Romantic matchmaking between actual humans is not my forte but when it comes to books and people, I am a pretty good matchmaker; I was, after all, a bookseller for a long time. Pairing up a person with the right book is, broadly speaking, my wheelhouse.
When you’ve found the right book, you just know it: you start reading and you go, “Oh, yeah, this is gonna be good.”
That is how I felt when I started reading Home Cooking for the first time. The introduction seemed to have been written, seriously, for me. I realize this is trite but it is in fact true.
I was someone who went to work and went home and really didn’t go out very much, partly because I couldn’t afford it and partly out of exhaustion, and partly, I suppose, out of pure apathy. As for exciting world travel — something most of my friends loved, and talked about constantly: No. (This is still the case, and I still feel the same about travel.)
So you can imagine how I felt when I opened this book and read:
Unlike some people, who love to go out, I love to stay home. This may be caused by laziness, anxiety, or xenophobia, and in the days when my friends were happily traveling to Bolivia and Nepal, I was ashamed to admit that what I liked best was hanging around the house.
At the time I was first cracking this book, I was working at a job that paid me, well, not very well, but it did leave me with a certain amount of time. I had two days off every week (one of them a weekday) and this meant I could spend a day prowling grocery stores in different parts of town. I could hunt down good deals on things, if I were so moved, and I was so moved. I remember one such day when — this seems very unlikely now but it did happen — my mother and I were in the local hippie grocery store together and at the checkout counter there was a magazine for sale with a recipe for what they said was the Best Macaroni and Cheese. She bought it for me as a kind of treat (it was an expensive magazine, I think it cost $4 or $5), and I took it home and kept it next to Home Cooking. I was, slowly, starting to figure out how to cook for myself, with these primary texts — the works of Saint Colwin and Cook’s Illustrated. They were very different sources of cooking information, but complemented each other well, I now realize. Where CI was full of itself and very demanding, Colwin was humble, laid back, and reassuring. Very importantly, she never ever presumed you were willing or able to spend serious money on your food and she never assumed that you were going to spend a long time in the kitchen. Of course, CI always assumed that money was basically no object and that you had all the time in the world. But as obnoxious as CI could be about this stuff, they were very, very good at laying out technique — Colwin is not very precise in her descriptions of how to do things. So between these two sources, I wasn’t in bad shape.
Starting Out in the Kitchen
The first proper chapter of Home Cooking, “Starting Out in the Kitchen,” admits that the best way to learn how to cook is to grow up in a household where someone’s cooking a lot.
I did not have this experience. I had a childhood in which someone did prepare food, but not with a lot of interest in doing so, and though I do have memories of things like chicken baked with a bottle of Italian dressing poured over it, I really don’t have any cooking skills acquired from either of my parents. I have lots of cooking equipment that I filched from their kitchen over the years, but lots of it they had never used, to the best of my knowledge (see: Juice-o-Matic). I had to figure out on my own what to do with these things. Fortunately, in most cases, it’s pretty self-explanatory (I mean, a mixing bowl is a mixing bowl). And the Juice-O-Matic is very easy and satisfying to use.
Making up for not learning to cook at my mother’s knee, I have many fond memories of the grand and crappy processed food items that were so abundantly available to we children of the 1970s. Snack Packs, Archway Cookies, Entenmann’s and Freihofer’s baked goods, Stouffer’s amazing French bread pizza and spinach soufflé and vegetable lasagna: these I remember as fondly as some people remember whatever it is they remember their mothers and grandmothers making. More power to them. The fact is, I would eat Stouffer’s vegetable lasagna twice a week, if I could. That shit is delicious.
My experience with cooking and watching other people cook, through my teen years and into my twenties had been led me to believe that as someone who grew up in a basically non-cooking household, I was doomed. One beau in particular, on watching me try to help him out by mincing garlic, told me that I would obviously never be able to put together a decent meal. My feeling at the time was, “I only offered to help you to be nice; you’re the cook in this scenario, if you don’t like how I’m mincing the garlic, fuck off and do it yourself.” St. Colwin’s position on this is clear: “For those who come to cooking late in life — by this I mean after the age of eighteen — many are the pitfalls in store.”
So that would be me: the person awaiting pitfalls. I was 23 when I first read this book, and I knew how to do almost nothing useful in the kitchen. I was a walking, talking pitfall. Word on the street was, I was not fit to mince garlic. But the fact that St. Colwin had written this book meant that there was hope for me, no matter what my schmuck of an ex-boyfriend thought. (In this regard, as with my life as a cook, there’s a happy ending: As St. Colwin writes in Happy All the Time, when it comes to matters of the heart, “one is always foolish until one is correct.” I dumped that guy who didn’t like my knife work and eventually found someone better to spend time with, someone who didn’t insult my garlic-mincing technique.)
Toward the end of the first chapter in Home Cooking, Colwin advises people to take it easy, not get too ambitious, and — seriously — calm the fuck down. Colwin offers us a very simple recipe for beef stew, and I can’t prove it but I think this might have been the first thing involving red meat that I ever cooked. (Surely there are letters I’ve written to someone talking about this; in this phase of my life I was a big letter-writer, and I wrote endlessly about my attempts at cooking.) The recipe is very clear, very easy, and very adaptable. It taught me something important that I’ve used as a mantra ever since, which is, If you make something that requires long and slow cooking, the odds are very good you won’t fuck it up, because you will have time on your side. It’s the stuff that has to be done quickly and precisely that you fuck up. Things that take a long time to cook — like braises — are flexible. What’s more, beef stew is the kind of thing you can add to as you personally see fit. I know for a fact that when I made this beef stew I added way more carrot than the recipe called for and didn’t worry so much about the potato, because I didn’t mind peeling carrots but I very much mind peeling potatoes (my peeler sucked, and it’s just easier to peel a carrot than to peel a potato).
The chapter ends with a description of an evening when Colwin decided to serve tortellini to some friends of her husband’s, people she’d never before met. She wanted to make a favorable impression, and bought a bag of dried tortellini, which would have been a fairly exotic thing to serve back in the day. She had also never prepared them before, and on serving the tortellini — which were the dry kind, she writes, that are meant for soup, “or ought to be” — discovered that the pasta first went “crunch” and then stuck to everyones’ teeth. Not good. “His friends, it was clear, had smoked a considerable amount of marijuana before coming to us, but even they noticed something was funny.” Indeed. The friends suggested they put the food in the trash and then all go out to dinner. The chapter ends:
So that is what we did. If all else fails, eat out, and while you are smiling through your tears, remember that novices usually make the same terrible mistake only once.
Which is true. (Except for the fact that I seem to have a tendency to forget to add the eggs to cake batters, because I carefully set the eggs out in a little bowl to come to room temperature and in the process of assembling the batter neglect to notice the little dish of eggs waiting patiently on the back edge of the counter, possibly hidden behind the bag of brown sugar or the big bin of flour.) In essence, she’s right: we’re not likely to make the same really big, really stupid mistake twice in the kitchen, because we’ll be paranoid as hell the next time around.
Reading this introduction, I knew I’d landed on just the right book. And so it was in the fall of 1993 I began to think that I might be able to learn how to cook some day, but even if I didn’t, I’d still really love reading about it. When the day came, in 1995, that I really faced the fact that I had to learn how to cook, with this book, I was (more or less, kinda, sorta) equipped and ready.