Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen
by Laurie Colwin
Vintage Books, 1988
Review by Claire DePalma
It was late November, last year. My mother and I were in the kitchen preparing my very first Thanksgiving dinner as the hostess. We were making a bacon, kale, and shrimp stuffing I’d found online and partway through the process, some of the recipe’s indications became confusing. Our different levels of experience revealed themselves immediately: I clung more tightly to the recipe, searching for answers, whereas my mother was comfortable abandoning it and feeling her way through the dish’s execution. She, admittedly, has a few years of experience on me, but even so, has an intuitive gift with food. A kitchen MacGyver, she can take a hodge-podge of seemingly unrelated ingredients from the fridge or cupboard and create something delectable. She is my idol in the kitchen, and it’s hard for me to look at cooking as anything but a tale of generations and inheritance.
From the very forward of Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin establishes herself as a writer and cook of a similar mind. She muses, “no one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.” The concept of generations comes back again and again, as she recounts a favorite recipe of her mother’s or discusses the joys of feeding her own young daughter. (It seems Colwin was blessed with a toddler who loved vegetables, so feeding her daughter was an implausibly simple task.)
The book goes back and forth between narratives about cooking in general and specific recipes with advice on using them. The recipes range from the mundane (Old-fashioned Beef Stew: though, having cooked this recipe, it is far from mundane) to the sublime (Black Cake, a West Indian delicacy that seems as exotic as the land from which it comes). In this way, the book reveals an authentic home cook: a person who on occasion is very daring in her culinary attempts, but more often cooks her favorite “old reliables” and delights in them.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of Colwin’s book is the way that reading it now confirms her keen intuition on the preparation of food. Published originally in Gourmet Magazine and then compiled into this book in 1988, these pieces pre-date the fully blossomed contemporary “foodie” movement in our culture. Colwin discusses the importance of locally-sourced vegetables and grass-fed meats, preaching the significance of organic, farm-to-table foods as though her reader isn’t familiar with these concepts or might need convincing.
While this stance could make the book seem dated, I choose to view it as yet another instance of past generations speaking through food. Colwin was a pioneer in the 1980s and believed in the importance of farmer’s markets before it was chic. She paved the way for the current 20- and 30-somethings who spend their urban Saturday mornings picking over broccoli rabe and peaches from a farm located 30 minutes outside the city. I am grateful to Colwin and other foodie foremothers who’ve influenced the way my generation cooks and eats, just as I’m grateful to my own mother. I find myself more proud of a fine dinner composed of the disparate ingredients I had on hand than of the meal that required much planning and forethought. Laurie Colwin reminds her reader that cooking is an act of travelling somewhere sacred and paying respects to those that have gone before you. In my own kitchen, I aim to cook more and more like my mother.