Laurie Colwin is a Best Friend I've Never Met
This essay is part of a feature, Food Writer Friday, which highlights a significant food writer and explores the ways they have shaped us as writers, thinkers and cooks. Tag us online with #foodwriterfriday to share your greatest influences.
Like the beat-up leather jacket worn with the tulle formal—surprising, but somehow so right—is Laurie Colwin and Gourmet Magazine. That was how I first encountered Colwin, in the early 1990’s, back when Gourmet was very fancy.
Meeting her in the pages of Gourmet was like meeting a new best friend at a really stuffy party. A really cool friend who liked good food and cooking but was never pretentious, competitive or smug about it. I re-read Colwin’s collected columns in Home Cooking (Knopf, 1988) and More Home Cooking (Harper Collins, 1993) because I like hanging out with my friend. It is always comforting to hear her voice again and I return to her whenever I need a blast of snarky, slightly bad-ass, relatable, authenticity.
One of her most famous columns details the weird food she would cook for herself in her tiny Greenwich Village apartment. She writes, “Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.”
Like Colwin, I eat toasted cheese when I am alone-with kimchi or a sour pickle or avocado. Sometimes I eat noodles—in dashi with greens and frozen dumplings or in a peanut butter sauce with thai curry paste, garam masala or ras el hanout. I eat eggplant, bitter greens and tomatoes with torn bread drowning in olive oil and balsamic. If I am so hungry I am seeing spots, I will pile everything in the fridge on top of rice and top it with a runny egg and gouchujang.
Cooking for friends and family is fun, but, let’s be honest, it can be stressful. Cooking for yourself is also fun, and there is zero stress attached. Colwin taught me to celebrate the chaos and eccentricity of the solo meal.
As a cook, she was a bit idiosyncratic. She seemed to put fermented black beans in everything. (Fermented black beans do not go with everything.) She roasted her chicken at too high a heat. She was inordinately fond of eggplant. She adored British food, “nursery food" and every home baked bread. When I am messing around in the kitchen, with an eggplant or some other vegetable, I feel her presence. She tells me to go easy on the salt, and to consider adding some fermented black beans. I think of her every single time I make rice pudding, even though my rice pudding looks nothing like hers.
Much food writing is aspirational, but Colwin’s food writing was reachable. She wrote about food I have cooked, food I am likely to cook, and food I like to eat. She talked about being the best cook you could be, without ruining your credit rating or making yourself crazy. She wrote odes to meatloaf and potato salad, to fried chicken, to succotash, creamed spinach and pot roast. She even wrote about cooking fuck-ups—her own and those of others—but in a gentle way. She was the dinner party guest who would help you cook, clear the dishes, rescue the split hollandaise or phone for pizza if necessary.
She has shared my culinary triumphs and consoled me when I failed. Colwin did not judge your cooking, she just wanted to help.
Colwin died young, and suddenly, of a heart attack in 1992; just over 25 years ago. To my delight, I recently discovered that my Colwin obsession is widely shared. There is a Facebook page, a Pinterest page, a website. Someone even hosted a Laurie Colwin themed dinner party featuring food from her columns. I think she would have loved that. Succotash, spiced beef, green sauce, peach pizza, Nantucket cranberry pie, buttermilk cocoa cake, lemon rice pudding...
There are a lot of theories about why she remains beloved. Some say she was ahead of her time in her devotion to real food: her enthusiasm for organic fruit and vegetables, for free range chickens and eggs. Others believe that she was the first food blogger, that her conversational style was the foundation on which today’s food blogs were built. I tend to think that the underlying themes in her writing—home cooking and family meals—are universal and will never go out of style. All of these things are probably true.
In the end, I think she endures because she is not like any other food writer, not before, not since. Her daughter describes her: “She adored cooking, perhaps more than her other favorite things, which were swearing and coffee.” Which also happen to be three of my very favorite things. How could I not love this woman? We were destined to be best friends in the kitchen.
Kristine Bolander is recently retired. She has been a lawyer, a bureaucrat, and a diplomat. Now, she is learning to write. She is currently traveling as much as possible and is working on a book about food, cooking, and clinical depression.