Writing about food: Laurie Colwin

As part of the preparation for starting this blog (I denied myself the right to buy new and dedicated office supplies for it, so I allowed myself to buy books instead), I read a book that was supposed to teach me everything about writing about food. I’m not going to mention the title or the author of the book here because the editing job was, at times, so poor that I had no idea what the author was trying to tell me (not good in a guidebook for potential professional writers). However, the author did name-drop quite a bit when discussing food writing that was well worth reading.

I do already have, um, perhaps a bit more than my fair share of cookbooks and foodie books and chef biographies, so I recognized quite a few names. I already have a compendium of M. F. K. Fisher’s writing, some Julia here, some Jacques there, and a short stack of Anthony Bourdain’s books lurking in the shadows. But one name unfamiliar to me kept cropping up again and again: Laurie Colwin. And as fortune would have it, I was at my local public library last week and found the first of Colwin’s two food-related books right there on the shelf.

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Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988, reissued 2010) is a real treat. Her writing style reminds me of Peg Bracken, who wrote the classic I Hate to Cook Book, but Colwin loved to cook and was not put off by circumstances that would normally discourage cooking. She begins one chapter: “For eight years I lived in a one-room apartment a little larger than the Columbia Encyclopedia.” And the chapter titles themselves are gems. They include “How to Disguise Vegetables,” “Bread Baking Without Agony,” “How to Avoid Grilling,” and “Stuffed Breast of Veal: A Bad Idea.” From my limited sampling, you may be able to discern her tone.

At first I counted out all the chapters — thirty-three! — and wondered how I would be able to read the whole book in a week in order to write about it here between bagel batches. As it turned out, that was not the problem that I would have with Colwin’s book. The chapters are short, her tales are memorable, and the recipes look pretty good, too. I read compulsively, chuckling as I went. I got hungry. I wanted to write. (Those are all good things.) The problem is that, after being persuaded to write this book and another, More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, Colwin died in 1992. Two books of essays about food. That’s all. It’s not nearly enough, so you’ll have to savor it. She also produced five novels and three collections of short stories, all of which I will now have to track down and acquire.

Home Cooking is a delight, and it was an easier entrée into reading food writing than plunging right into some dense, pretentious volume on the history of souffléed whatsis. On the other hand, I don’t think I own any of those kinds of books.

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