Laurie Colwin

It doesn’t require much prompting for me to wax lyrical about Julia Child and her strong influence on my deep interest in cooking. She drew me in – especially to French food – with her whimsical yet reverent approach to the subject.

But despite my admiration – my own reverence, even ­– of her as an inspirational cook, I don’t rank her high among food writers. In that regard I refer to several other great ones whose prose moved me, if not always to cook, to enjoy cooking, eating and entertaining.

M.F.K. Fisher:

I…think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few.

Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.

All men…must eat, and when they deny themselves the pleasures of carrying out that need, they are cutting off part of their possible fullness, their natural realization of life.

Elizabeth David:

Everyday holds the possibility of a miracle.

Good food is always a trouble and its preparation should be regarded as a labour of love.

And even Brillat-Savarin himself:

Taste…enables us to distinguish all that has a flavor from that which is insipid.

The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity, than the discovery of a new star.

(And yes)

Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.

While writing about food is sometimes accompanied coincidentally by a writer’s skill in the kitchen, the talents are different from each other by miles. I see cooking and food writing as different worlds.

In 1992 I read an essay in Gourmet about lentils. I did not particularly care for lentils but the writing attracted me to them:

In all your life you will be hard-pressed to find something as simple, soothing, and forgiving, as consoling as lentil soup. You can take things out of it or put things into it. It can be fancy or plain, and it will never let you down.

The unhealthy way is made with slab bacon, preferably double-smoked,
cut into dice and sautéed with onion and garlic. Or made with short ribs,
which have a sublime flavor and tons of fat, most of which is happily
absorbed by the lentils and then passed right into your bloodstream. You
can throw in some delicious, high-calorie, and very indigestible sausage.
All of these will produce a delicious soup.

Or you can poach your lentils gently in a very rich, defatted chicken or
beef stock, then pour the result in a blender with a spike of brandy (or
not) and some cayenne pepper and serve this very velvety potion to
grown-ups.

Lentils are friendly – the Miss Congeniality of the bean world.

It goes on from there but you get the idea. The writer both knew his (or her) subject and exercised a talent for evangelizing about it.

I wondered who wrote this that was moving me so much but I didn’t wonder enough to stop reading and skip to the credit at the end of the article. Finally, though, there was a line in italics (quoted by me now from memory and with potential inaccuracy): “This was the last of a series of pieces Laurie Colwin wrote for Gourmet before her untimely death…”

It jars me to type those words now even more than it did to read them two decades ago. What had I missed, I wondered, and what in the future would I miss?

I later found Ms. Colwin’s collections of essays, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, and bought them. Every single essay was as cute and interesting and engaging as the one about lentil soup, and I swam through the books intently and with great speed. She shared thoughts on roasting a chicken (shove a lemon up his bum) and making the best brownie (use Katharine Hepburn’s recipe).

There is no food writer whose writing I have returned to, just for the pleasure of reading it, as often as Laurie Colwin’s.

Remembering and writing about Laurie Colwin has made me sad, deeply sad. Maybe that is a function of my age. The sadness will surely soften again into a warm glow of appreciation but at this moment I miss this woman I never met very much.

I can only hope to touch someone with my writing in somewhere near the same way that Laurie Colwin touched me. But even if I never do that, I will still have my own relationship, if not with Ms. Colwin herself then with her advice and recipes.

Click here to buy her books.

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