A Love Letter to Laurie Colwin

Everyone has a list of people, either alive or deceased, that they would love to have dinner with. I’m sure there is a BuzzFeed list of the top candidates for those lists, chock-full of celebrities and famous people. For me, however, at the top of my list, is Laurie Colwin.

Born and raised in Manhattan, Colwin was a writer and foodie who left us with a small repertoire: three collections of short stories, five novels, and two collections of essays on food, family, and entertaining. She died in 1992 at the far too young age of 48, leaving behind a husband, Juris, and an eight-year old daughter, Rosa. It’s that part that eats at me, the eight-year old daughter. I’ve had two eight-year old daughters in my lifetime, and I can’t imagine what life would be like for them if I had not lived to see them become nine, or nineteen, or someday in the very near future, twenty-nine.

In the late 80’s, I moved from Louisiana to the Washington, DC, area, taking up residence in a high-rise apartment in Bethesda. Unsure of how I would afford both the sky-high rent and a parking spot in the basement garage, I sold my car before I moved, knowing that my new job was a fifteen minute walk from my future apartment. On the way home from work in the afternoon I would stop in the little shops and markets along the way as I was exploring and getting to know my new neighborhood. One of my favorites was a bookstore just a block from my apartment. They frequently had an outdoor table piled high with books for sale. That’s where I found Laurie Colwin.

laurie colwin books 2There was something about the cover of Home Cooking that made me pick it up. Much like Laurie Colwin who was one of a kind, the cover of Home Cooking (as well as its sequel) was taken from a monotype by artist Janet Yake. To create a monotype the artist first paints the image on a flat surface like glass or Plexiglas, and then while the paint is still wet, transfers the image to paper by hand by pressing or rubbing—producing a one of a kind print, not leaving much room for error.

That night, I read about half of Home Cooking in one sitting. I carried it to work with me the next day so I could read it while I ate my lunch at my desk. I was intrigued by her writing style, her homey attitude towards entertaining, and her very palpable love of her family. How I wished I could be invited to dine in her NYC apartment and sup on one of the dishes detailed in Home Cooking. I later discovered some of the essays found in her books originated as articles for Gourmet magazine. Again, at a used bookstore, I managed to hunt down several old issues with her work. Eventually I discovered the sequel, More Home Cooking, which was published after her death. Recently Laurie Colwin has been in the literary news, with the release of some of her work as e-books. I immediately purchased the e-book of Home Cooking, even though I have owned a print copy for over twenty years.

I know these two books very well; they are like old friends to me, friends I would gladly have over for a lovely cup of tea and a freshly baked scone. Each August, when I return to my classroom after a nice summer break, I begin literature class with my new 7th graders reading “Lemons and Limes” from More Home Cooking. It is the perfect example of descriptive writing, writing that truly appeals to the senses. As you read Colwin’s descriptions of the many things she does with lemons and the zest from their bright yellow peels, you can feel your mouth puckering, your tongue tingling. While the class discusses Colwin’s talented use of descriptive writing, we talk about their favorite foods and what their family dinners at home are like. It’s through these classroom discussions, under the guise of studying a piece of non-fiction literature, that they get to know me as a teacher and I get to know them as students. The fact that they also get to know Laurie Colwin is just a bonus.

I love trying to recreate the dishes from Colwin’s books. They aren’t so much recipes as they are narratives. Apparently, there are cooking clubs that meet periodically to cook and eat an entire meal from Colwin’s books. A cursory search on Google produces quite a list of articles and blog posts about Laurie Colwin’s writings. In her short life, she made quite an impact on many, some of whom weren’t even born when she died. And, she did that without a computer, a tablet, an iPhone, a show on the Food Network, or a blog.

It’s hard to imagine Laurie Colwin living and writing about food in today’s gourmand-crazy and technology-frenzied world. If you read even just one or two of her food essays you will see that she was a no-nonsense home cook, not a fancy haute cuisine multi-ethnic fusion type of chef. I read a 2014 article on the The New York Times website by Jeff Gordinier who interviewed Colwin’s daughter, now a grown-up foodie and writer herself:

“In some ways, Ms. Colwin prefigured a lot of what the food world is obsessed with now: organic eggs, broccoli rabe, beets and homemade bread, yogurt and jam. ‘She was so ahead of her time with the organic stuff,’ Ms. Jurjevics said. ‘That was so hard growing up, I’ve got to say. I was the kid with the weird lunch.’

On the other hand, the surge in food media might have befuddled her. ‘I wonder what she would have made of so many things,’ Ms. Jurjevics mused. ‘Would she have a computer? Would she email people? She was so particular about everything. Would she blog? I wonder, would she compulsively Google herself?’”

I’ve always imagined Colwin sitting at her kitchen table with a cup of steaming coffee and a yellow legal pad, writing away, while stopping periodically to stir something on the stove or to read a book to her daughter. So, it’s a little difficult to see her, she of the bread-baking, jam-making, beef-stewing variety, sitting hunched over a MacBook Pro, sipping a chai latte, tapping away at her latest novel or food essay. I have an easier time visualizing her blogging, casually spinning out one of her food stories, drawing us in, making us want to rush to our own kitchens and roast a chicken stuffed with a lemon.

Whenever I am writing about food, whether it is a restaurant meal or one I’ve prepared at home myself, I hear her voice in my head. I know, however, that what comes out of my printer is not even close to the quality of what she herself would have written.  She was a master story-teller; she brought you into her kitchen, or, as she recounts in Home Cooking, into her kitchen-less studio apartment during her early days on her own. Even without a kitchen she cooked and entertained regularly, cooking on a two-burner hotplate and draining pasta in her bathtub. I’ve been told by family and close friends that I am a good story-teller, so I keep trying to tell a food story the way she would have. I don’t know if I will ever accomplish that, but until then, I will keep re-reading her stories, and as I write, I will keep listening to her voice.

Bibliography

Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Colwin, Laurie. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Gordinier, Jeff. “Laurie Colwin: A Confidante in the Kitchen.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Apr. 2014. Web. 09 July 2015.

“Printmaking Methods.” Fitch-Febvrel Gallery. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 July 2015.

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