was living in a two-burner, kitchen-sink-less Greenwich Village studio which is the setting of what many think of as her signature essay, Alone In The Kitchen With An Eggplant. The essay revels in the independent and idiosyncratic rituals of private domesticity, and Colwin describes shopping in the Village at a time when there were still a few pushcarts selling vegetables. Recovering from a hangover (“I had gone to a party and disgraced myself”) via a home-cooked meal constructed from the “four veal scallops, a little bottle of French olive oil, a bunch of arugula, two pears and a Boursealt cheese, and a loaf of bread from Zito’s bakery on Bleeker” that a concerned friend brought over, Colwin writes, “I would have wept tears of gratitude but I was too hungry.” Like many meals described in these books, this was “one of the most delicious” of her life.
It’s a testament to the infectiousness of Colwin’s enthusiasm that her recipes seem appealing even though the food she described was often unappealing to the point of being categorically gross – and she knew it. Her favorite foods include mashed vegetable fritters, meatloaf, steamed puddings, and the jelly that surrounds cold leftover meat, spread on toast and eaten for breakfast. Her enthusiasm for fermented Chinese black beans is boundless, and in several of her recipes these salty, pungent beans are combined with cheese, or yams. “A cold steak sandwich is sort of disgusting, but it is also sort of wonderful,” she confesses, after specifying that this sandwich must include the hardened cold meat drippings, plus butter, because “this is a recipe for people whose cholesterol is too low.” And “Chicken salad has a certain glamour about it.” In a chapter titled “Kitchen Horrors,” she includes a recipe for something called Suffolk Pond Pudding, a suet-heavy British dish that a horrified guest describes as tasting “like lemon-flavored bacon fat.” “I ate almost the entire pudding myself,” she gleefully reports. It’s also refreshing to read a cookbook written by someone who unabashedly confesses to having made baked chicken and a particular creamed spinach casserole literally every time dinner guests came over — for years.
This essential weirdness translates to a sense of unlimited permission, which might be why Colwin is especially beloved to people who, like her, specialize in writing non-expert, enthusiastic reports from the front lines of cooking trial and error — in other words, food bloggers. Indeed, some of them see her less as influence than as a sort of spiritual ancestor.
“Her personal tone anticipated food blogging,” says my friend Sadie Stein, with whom I regularly cook Colwin-themed potluck dinners. She is an avid food blogger who often references Colwin; indeed, the title of her food blog, Queen of Puddings, is a reference to one of Colwin’s beloved British boiled desserts. My friend Lukas, a cookbook author and food blogger who also attends the Colwin potlucks, thinks about Colwin in these terms: “She’s sort of the grand dame of food blogging—or at least what food blogging aspires to be.”
Like a blogger, Colwin is chatty and digressive. A recipe for broiled fish — which is, more or less, “broil the fish” — includes a long anecdote about jigging for striped bass, seasickness, and eventually describes Colwin’s first trip to a real Chinese restaurant. Some of her essays don’t include recipes at all, or they include anti-recipes, as in her essay “Stuffed Breast of Veal: A Bad Idea.” Rather than caution readers against repeating her mistakes, Colwin encourages them to make their own. “We learn by doing. If you never stuff a chicken with pate, you will never know that it is an unwise thing to do.” The inevitability of what Colwin calls Kitchen Disasters is a nice thing to keep in mind when you’ve just rendered $30 worth of organic salmon inedible via a combination of hubris, cluelessness, and absentmindedness about how long a particular fennel bulb had been in the fridge. (Believe me).
On that jetlagged evening, I kept various Colwinian epigrams in mind as I took stock of my options. There were a lot of vegetables. Maybe a salad was in order? “The basic point of a salad, as every schoolchild ought to know, is that it is green, quick, and easy to fix,” Colwin wrote in her essay About Salad. But I wanted something slightly more solid than a salad, something that Colwin might call “comforting” or “consoling.” (She calls almost everything “consoling,” which I find comforting.)
Of course, Colwin had a specific idea about how jetlagged people ought to be fed, which she expressed in an essay called “Jet Lag and How To Feed It.” The only problem with the idea of adapting the meal described in that essay for my purposes, however, is that Colwin presumes that the cook and the jetlagged person are not one and the same. Her prescribed three-course meal of veal-enriched lentil soup, ham sandwich with parsley butter (“to make the person drink the quantity of water he needs to replace because he has been dehydrated by the atmosphere of the cabin, which is like unto the Mojave desert”), finished with a little plate of shortbread fingers, an orange or, in summer, a little plate of raspberries – all accompanied by “lots of beer” — sounded absolutely delightful, but if I had attempted it I would have found myself eating it around breakfast-time the next day. I got started on “lots of beer” and put water on to boil while I contemplated my next move.
Without a clear idea of what I would eventually be eating, I began dicing some of the ripe tomatoes sitting on the counter. “In this world of uncertainty and woe, one thing remains unchanged: Fresh, canned, pureed, dried, salted, sliced, and served with sugar and cream, or pressed into juice, the tomato is friendly, reliable and delicious,” Colwin wrote, and while the sugar and cream variation sounds disgusting, she is absolutely right about the rest. The tomatoes were so ripe and good that, with some quickly-boiled corn cut off the cob, a diced shallot, a little light-green mildly hot pepper, some crumbled feta cheese, and lots of good olive oil, salt and pepper, I had a delicious, albeit odd, sauce for spaghetti.
“It was definitely not an elegant meal,” Colwin wrote once, about serving succotash, lima bean casserole, polenta with hot pepper, and a very strange-sounding curried broccoli soup that contains orange zest and nonfat yogurt in addition to the broccoli. “But it was a very satisfying, lip-smacking meal, after which everyone felt perfectly content. In these trying times, that’s about as good as it gets.” In an era when everyone (me included) seems tempted to photograph and display their food immediately on the internet, and when many food writers presume that the cook not only knows where to get jicama but is fully capable of brunoising it, it’s easy to forget that this kind of contentment is the real goal of cooking, and eating. But Colwin helps me remember it.
This piece originally appeared in Gourmet Live.
Emily Gould is the author of Friendship and the cofounder of Emily Books.