Saturday, March 3, 2012

Laurie Colwin: Superb Food Writer

I love cookbooks and collect them, not just for cooking, but to read for entertainment. One of my favorite food writers is Laurie Colwin, also an American novelist.  I was first introduced to her through her columns in Gourmet magazine. She died very suddenly in 1992, when she was just 48 years old.

Books by her that I own and have read include Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988) and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, published posthumously in 1993.

Her other books, not related to food, include Passion and Affect (1974), Shine on, Bright and Dangerous Object (1975), Happy All the Time (1978), The Lone Pilgrim (1981), Family Happiness (1982), Another Marvelous Thing (1988), Goodbye without Leaving (1990), and A Big Storm Knocked It Over, also published after her death.  I have not read any of these books. But I will when I work through my current reading list.

Both cookbooks mentioned above have outsold her novels. They are warm, almost folksy; her writing style is simple, yet elegant. She has such a way of telling stories, of relating to the reader, that you feel she is sitting across the kitchen table from you. And she is funny! She laughs at herself, at her mistakes in the kitchen.

There are recipes, of course, but also stories, vignettes, food lore and advice. A few chapter titles (More Home Cooking) are Jam Anxiety, The Egg and You, Four Easy Pieces. Titles in Home Cooking include Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant; Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir, and Kitchen Horrors. See? She’s a very witty writer.

Two of my favorites from her books are simple roast chicken and chocolate cake. Another is a condiment called Dukka, something to “brighten up your kitchen and add a little surprise to ordinary dishes.” It consists of hazelnuts, sesame, coriander and cumin seeds, black peppercorns, cinnamon and salt. The mixture is ground in a blender. Here’s how she described it: “I introduced this to my sister last summer. I gave her a taste, and an hour later I caught her in the kitchen eating it out of the jar with a spoon. These things obviously run in families.” I made it. It has a most unusual taste. I can’t say that I enjoy it straight from the jar but is good sprinkled on chicken or fish.

Most recipes are simple dishes that don't require any special technique and can be counted on to delight all who eat your food.

She says of two recipes from More Home Cooking – Country Christmas Cake and Spiced Beef: “There is nothing else like them. They must be made by hand. And they cannot be bought.”

Both are from English cookbooks, the Country Christmas Cake from Jane Grigson’s English Food and Spiced Beef from Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (another wonderful food writer and an outstanding book). “The act of eating them makes one realize the limitations of language: Magnificent, sublime, transcendent all come to mind but fall short.”

Now I ask you how could any cook read that and not rush to the kitchen and make these two recipes? And indeed I did, for several years back in the 1990s. They are good holiday food. If you are interested in having these recipes, I will happily send them to you.

But do check out the two cookbooks. Both are available through Amazon and are in paperback and not expensive.

What are your favorite cookbooks? Do you collect and read cookbooks? I have many cookbooks and they are in bad need of organization:

Do you have a favorite food writer?


  1. Once again, I should not be commenting on this post, as I only have one cook book. A very simple. Introducing the basic Finnish food recipes, the calories, etc.
    Surprisingly I hardly ever open it. Not, because I am an expert in making food, quite the contrary.
    It just is, that I always fail, when I start to follow the " rules ". So I mix a bit of this and that, and manage to have the food ready in 15 minutes, which is my limit.
    I can only admire those of you, who are able to enjoy preparing food.

    1. Met, I think not following a recipe takes real skills and abilities. You are lucky this way! Would love to see a post from you on Finnish food, some of the traditional foods enjoyed there.

  2. M.F.K. Fisher's writing transports me back to eating at my grandparents. I love cookbooks of all kinds. I started with Julia Child and went on to Moosewood, then to Barefoot Contessa, Magnolia Bakery, Lady and Sons, Greens, Silver Palate, etc. Boxes and boxes of cookbooks. When we moved from Seattle to Tulsa, I pared down my cookie cook books, since almost every really good cookie recipe is easier to find online.

    1. Oh yes, M.F.K Fisher is another of my favorites. Reading her cookbooks are like reading a novel. I started with the intention of including her in this post, but it would have been too long. That's for another time! Your list includes all the good ones. Love Barefoot Contessa's recipes.

  3. Love reading the article and the comments and love cookbooks, I just don't like to use them. I have two old ragged ones among my collection that I use all the time - simple things. I love to look at the beautiful dishes and love to eat them. My problem is the detailed recipe try my patience but I am lucky enough to try beautiful things my sister makes!

  4. Sissy, you are a great cook! Those two old battered cookbooks produce some wonderful dishes and I know because I've eaten your food many times! Your cakes are the best!


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