January 31, 2010

Home Cooking

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin
Nonfiction - Culinary Essays/Memoir
1988 Perennial (HarperCollins)
Finished on 1/24/10
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb

Share the unsurpassed pleasures of discovering, cooking, and eating good, simple food with this beloved book. Equal parts cookbook and memoir, Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking combines her insightful, good-humored writing style with her lifelong passion for wonderful cuisine in essays such as "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant," "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir," and "Stuffed Breast of Veal: A Bad Idea." Home Cooking is truly a feast for body and soul.

I love everything about cooking: Perusing the glossy pages of culinary magazines; browsing through gorgeous cookbooks with their tantalizing recipes and mouthwatering photographs; following food blogs such as Dine & Dish, Gluten-Free Girl, Orangette, and Tasty Kitchen; fantasizing about remodeling our ancient kitchen; experimenting with new ingredients or with recipes I'd previously considered too intimidating to try; and, of course, preparing my favorite dishes for my family and friends. Over the years, I've also found a passion for culinary writing (fiction & nonfiction). The School of Essential Ingredients, In Defense of Food, Julie & Julia, and The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry were among my favorites in recent years. And now, thanks to Nan and Marcia, I've discovered another great book about cooking. Beginning with the cheerful cover art, I fell in love with Laurie Colwin's collection of essays! My book is overflowing with sticky notes, many of which will remain until I've had a chance to sample the tempting recipes; many will remain forever, marking a favorite passage, such as this, from the Foreword:

One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends. People who like to cook like to talk about food. Plain old cooks (as opposed to the geniuses in fancy restaurants) tend to be friendly. After all, without one cook giving another cook a tip or two, human life might have died out a long time ago.

Isn't this the truth! My husband and I belong to a progressive dinner party group and it's always great fun to see what everyone has prepared for their contribution to the evening's menu. It's not just about getting together and sharing a good meal and fine wine, but discovering new favorites such as bison steaks or pistachio-encrusted sea bass.

I don't consider myself a very craftsy person. I don't like to sew and never really learned how to knit or crochet. I've completed one cross-stitch project in my lifetime (years ago, before my eyesight was ever an issue) and while I'd love to learn to quilt, I know I don't have the time or patience to start in on something like that right now. Maybe when I'm not working. However, I do consider my passion for cooking a form of creativity. I can remember the first time I actually read a recipe and was able to visualize the process, how the ingredients would blend together and whether it would turn out to be something delicious or simply edible. As I became more experienced in the kitchen, I found myself substituting ingredients and seasonings with an instinctive knowledge of what might improve the recipe.

Home Cooking is a blend of anecdotes and recipes, sprinkled with Colwin's wry humor. I savored each and every essay and as the final pages drew near, I knew I wanted to buy a copy of More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. I also know I'd like to read her novels, which I hear are very good, too.

On 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 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.

As long as I have something to read, I don't usually mind eating alone. However, I can't say that I've ever eaten anything quite as strange as Colwin describes. I usually opt for the quick and easy: mashed avocado and mayo on toast or fried eggs and toast or if I'm in the mood for pasta, I'll fix a batch of Chicken Parmesan.

On frying chicken:

...You have now made perfect fried chicken.

And you have suffered. There are many disagreeable things about frying chicken. No matter how careful you are, flour gets all over everything and oil splatters far beyond the stove. It is impossible to fry chicken without burning yourself at least once. For about twenty-four hours your house smells like fried chicken. This is nice only during dinner and then begins to pall. Waking up to the smell of cooking fat is not wonderful.

Furthermore, frying chicken is just about the most boring thing you can do. You can't read while you do it. Music is drowned out by constant sizzling. Finally, as you fry you are consumed with the realization that fried food is terrible for you, even if you serve it only four times a year.

But the rewards are many, and when you appear with your platter your family and friends greet you with cries of happiness. Soon your table is full of ecstatic eaters, including, if you are lucky, some delirious Europeans—the British are especially impressed by fried chicken. As the cook you get to take the pieces you like best. As for me, I snag the backs, those most neglected and delectable bits, and I do it without a trace of remorse. After all, I did the cooking.

Not only have you mastered a true American folk tradition, but you know that next time will be even better.

Like Colwin, I initially lacked confidence when it came to baking bread:

It took me a long time to get around to baking a loaf of bread, and when I finally did, I stayed home all day to do it. It seemed such a mysterious and intimidating process. What was "kneading" and how did you do it? What happened if the bread didn't rise? If it rose too much? Suppose it got in the way of a draft? The recipes I read assumed a familiarity I did not possess, but I figured it couldn't be all that difficult since people had been baking bread since man began. But to put me at ease, I called in a more experienced friend to help me.

On grilling:

Everywhere in America people are lighting their grills. They begin in spring, on the first balmy evening. I happen to live across the street from a theological seminary whose students come from all over. I know it is spring not by the first robin but by the first barbecue across the street on the seminary lawn. That first whiff of lighter fluid and smoke is my herald, and led one of my friends to ask: "What is it about Episcopalians, do you think? Is it in their genes to barbecue?"

On experimentation:

Of course there is a motto here: always try everything even if it turns out to be a dud. We learn by doing. If you never stuff a chicken with pate, you will never know that it is an unwise thing to do, and if you never buy zucchini flowers you will never know that you are missing one of the glories of life.

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen is a charming collection of essays (and quaint illustrations by Anna Shapiro) that would appeal to any lover of food and domesticity. Colwin's voice is like that of a close friend, full of warmth and humor, chatting about topics ranging from Feeding the Fussy and Kitchen Horrors to Friday Night Supper and Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir. What a shame this talented author is no longer with us. She died unexpectedly of heart failure in 1992 at the age of 48.

See what other bloggers have to say about Home Cooking:

As I began reading Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin, I could feel an ache in my heart. This is a particular form of ache, one that happens only when I read an author for the first time, an author whose work I love and to whom I feel a deep affinity, and this author is dead. I want Laurie Colwin to be alive. I want to email her or call her up and tell her that I think we could be friends. I also want to tell her that things have changed since 1988, and so many thoughts she had about food have now become the norm, popular, even fashionable. (Nan of Letters From a Hill Farm)

With so many new books waiting patiently to be read, it's easy to forget the great reading pleasures of an author read and enjoyed many years ago. My first introduction to Laurie Colwin was her book Home Cooking. A couple of years ago, I read and posted my thoughts on Happy All the Time, which I repeat here. If you're at all enamoured of what I call "interior" books--books rich with descriptions of rooms, dishes, and pleasant vignettes--I urge you to pick up one of Ms. Colwin's reading escapes. (Marcia of Owl's Feathers)

Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen is an absolutely delightful food memoir. She's funny, she's sarcastic, she knows what she likes and she's not afraid to eat it. I don't even know that I so much plan to cook any of her recipes - the writing here is what appealed to me. (Tara of Books and Cooks)


  1. Nan has introduced me to this late author/cook too!! I've been meaning to buy one of her books...loved your post!

  2. This post was very informative. It sounds like a book worth browsing and perhaps trying a recipe or two. Need to see if the library has it.

  3. That sounds like a lovely book, even for someone like me (who totally hates her kitchen and zips in and out as fast as possible). Cooking is definitely a creative outlet for some people, I agree. It's like a hobby for my husband. His toys are cooking gadgets and his weekend fun involves trying new recipes. I wish I loved doing that. I'm more of the cross-stitch type -- in fact, I used to make my own cross-stitch patterns. But, yep, the eyes are shot. You can cook till you're 90 if you're in decent health but cross-stitching loses its appeal when your hands get stiff and your vision starts to blur.

  4. I've coveted this book for several years now. Always loved her novels; no one does domestic better than Colwin did. And there's that sarcastic edge...so appealing.

  5. I'm so glad you enjoyed this! It just seems like your sort of book, you known. You reminded how funny Laurie Colwin was in her writing yet at the same time poignant.

  6. I am very, very touched that not only did you mention and link to my book report but then you quoted part of it. I almost tear up when I think of her and of what I wrote. I think it is the most involved I've ever been in a book. I just love her and wish she were alive. Your review was so special, Les. Thank you for it.

  7. Staci - I can't tell you which to buy since I've only read this one, but I know I'll read everything else she's published. And then I'll go back and read them again.

    Diane - There are lots of recipes to try. Colwin also explains how to make certain dishes without really giving a recipe. All in all, it's a lovely book. I hope you can find a copy at your library.

    Bookfool - I was reading quickly when your comment came through in my email, and I didn't glance at the sender information, so I had no idea it was from you. As I started to read, I thought, Hey! That sounds like Bookfool! Sure enough, I was right. I think it was the line about a hobby for your husband that brought me to that realization. Anyhow, as I was writing up my review, I thought about all the people who really dislike cooking and how they'd probably be bored with this book. Maybe I was wrong, if you think it sounds lovely. Colwin had such an engaging voice in this little memoir and I felt like I was sitting on a stool at her kitchen counter, watching her mix up a batch up chicken salad. I can't wait to read more by her!

    Still owe you that email. Soon!! :)

    Bybee - I'm so happy to hear that so many people enjoy her novels. I can't wait to get copies and start reading them. Yep, I love that sarcastic edge, too. :) I hope you get a copy of Home Cooking. Looks like the publishers are getting ready to release a new edition. I'm not sure if I like the new cover art as well, though.

    Tara - I loved it!!! You, Marcia and Nan are like my reading twins when it comes to foodie books. I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of her books now.

    Nan - Aw, I'm glad you didn't mind me including a quote from your review. You write the most beautiful book reports and I know how much this memoir (and author) meant to you. Yes, I wish she were still alive, too. I'd send her a fan letter.

  8. Les,

    LOL! I must have a distinctive way of babbling. :)

    Maybe it's strange, but I actually love reading about cooking. Actually, I've enjoyed cooking in the past and am convinced that I'd enjoy it, again, if I could move to a house with a kitchen I liked. Part of the reason I zip in and out is because my husband's so messy but part of it is that I just hate my kitchen with a purple passion. There's hardly any counter space, no window (I must have a window to be happy in a kitchen) and the layout of appliances is even kind of weird.

    I do like Laurie Colwin's voice, too. I've only read one of her books, Happy All the Time, but I thought it was wonderful.

  9. Bookfool - I hear you on the lack of counter space. We don't have much, either! Fortunately, we do have two windows and I love them. I look at the window as I wash dishes, checking out what's going on in the neighborhood, and glance out the other window to see what Annie's up to in the back yard. Or which birds are at the feeders.

    I bought a copy of Happy All the Time the day before yesterday. I can't wait to read it!


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