4 and 5. Two American Classics: Fried Chicken and Potato Salad

The next chapter in Home Cooking is about fried chicken, a subject in which I have only a theoretical or academic interest, as I do not like to eat fried chicken.

Call me un-American; I don’t care.

This chapter is, to me, one of the best in the book not because it’s so useful but because it’s actually completely un-useful to me (as someone who has no interest in fried chicken) yet it is a complete pleasure to read. I think I might be able to recite this chapter from memory (though please don’t test me on this.) Definitely the first paragraph anyhow:

As everyone knows, there is only one way to fry chicken correctly. Unfortunately, most people think their method is best, but most people are wrong. Mine is the only right way, and on this subject I feel almost evangelical. 

If you are actually interested in making fried chicken at home, by all means, give this chapter more serious attention; the Colwin system may really be the best. I don’t know. (A reader has asked me, after reading this essay, What is so special about Colwin’s fried chicken? My answer is, I don’t really know. She believes that there is only one process that can result in superlative fried chicken, and spells it out in considerable detail. It is a time-consuming, messy process that I would never allow to happen in my kitchen, because the process and the clean-up would cause me to have a nervous breakdown. But it does not involve short-cuts like cutesy fried chicken machines, it does not involve egg, and it does not require deep-frying. According to her. Anyone who has issues with her technique should take it up with the estate of Laurie Colwin, not with me.)

By contrast, I have made potato salad, the subject of the chapter that follows Fried Chicken, about, you know, a million times, what with one thing and another. I never thought much about potato salad, despite liking it very much when served it, until my other half moved in with me, because he is someone who views potatoes more or less as a food group unto themselves. While I resent almost every moment spent cooking potatoes, once in a while it is worthwhile — even to me — to make a huge bowl of potato salad. When I embarked on my potato salad days, the book I turned to was Home Cooking.

Colwin advocates for dill in basic potato salads; I will never prepare anything that involves dill, which I view as hateful stuff.

However, I basically feel she’s got the right attitude, and that her take on potatoes is correct. (Basically, you could use almost any kind of potato you wanted to, except “salad potatoes,” but you need to account for the undeniable fact that waxy potatoes don’t absorb dressing the way mealy ones do. I like a mealy potato potato salad and think waxy potato potato salads tend to be potato salads that veer toward the silly and pretentious and ongepotchket.)

Over the course of a summer, circa 2001, we fell into the habit of making a potato salad that called for relatively few ingredients but was always snarfed down in large quantity. We served it at picnics and dinner parties and we served it to ourselves on hot summer nights. It went like this:

Boil whatever number of Russet potatoes you feel is called for under the circumstances; cool slightly and peel. Chop roughly and return to original cooking pot.

Add dressing mixture, which will include the following: Hellman’s mayonnaise; a slosh of vinegar; minced scallion; one or two roasted red peppers, minced; one or two hard-boiled eggs, chopped finely; salt; pepper; paprika. Optional but occasionally a nice change of pace: throw in a tablespoon or two or three of pickle relish. You mix this up in a small mixing bowl and then dump it all into the pot with the potatoes — which are ideally still warm — and mix mix mix.  Once the dish is mixed, it can be served or put in the fridge to chill until it’s time to eat.

Basically this gives you a kind of deviled egg/potato salad combo, which is very filling and very good. It’s not an adventurous potato salad but it’s got enough tricks up its sleeve to keep it from being just mushy and dull.

Colwin’s chapter on potato salad contains two recipes I’ve never made and have no plans to make — one calling for string beans, the other calling for cucumbers and creme fraiche — but I make no apologies. She concludes by telling us how to make her potato salad, and it’s easy and about as simple as potato salads get (potatoes, Hellman’s mayo thinned with lemon juice, black pepper, scallion, dill). Her point is valid. With potato salads, as with so many things, it doesn’t have to be ongepotchket to be good. When in doubt about that potato salad that you’re throwing together, higgledy-piggledy, think of Givenchy and the Little Black Dress and go for the simple, elegant, pared down look.

Maybe it’s ok if you add capers though. If I’m coming to dinner, for sure ditch the dill.

 

 

 

3. Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: An Examination

This is the title of the third chapter of Home Cooking and it is, for many Colwin fans, a sacred text. There is even a collection of food essays that uses this as its title. I myself, having gone firmly on record as someone who’s not a big fan of cooking with eggplant, always read this essay with pleasure, but not much in the way of, let’s say, personal identification, when it comes to the actual eggplants.

However, the real point of the essay is not eggplant cookery, but rather, cooking for one. Solo cookery. The Food of the Unattached. Single Girl (or Guy, or Gender Fluid Person) Cookery. And this is a subject near and dear to my heart.

Colwin writes a lovely description of the apartment she lived in as a young woman and there’s much discussion of the awkwardness of her kitchen facilities, since there basically weren’t any. She had a hotplate with two burners. From what I can gather, that was pretty much it. As you can imagine, I, the resident of an awkward little apartment myself at the time I first read this book, found this situation very easy to identify with. Colwin wrote with great love and affection for this little apartment and I too often think of my little apartment across the street from Mamoun’s with love and affection. I even remember the cockroach situation as not so bad (though it was pretty fucking bad, I mean, like, cockroaches crawling in your hair while you sleep bad) (ok, that only happened once, so far as I can recall) (thank god).
As far as not having a real oven/stove goes, I was definitely in better shape than Colwin was; I took to my little oven and got pretty good at making basic pizzas, which I liked because one pizza could equal one dinner and two lunches to take to work in the following days. Colwin’s lack of oven meant that she turned to making soup, a form of food I want only very occasionally. The other thing I cooked for myself all the time, as a single girl, was spaghetti, with some vegetable mess mixed in as a sauce. This is something Colwin could theoretically have done, with only two burners, but as she explains, she was limited not only by the stove/oven situation but by the fact that she lacked a kitchen sink, and all water-related enterprises involved her bathtub. “Spaghetti is a snap to cook, but it is a lot snappier if you have a kitchen. I of course did not. It is very simple to drain the spaghetti into a colander in your kitchen sink, dump it into a hot dish and sauce it at once. Since I had no kitchen sink, I had to put the colander in my bathtub; my bathroom sink was too small to accommodate it.”

You kind of hope she scrubbed out the bathtub before she drained the spaghetti — which, in this anecdote, she was about to serve to her boss and his snooty-sounding wife — but let’s let sleeping dogs lie.

Colwin posits that the eggplant is the stovetop cook’s strongest ally — that is a direct quote — and I suppose it might be but I remain unconvinced. To me, there are so many things that can go wrong with eggplant that despite its being inexpensive and nutritious and culinarily flexible and so many good things, I’d rather skip it. But that’s okay! For Colwin, eggplant was her fallback, and she clearly did a good job of it, and writes descriptions of eggplant dishes that make me think, “well, that probably is good, but still….” I think the truth is that everyone develops their own “alone in a kitchen with a ____” repertoire, if they live alone and cook for themselves.

In my own case, I defaulted to onions, garlic, and zucchini. I made a thousand pots of pasta and on this pasta I would dump sautéed onions, garlic, and zucchini, sometimes with red pepper flakes and sometimes not, always served with grated Parmesan on it. I would assemble this using one stock pot, one sauté pan, and then eat it out of one of my mixing bowls. As with pizzas, any leftovers were stowed away to carry to work to eat at lunchtime. On nights when I could not bear to dirty the sauté pan because it would mean there were two pots to wash, I would mix up eggs with a little oil and dump that on cooked pasta; the eggs, once tossed into the pasta, sauced the noodles. This was very comforting food, cost very little, and the cleanup was no problem. Sometimes if I felt I needed to pretend I was eating healthy, I would boil some peas with the pasta. This was always served with lots of grated cheese on top, and it was my real bottom of the barrel meal — the thing I made when I just could not deal.

When I moved in with the person I eventually married, I learned that these sorts of pasta dishes were not really what he felt were proper food. Furthermore we had to come to terms with an even bigger problem for me: he was not someone who would eat pasta every single night (which I definitely was). I had to learn how to cook other things like, say, rice. Potatoes. I had to learn how to make two different dishes at the same time, because otherwise there would be domestic unhappiness (and it sounds like sexist nonsense that I was the one who had to learn to cook this way, but at the time, I worked a lot fewer hours than he did so it only made sense). Sometimes I could serve my pasta things as a side dish — if there was a nice roast chicken, or a meatloaf, also on the table — but the idea of spaghetti as dinner fell away. I relished nights when my other half had plans in the evenings, because it meant I could return to my old habits and have what I called Long Spaghetti Night. On Long Spaghetti Night, I could be as energetic or lazy as I felt like being, and I could make a box of spaghetti and put whatever I damned wanted on it, without anyone furrowing their brows at me.

Years later, my daughter came along. Eventually, when she began to eat real food with a fork, I shared my Long Spaghetti Nights with her. My daughter loved noodles and cheese and eggs and peas, it turned out — she asks for it still. If she does this within earshot of her father, he might attempt to hide his disgusted eye-roll.  Another dish I used to make for myself all the time, which is borne out of a later essay in Home Cooking, is her idea of perfect comfort food. (We’ll talk about it later, ok?) I molded her “alone in the kitchen with an ____” mindset after my own, which may come to bite my on the ass some day, but we’re not there yet. For which I am grateful.

The real point of Colwin’s piece, and, it follows, this that you’re reading now, is: When we cook for ourselves, our true idiosyncrasies float to the surface like algae on a pond.

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’re alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, their confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam. 

I’ve long believed, by the way, that Colwin must have been a friend of Mary Rodgers, or at least been a fan of the book Freaky Friday, because in that book, there’s a character named Ape Face who likes putting grape jelly on spaghetti. These are the only two times I’ve ever heard anyone talk about doing such a thing. There must be a connection.

I think Colwin’s right, and that if there are people who dine alone on some virtuous prim little salad, they must be very very sad people indeed. My husband would say, “Who are you to judge if someone wants to eat a salad for dinner?” I’m the Hausfrau, is my response, and I’m here to judge. If someone’s idea of a salad for dinner is a huge Greek salad with a lot of oil and vinegar and feta, I can sort of understand it. Once a year or so, in very hot weather, even I think a massive, soggy Greek salad is an excellent idea. But you know that when someone says, smugly, “A salad,” they mean some spare thing created with health in mind. Or at least that’s what they want you to think. Never mind if they’re actually eating, like, an entire head of iceberg lettuce (world’s most underrated lettuce, by the way) with a bottle of Wishbone Blue Cheese Dressing poured over it. They want you to think they’re being reasonable, responsible people, eating healthy. And if they actually are, well: How is it that even when they’re alone, they cannot bear to actually enjoy what they’re eating? Don’t tell me “But I like salad!” No one likes salad that much — no one I’d want to hang out with anyhow.

I mean, if you can’t revel in what you really like when literally no one else is watching, what hope is there for you to enjoy anything?

It’s just so fucking sad. If what you want is spaghetti with butter and grape jelly, for god’s sake, once in a while, eat the spaghetti with butter and grape jelly. No one is suggesting you live on that. But once in a while, seriously, it won’t kill you.

MFK Fisher and, by now, countless other food writers have extolled the joys and virtues of dining alone. It’s not something to be blue about. (I mean, if you are sad about it because you’re lonely, that’s one thing, and an entirely different topic; I just mean to say, there’s nothing intrinsically awful or shameful about dining alone.) It’s really, if you ask me, quite the opposite. Dining alone means you can pound down, with abandon, the food you really like. It means you can put together the flavors you adore that no one else you know think even remotely palatable. And, if you’re like the Hausfrau before she was the Hausfrau, and  the young Laurie Colwin, you can do it in relative comfort, feeling cozy about it, sitting in your rocking chair in front of the TV with your feet up on the coffee table that’s actually your old camp trunk covered with a blanket, with no one to criticize you, no one to make fun of you, no one to say, “That is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen anyone eat.” It means that you can that that carton of okra from the Indian takeout place, slather it with duck sauce from the Chinese Takeout Packet Drawer, and snarf it down with rice, if that’s what you want. (I’ve never actually done this but on having made it up, it sounds good to me.) Never mind that you’ve never met a living soul in real life who likes okra. If it makes you happy, it makes you happy. Now put up your feet and, if you want, eat your dinner with a goddamned spoon.

2. The Low-Tech Person’s Batterie de Cuisine: possibly the single most important food-related text I ever read

At the time I was learning how to feed myself in respectable manner, I was living in a four hundred square foot — cozy — apartment that had a very, very tiny kitchen. The kitchen, which had no counters and one semi-functional, hinged at the left “drawer” suspended from underneath one of its three cabinets, was smaller than my parents’ dining table. Ok: maybe this is not true in a literal sense but it certainly felt true. The  three enamel-coated steel cabinets, hanging on the wall above the sink and small-scale gas stove were, very handsome. The kitchen was so small that the refrigerator did not really fit in the kitchen though I pretended it did. The kitchen was minuscule but between the enameled cabinets and the black and white linoleum floor I was content with it.

When I moved into this apartment the lack of storage space was not cause for alarm to me because, frankly, I wasn’t savvy enough to be alarmed. Also, I had very little kitchen equipment, but I did have a tall metal cabinet that could serve as kitchen storage (in the living room). I was young and I could Make Do. Shortly after moving into the apartment, I bought from the window display of a local florist’s shop a child-size Hoosier cabinet, which the shopkeeper had been using to display vases she had for sale. In this mini-Hoosier, and on it, I stashed the more attractive elements of the batterie de cuisine I did own. I remember that I bought a number of cloth napkins from the sale basket at a fancy kitchenwares shop, and folded them and stacked them nicely on the little Hoosier and felt very smart. These napkins — maybe a dozen of them — would serve as my napkins and dishtowels for the next several years. The Hoosier, which I painted a pale butter yellow color, was very cheery and made up for a lot of the kitchen’s storage issues.

Here is a description of what I had, in those days:
I had flatware (set of four settings; cheap crap purchased in 1987, navy blue plastic handles) and dishes (four settings; cheap crap made of sturdy stoneware, also purchased in 1987, beige with some vaguely tasteful flowers on them). I had one stockpot (very poor quality, Teflon-coated) and one sauté pan (a college graduation gift from my brother) and one small Revereware teakettle (also a gift, from my parents).

My mother gave me a small coffeemaker, which made it possible for me to make coffee for myself, something I had literally never done before. I thought coffee was something grownups made, and that for me, going to a cafe was quite sufficient. Making one’s own coffee, I quickly realized, was a far more economical move. I took to spending Sunday mornings drinking my own coffee with my newspaper spread out on the living room floor, instead of spending $6 on sitting at tiny cafe tables that never had enough room for the Sunday paper anyhow.

I did have two battered plastic cutting boards (second-hand, both of which still see daily use in my kitchen). I had a plastic measuring cup that was a total piece of crap, which I now use to put rock salt out on the sidewalk in wintertime. I did, thanks to my father and brother, have two excellent sets of mixing bowls, both of which are still complete and still in use. One set was cobalt blue glass — absolutely beautiful — and one set was clear glass, from a French glass company called Duralex. If my daughter ever breaks any of these bowls, she knows, I’m going to have to kill her.

Things I did not have: most things that food magazines and cookbooks assume you have. I did not have a blender. a food processor, a good set of colanders (I had one kind of wobbly blue plastic colander), any good knives, wineglasses, Microplane graters, frying pans, Dutch ovens, decent potholders, a truly functional vegetable peeler. I did not have any serving dishes.

I did not have a rolling pin.

Instead of a rolling pin, I had a wine bottle I had saved after some social occasion, because I thought it had a pretty label. On the very rare occasions when I needed a rolling pin, I used that wine bottle. I had a rusty-ish box grater that I hated, and avoided all recipes that called for shredding anything because I was so reluctant to use this awful device. I certainly did not have a microwave; I did not live with a microwave oven until the spring of 2008, when I had a baby and we bought one because all our friends told us we’d want a microwave to heat up milk and food for the baby. (They were wrong, and we could live perfectly well without a microwave, but whatever.)

I’m writing all this down so readers will understand: I had some stuff to put a in a kitchen, when I started out, but I didn’t have a lot, and what I had was to a large degree junk. If I’d bought it myself, it was crap. If my brother or parents had bought it for me, it was pretty good or very good. (Those Duralex bowls should, by all rights, by shattered into dust by now, but they really are strong as Pyrex.)

And while I had, at this stage, read many, many cookbooks, just for fun, and I had a kind of academic sense of how to cook, I was so depressed by the way cookbooks assumed you had so much stuff on hand, all the time, that I had little faith in my own ability to do anything in the kitchen.  I mean, not only did I not have a pantry, or a spice rack full of little jars of weird things, but almost every cake or cooky recipe I read advised, as step one, “Cream butter and sugar in mixer.” Leaving me going, “well, fuck it, guess I’m not making that.” That sentiment, “Fuck it: guess I’m not making that” followed me to the grocery store, and into the kitchen. I was supremely cowed by the whole enterprise.

When I saw the title of this chapter in Home Cooking, my kitchen-naive heart sang:

The Low-Tech Person’s Batterie de Cuisine

Colwin was talking about me.

“How depressing it is to open a cookbook whose first chapter is devoted to equipment. You look around your kitchen. No chinoise! No flan ring! No salamander! How are you ever going to get anything cooked? What sort of person is it who doesn’t own a food mill?”

St. Colwin then goes on to say, basically, “I am one of you.” And the Ramones fan-reader — that would be me, if not you — cries, “Gabba gabba hey! One of us! One of us!”

That opening gambit proved it: I knew that this was a book where, even if I didn’t want to cook anything she talked about, specifically, I would find guidance and inspiration and funny stuff. That last is hugely important, by the way. Laurie Colwin is funny. So I read eagerly.

Colwin explained in this essay that she owned neither a toaster or a juicer. She had a crappy grater, which she cut herself on all the time, and clearly resented (she would have loved a Microplane, though). She had a lot of mixing bowls, a lot of mixing spoons and spatulas, and a whisk. Colwin was, of course, a New York City apartment dweller, and in many cases that means hello, I have a tiny kitchen, so even if I invite you over for dinner it means we’ll probably be eating takeout because who are we kidding. I knew someone who lived in Manhattan whose kitchen was literally in what used to be the coat closet; another person I knew, who lived in lower Manhattan, had a kitchen that was this little wedge of wall kind of near the front door and the only reason there was a counter was that his father had hung a shallow slab of remnant formica, on a hinge, from the wall under a window. New York kitchens bring idiosyncratic to new heights — and my tiny kitchen in my new apartment was cut from that same cloth. The equipment was there, in a technical sense, but nothing about the kitchen was gonna make things easy on me. Well, except this: the rent included heat, hot water, and — excellent news for me — cooking gas. There were certain expenses I didn’t have to worry about, which meant I could try to direct my monies toward making the best of my sucky skills and gear in the kitchen.

In The Low-Tech Person’s Batterie de Cuisine, Colwin encouragingly breaks down a very clear list of the basic shit everyone should have in their kitchen. She admits that there are occasionally specific interests that require special equipment; people who bake, she acknowledges, will probably want particular baking pans. She claims that owning a chicken fryer is necessary if you want to fry chicken in a serious way — I wouldn’t know, since I have never fried chicken, but I’ll take her word for it. “I use it twice a year to fry chicken, and while it takes up space, it is the right tool for the job.” She also grants that there are a lot of specific-task kitchen items that one person will say is stupid and another person will view as essential, and that these things are basically a matter of taste. This is true: Most serious cooks pooh-pooh the garlic press, for example, but I love mine and use it all the time.

So at some level, outfitting your starter kitchen — which can remain “starter” long after you’ve gotten pretty competent at the stove — is a personal issue. But: there are no matter what some basics that everyone’s going to need, and I think Colwin gets this right. I found this list reassuring in 1993, and as I read it now, it still makes me nod in approval.

St. Colwin’s Low-Tech Batterie de Cuisine
You need: Two knives — one big, one small. St. Colwin claims they should be carbon steel, not stainless, but I take no strong stand on the matter*.
You need: Two wooden spoons, a long-handled one and a short-handled one. I would say three spoons might be a good idea — long, medium, short.
You need: Two rubber spatulas, one with a wide head, one with a narrow head. “These last only a couple of years and then the heads come off.” I like the silicone spatulas you can get these days; I don’t think they were so common in the 1980s. The heads should be removed from the wooden handles before washing, because mold and crud will grow on the end of the wood otherwise. Let the wooden dowel dry completely, and let the water drain out of the head, before you reassemble. Just take my word on this one, ok?

You need a “decent” pair of kitchen shears. This is important. A decent pair of kitchen shears is a pair of scissors that works well and that can be taken apart for washing. I have a nifty pair that has rubber over the handles and it is designed so that the two pieces, where they cross, also form a bottle opener. My father bought these scissors somewhere probably in 1978 and they are still in heavy use.

You need two frying pans, St. Colwin tells us: one large, one small. “The small is for cooking two eggs, a child’s lunch, a toasted cheese sandwich.” The big one is for bigger projects, like a pancake breakfast or chicken breasts for dinner. Now: I take Colwin’s point but the reality is I think most of us could get by with one 10″ pan.

That said, I do now own several frying pans, some bigger, some smaller, and I use them for pretty specific purposes. I have a very small shallow one, a Le Creuset pan I found in my grandmother’s apartment after she died, and I use it for melting butter for sauces and I use it to toast spices. I hardly ever cook food in it, but I use it when I need to use a tiny pan to do a tiny job where it’d be just stupid to use a 10″ pan.

You need: Two cutting boards, one large, one small. This should be obvious but just in case it isn’t: you need a big board for when you need to take a big steak and cut it into strips for a stir fry, for when you need to hack a winter squash in half, for when you need to dice long stalks of celery. You need the small cutting board when you’re going to mince some garlic by hand because you don’t have a garlic press, when you’re mincing some parsley or cilantro to sprinkle on top of your avocado salad, when you are slicing grapes to feed to your toddler. I have my aforementioned totally battered white plastic cutting boards that work just fine; I can disinfect them with bleach or rubbing alcohol. People have lots and lots of things to say about the materials of cutting boards; I’m fine with plastic.

You need, St. Colwin tells us, two roasting pans. This is debatable, but for her purposes it seems clear she’s right: “A big one for the turkey and a medium-sized one, preferably earthenware, which holds and distributes heat better for baking eggplant parmigiana, roasting a chicken. Such a pan can double as a gratin.” I have a small number of roasting pans, by now, and I suppose they’re all sort of interchangeable but it’s also true that we’ve learned by trial and error that some are just subtly better than others for certain jobs. There’s one pan I use for roasting chickens and also for tuna-noodle casseroles and lasagna; I feel it is useless for making brownies and I have other pans I use for brownies or other bar cookies. I know this seems arbitrary, but that’s life.

You need: Two soup kettles, one four-quart and one ten-quart. — I’m not exactly sure this is true but maybe it is. I have two 8 quart kettles, Revereware stockpots I got from relatives who no longer cook, and while it seems crazy to have two of the exact same thing, the fact is I’m grateful, all the time, to have them both. I cook pasta in them constantly, for one thing — and if you’re making a spaghetti dinner for more than four people, you need that extra pasta cooking space. Too much pasta in one cooking pot doesn’t end well. But I also use them to mix bread dough, and to hold the rising dough. This saves me money on Saran Wrap and it means I can confidently leave the house for hours on end and know the cats won’t get into the bread dough (I lock the lid to the pot using rubber bands swung around the knob on the lid and around the handles of the pot). I suppose you could say I basically agree with Colwin, but I’m quibbling about the sizes of the pots. We could just split the differences and call it even.

You need: a heavy-lidded casserole, enamel over cast iron or earthenware, for stews, daubes, chili.
I’ll be honest here: I’m not even sure what a daube really is**, but I agree that you need a heavy-lidded casserole for chili or stew or soup. The way I’d rephrase this is, You probably want an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. It does not have to be the biggest and fanciest Le Creuset item, but a reasonably large pot is more versatile than a really small cute one shaped like an apple or a pumpkin. The round pots are a better bet than the oval pots. We bought a couple of LC pots off the manufacturer’s seconds shelf at an outlet in 1999 and have never for a moment regretted the purchase. Many companies make ones that cost far less than LC. Some of them are kind of junky, friends tell me, but some are just fine, and you should get one that’s just fine and enjoy.

You need: a pair of cheap tongs. For a million reasons. Here’s an example of St. Colwin’s realistic worldview: “Tongs can easily be unbent to form one long arm with which to retrieve things that you have accidentally kicked under the stove, and then they can be bent into tongs again.” In fact, I have two sets of tongs, neither of which can be unbent and rebent like this, but the point is well taken. She is correct that you should have something in your kitchen you can use to root around under the stove to get the things you kicked under there; I use a yardstick.

You need: one all-purpose grater; one tiny grater (which you’ll use for grating cheese for pasta or things like that); mixing bowls; a sharp-pronged fork. Yes, yes, yes, yes. What I advocate for is not a box grater, but rather two Microplane graters, one fine and one coarse. They are easier to store, easier to use, and very easy to clean. In re: mixing bowls — one set is, in my experience, not enough, and ideally some can be used as serving pieces, so snag a set that makes you happy when you look at them. On this count I was all set, thanks to my brother and father. In recent years I have a received a set of red melamine bowls my dad off-loaded to me when he downsized apartments. They were the bowls he used when he made French toast for us a million ago. While the rubber rings on the bottom are cracking from drying out, and I can’t put them in the dishwasher anymore because of that, they are still very good bowls we use a lot. Unlike my blue glass bowls or the Duralex bowls, they have little pouring spouts, which is occasionally a useful feature.

The sharp-pronged fork is, I agree, a very useful implement. It can be used to achieve many small and large goals: you use it to snag the green bean you knocked under the pot (tongs can work for this too), you use it to carve and serve your roast chicken. The fork doesn’t have to be fancy looking. Just have one.

I can very clearly remember assessing my batterie de cuisine as I read this book going, “Ok, I’m not so far off, here.” While it was true I didn’t have a lidded casserole or Dutch oven, my sauté pan was very heavy and it did have a good lid. Furthermore, since it was all metal, I could use it on the stovetop and move it into the oven, just as I would a Dutch oven.

This is not the list you go by when you’re making your dream list of every kitchen thing you’ve ever wanted; this is not your wedding registry. This is your Basic List, this is the list you keep in mind when you’re on a walk on the weekend and it’s tag sale season. Tag sales, by the way, are another thing St. Colwin and I are in total agreement on: you can snag the best and most useful kitchen stuff at tag sales. I have a red and white enamelware cake carrier I got at a tag sale that has been wowing them at bake sales for more than a decade. I have extremely good pots and pans from tag sales and from “Free! To a Good Home!” boxes out on the sidewalk. You simply never know when you might have a change to grab for cheap or nothing an item your household needs, or has merely wanted, longed for, and always viewed as out of reach. One time my husband went to work and found a small LC pot, with its lid, in the lunch room: a co-worker was moving house, didn’t want to keep it, and now it’s ours, and it gets used probably three times a week. Our favorite coffee cups: 90% of them are cups found on the street, either at a tag sale, or just found, abandoned in a box.

All this is to say, Laurie Colwin was, as she should have been, as we all should be, pragmatic as hell when it came to kitchen equipment and how to use it. This is admirable, particularly in our time, when it seems like every food magazine and website is telling us constantly that we need this new amazing thing. You really probably don’t need that new amazing thing, and what’s more, that new amazing thing probably isn’t so amazing. She wasn’t interested in status items for status’ sake. She was interested in getting a job done well with a minimum of fuss. She was, in a way, a more actively domestic version of Peg Bracken, really; she knew that not everyone wanted to invest in cooking as an activity, or work that hard at it, but understood that most of us do, at some point or other, have to feed ourselves. Home Cooking asks, What would be the efficient, good, tasty, not back-or-wallet-breaking ways to achieve this? And What do you need to do it? It’s clear from this essay that Colwin knew how to be simultaneously cheap and lavish,  and like any good friend, she’d give you the skinny before you made a mistake.

When I got to the end of the essay, the last sentence left me with my jaw on the floor. Remember: I was too cheap to buy a rolling pin, I used the same two pots to cook every single thing I ate. I didn’t even know what a Dutch oven was, in those days. I was afraid of the Joy of Cooking. What was Laurie Colwin going to tell me that made me feel I could cook?

“In a pinch, you can always use a wine bottle as a rolling pin.”

 

* The truth is, I have one carbon steel knife, and I fucking love it. It’s an 8″ blade that my dad got God knows when and it wound up with me a few years ago. I took it to Harper Keehn to be professionally sharpened and goddamn that knife has been a pleasure to use ever since. I sharpen it myself every couple of months and I will never own another knife as awesome as that one. But it’s true the blade is not something to be fucked with; you have to maintain a carbon steel blade, and not be lazy about it. If you can’t deal with that, stick to stainless.

**it’s a fancy way of saying stew, it’s a French beef stew cooked in wine, apparently.

1. Cookbooks and Matchmaking

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.

 

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