“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
Unless, of course, you first read that sentence as a university student coerced into dissecting character psychologies within James’s classic novel or as someone not yet acquainted with a verity that comes, sooner or later, to us all: we acquire a taste for what we love most. What goes unloved one year has a tendency to sneak up on us, to become the most cherished of another era. Soon, Randy Newman’s story about composing his song “You Can Leave Your Hat On” begins to sound like a parable for aging and understanding. A young, virulent man in the thick of his erotic life when he wrote that song, Newman considered it silly. With age and the waning of bravado, however, he discovered the gravity of lines such as “Baby, take off your shoes . . . (here, I’ll take your shoes)” and “Go on over there and turn on the light . . . no, all the lights.” And
so it goes that even the once-disbelieving eventually find themselves nodding at James’s wisdom.
Another truth that we try to defy: home cooking remains for us the most meaningful (read: sentimental) cuisine, regardless of the cook’s expertise. But for anyone with a sophisticated palate, beans and rice will sound humdrum next to the roasted Brittany lobster and urchin emulsion you can analyse, all for €114, at Le Grand Véfour. Yet what Michelin star chef understands your preference for slightly charred toast or knows that you like red velvet cake for breakfast on your birthday?
Once the darling of the New York literary set (she sold her first short story to The New Yorker at age twenty-five), the now largely forgotten Laurie Colwin produced two celebrated volumes about the pleasures of mealtime and joys of cooking at home. Home Cooking (1988) and More Home Cooking (1993, published one year after her untimely death, at age forty-eight) forgo any of the fuss a certain kind of sophistication claims to demand.
Colwin – a considerable figure who deserves a posthumous literary renaissance in the vein of those recently enacted for Dawn Powell, Richard Yates and John Williams – grasped the significance of the table as a centrepiece not only for communion but as the essence of our culture. Her essays, originally published in Gourmet magazine, contain recipes that continue to inspire gourmands as well as those who get a headache when they’re given a more challenging directive than scramble alongside the object eggs. To say that her tales and techniques limit themselves to the kitchen, however, is like mistaking Moby-Dick for a book about a whale.
Colwin’s food writing defies Dewey Decimal categorization. Her essays, biographical and always convivial, unfold with the grace of a master storyteller (she published five novels and three story collections) and are, above all, unceasingly epicurious. Among the wittiest and most self-effacing of late twentieth century writers, she demands that the reader see her exactly as she is: a cook – not a chef – unafraid to prepare food that her bons vivants friends might deem déclassé. Again and again in these essays, guests arrive at Colwin’s table only to discover – much like the reader discovers in her prose – deceptively simple and abundant elegance. The following passage appears early in Home Cooking:
One of the delights in 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 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.
Among its many features, Home Cooking serves as a book of etiquette and manners. Colwin offers hands-on advice about how to hold dinner parties for groups with food restrictions and allergies. She reminds us of the pleasures of cooking for ourselves (“Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant”) and for groups (“Feeding the Multitudes”) and inspires us to rethink the humble (“Potato Salad”). She litters tips and recipes while relaying her time as an older student cooking for her peers at Columbia University during the occupied protests of 1968 and for homeless women in Manhattan’s Antonio Olivieri Shelter.
Whether writing about the above or kneading bread, Colwin infuses her work with the senses of a sharp novelist who for too long has slipped from the radar. Readers of her fiction – as precise, charming and witty as her Gourmet columns – will discover the riches of Colwin’s work, along with her inimitable humour. Consider this passage from Happy All the Time, in which the characters Misty and Vincent, unable to sleep on the eve of their wedding, find themselves in the kitchen.
They stood in front of the refrigerator.
“You can have yogurt, bananas, or yogurt and bananas,” said Misty. “Or you can have peanut butter and jelly or you can have a bunch of wilted watercress.”
“I want spaghetti,” said Vincent.
“It’s half past two. You can’t have spaghetti,” said Misty.
“Oh, yes, I can,” said Vincent. “It’s my wedding night. I’m going to have spaghetti with butter and garlic. It’s good luck to get married with indigestion.”
“If you’re going to make spaghetti,” said Misty, “make enough for two. And you might have the decency to put on a robe. It’s bad luck to face a pot of boiling water on your wedding night with no clothes on.”
As the titles of her books on food suggest, Colwin prefers eating in to dining out. In an age of what she deems “high-fashion food,” she praises frugality and thriftiness (“Most of the world cooks over fire without any gadgets at all,”) and simple foods (baked chicken and variations on her stand-by: potato salad). She writes of traveling in foreign countries only to ponder future meals while she haunts the local markets. “I explain this by reminding my friends that, as I was taught in my Introduction to Anthropology, it is not just the Great Works of mankind that make a culture,” Colwin writes in Home Cooking. “It is the daily things, like what people eat and how they serve it.”
Among the other theories from the ever-captivating Laurie Colwin: “novices go for the elaborate.” Her writing about food teaches the timid and brazen what her fiction reveals to her fellow novelists. Simple doesn’t always mean simplistic, and with the proper touch even the baroque can pale beside the subtle. There’s another lasting detail that Colwin provides, most important of all: when we sit down for our meal, alone or with others, it should always be a ceremony.