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.

 

Several Decades of Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: 1988-2018

A while ago, a friend of mine, Lucy, who hosts this food and cooking show on a local radio station, asked me if I’d like to talk about eggplant on her show. My response was, “I hate cooking eggplant, I suck at it, find someone else.” She found this response delightful, and said, “All the better,” and she got me into the radio station with another friend, Brian, who likes cooking eggplant but admits it can be challenging.  We spent about an hour discussing the myriad pros and cons of cooking eggplant. I mentioned Laurie Colwin’s loyalty to and love of eggplant, and how there was a whole essay in Home Cooking devoted to eggplant (“Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant”). I took the position (not shared by Colwin) that eggplant is delicious, if properly handled, but that you have to be a better person than I am to actually cook it, and that badly prepared eggplant is so sad it’s just not worth the gamble.
This is the voice of unhappy eggplant experience talking.
Brian, who has many happy experiences of cooking eggplant in his kitchen history, disagreed with me, saying “Eggplant’s great! Eggplant is our friend!” (I’m paraphrasing.) Lucy was also very pro-eggplant. It was an intense conversation, and in the months since we recorded it, to my surprise a lot of people have come up to me and asked me about eggplant, which goes to show people don’t really pay attention (they should be asking Brian and Lucy, not me, for advice on eggplant cookery), but whatever.

Brian said he’d like to read this Colwin book I was talking about, and I said I’d be happy to lend him my copy. As it happened, I’d brought my working copy of Home Cooking with me to the radio station, so I handed it to him and said he could take it home. I can’t remember if all this dialogue is actually on the radio show or if it happened afterward, but if you’re curious you can listen to the show via the above link and have a nice time.
We meant to have lunch, Brian and I, soon after we recorded that show, so that we could hang out and so that he could return Home Cooking to me, but we didn’t cross paths for the longest time.  Like, half a year went by. There were many times, in those months, when I thought, “Goddamnit, where’s my copy of Home Cooking?” I even posted to Facebook about this. “Where’s my copy of Home Cooking?” And Brian responded, “I have it. We should have lunch.”

I could have pulled out one of my hardcovers, but that would have been tempting fate. I have a bad track record of accidentally trashing Colwin books (most notably the time when I spilled a tablespoon of expensive, store-bought, freshly made pesto sauce on the second page of Colwin’s last novel, which I had brought home the day it was released, so excited to read it while I ate dinner: stupid, stupid, stupid). Basic rule: only use cheap, easily-replaced, paperbacks while eating or cooking.

So I made do for several months, in re: my Home Cooking needs, doing these inept online searches for certain bits of text when I needed to. The “search inside this book” function at Amazon is quite useful. But my brother, very unexpectedly, gave me a Kindle edition of Home Cooking. Now that I have this Kindle edition, I can read it on my phone. I don’t have a Kindle per se, I just have the app on my phone — but it’s fine; it’s quite useful, to be honest. And one of  the results of having Home Cooking on my phone is I started to re-read it at night when I was winding down to go to sleep. This has turned out to be a fun and funny experience, not unlike talking to myself. It seems that without trying, I’ve more or less memorized the book: the phrases are all very deeply imprinted in my head. It could be a boring thing, reading a book like this again — it’s just a little cookbook, after all, and I’ve read it so many times — but it’s not boring at all. After a bit, I realized that the truth is, I haven’t sat down and really read it in several years. I mean, it’s one thing to look up certain recipes online, and I’ve searched for certain phrases, to double-check something I’ve quoted to a friend, but that’s not the same thing as reading it, essay by essay. And doing that now — as someone who cooks day in and day out, every day, endlessly, in a very different place and manner from how things were when I first read this book — is interesting. The book has stayed the same, but the world, the world of cooking, and I, have changed so much from where we all were was when I first read it.

I didn’t read the essays in Home Cooking when they first came out. Colwin started writing these essays in the 1980s, for Gourmet magazine, and it was presumably 1987 when they first began to work on collecting them in book form (I could be wrong). In those days I was a teenager and I had zero interest in cooking (though I had a significant interest in eating). All this stuff which would become very important to me was, at the time, not on my map at all, when Home Cooking was published in 1988.

I first read Home Cooking in the fall of 1993. I was a recent college graduate, just beginning to have to learn how to cook for myself. And reading Colwin was essential to this enterprise: it was more important to me than my parents’ virtually untouched copy of The Joy of Cooking. Colwin was easier to get a grip on, both literally and figuratively. The JoC, as definitive as it was (and is), was just…. daunting. But Colwin’s book is a slim little paperback, friendly-looking, the opposite of encyclopedic. The JoC is all about know-how and skills and real knowledge and precision; Colwin’s attitude is respectful of that kind of thing, but her basic vibe in these essays is, “Hey, girl/guy: no biggie. You can do this. And if you fuck it up, it’s ok, go get a pizza and wash the dishes later.” So I read this book many times and slowly, gingerly began to expand my kitchen skills. I had a few, mind you, but very few. Anything I knew how to cook, I knew from one of the two Moosewood cookbooks I owned. I mostly knew how to boil pasta in one pot and make a sauce in a second pot. Anything more complicated than that was beyond me and too daunting to contemplate. I could bake chocolate chip cookies — they were never very good, to be honest — and so I sensibly preferred to eat the dough raw rather than waste time actually baking it. I was afraid of handling raw chicken and raw meat. I didn’t have a food mill; I didn’t even have a sense of what a food mill looked like. I was someone who’d always used a wine bottle as a rolling pin, on those extremely rare occasions when I decided to try to bake cookies that required a rolling pin, because I wasn’t about to buy a rolling pin, for god’s sake — who would waste money on a rolling pin? I was afraid to use the blender my parents had hiding in their front closet. It had sharp parts! And I didn’t know how to take it apart to clean it. Furthermore I was terrified of breaking it, that I would do something awful to it, and then what would happen? I was terrified of the broiler (well, I’m still kind of terrified of the broiler, with good reason) and the idea of making anything that involved spices other than salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes made me laugh: who in their right mind had things like turmeric around?

I know this seems hard to believe, but you have to believe me: if you’d told me that some day I would make homemade caramel for fun, I would have laughed in your face. Cooking like that was for other people — other, insane, people, people who really have nothing better to do with their time. Not people like me. Except, as I was quite broke at the time, I was learning that while I didn’t have to know how to make caramel, I really did need to learn how to cook for myself, as a matter of economy. And so I tiptoed into my absolutely minuscule kitchen and began to figure it out.

I was working in a used, rare, and out-of-print bookstore, in the late 1990s, when I re-discovered the Colwin essays in their magazine forms — the shop acquired a massive collection of old issues of Gourmet, as I was already an obsessive Colwinite I spent hours going through them and pulling out the Colwin issues so I could buy them and take them home. It was wonderful to see the pieces I knew so well in book format as they had originally appeared. It would have been so fun, I thought, to be someone who bought the magazine in those days — I know I would have been someone who just skipped right to the Colwin column and read it as fast as I could, and then re-read it over and over again. This was the way I read Home Cooking and More Home Cooking (which came out in 1993, shortly after I graduated from college, and which I bought eagerly, in expensive hardcover, the day it arrived in the bookstore at which I worked for five dollars an hour). I would have saved those issues of the magazine forever. (I believe I still have all those issues of Gourmet, though I’m not proud to say I suspect they are moldering in a box someplace. In the coming months I’ll have to go see about that.)
I read those essays, in magazine and book form, so many times I could recite passages. I learned to acquire cookbooks that Colwin had spoken of, even in passing, when I found copies for sale in used bookshops. As the years went by, I began to refer to Colwin as St. Colwin, believing that she was, at some level, the patron saint of my kitchen, the person who taught me how to cook and the person who kept me from trashing my kitchen in rage when disasters happened. And oh believe me: they happened.

And look at me now. I have a shelf many feet long that is nothing but dozens of little bottles and jars of spices. Including turmeric. Twenty-five years on, I’m someone who, as Colwin did, has baked countless loaves of bread, kneading it and letting it rise around the schedule of — who’d’ve thunk it? — a little baby who then turned into a young child who then turned into a big kid. (Though, it must be said, Colwin died when her daughter was around the age my daughter is now, which is horrible to think about.) I’m someone who will roast a chicken pretty much unthinkingly. I have a rolling pin that I purchased of my own volition and I have used it to make homemade croissants and I’m able to recommend it over other types of rolling pins because I’ve become someone who has opinions about types of rolling pins. I’m someone who is actually viewed — God help us all — as a small authority on cooking and baking. I get phone calls, Facebook messages, and text messages from people who need me, of all people, to advise them on what to do in the kitchen. I could never, ever have predicted this.

It’s been thirty years since Home Cooking came out and I’d like to revisit it and talk about it, chapter by chapter. This process will either be a great deal of fun for my readers, or they’ll be bored out of their skulls. I’m ok with that, but those who’d be bored by it — even as they follow other food-focused blogs — are short-sighted, for this reason: The fact is, Colwin’s books have, very quietly, had a huge, huge impact on the world of food writing, and on how we eat and what we eat. Every single food blogger in the world, myself included, is basically a would-be Colwinite, even if they don’t know it. Without Colwin, there is no Smitten Kitchen, no Pioneer Woman, no Chocolate and Zucchini, no Food 52, and so on. So let’s take it chapter by chapter. The Hausfrau is going to take off her shoes and curl up on the couch with a cup of coffee, a cat, and a piece of slightly stale cinnamon cake, and think about the introduction.

The Things I Carry

It’s possible that I go grocery shopping more than the average American. All I know is, As I was walking home from the grocery store today, carrying a bag with some chicken, some Brussels sprouts, an onion, four bananas, and a carton of half and half, I stuck one of my hands into my coat pocket to keep it warm. Nestled in my coat pocket like an egg in a chicken’s nest was a head of garlic. It has probably been there for a week. I’ve been wearing my coat every day and only today did I notice I’d left a head a garlic in there.

It’s convenient though because I am running low on garlic.

Some people, when they’re worrying about an oncoming snowstorm, rush out to buy milk and bread. Me, I’d rush out and buy chicken, onions, garlic, and milk. The bread, I can handle myself.
Snow’s in the forecast for later this week. In the meantime, enjoy this.

I said I would make peanut butter fudge.

A few months ago a member of my household who shall remain nameless began to ask me, “How come you never make peanut butter fudge?” This, as if I spend all my time making other kinds of fudge and I’m just fucking with him by not making peanut butter fudge.

(I guess that pronoun kind of gave things away. Oh well.)

Here’s the thing: I never make fudge at all. I think once I tried to make that Marshmallow Fluff fudge they have the recipe for on the back of a tub of Fluff but I don’t even remember how it came out. I guess it was probably fine. However, when my husband began to talk about peanut butter fudge, like, specifically, and on a regular basis, I thought, “Well, okay, I’ll make some one of these days.”

I decided to make a batch of it for his birthday, but what with making Boston cream pies and lemon cakes the whole peanut butter fudge thing got away from me slightly. I did not have the time to invest in making it the way I’d like to — the way that requires spending serious time paying attention to cooking sugar on the stove. Instead, I made the down and dirty kind you find a recipe for online involving Marshmallow Fluff. And it’s not bad! It’s fluffy and peanut buttery and you can eat two pieces of it happily and if you’re smart you don’t have a third piece because you will get the collywobbles. Not that I have any personal experience with this, thank God; but common sense snuck up on me and, you know. Just stop at two, ok?

The fudge I made is poured into an 8×8″ pan — if I were to do this over I might even fish around to see if I had a smaller square casserole or similar to pour it into. You line the pan with tinfoil and butter the foil. (This is not optional.) Then, in a saucepan (I used a small Dutch oven) you melt a couple teaspoons of butter in two cups of white sugar and 1/2 cup of milk. You cook this, stirring constantly, until the sugar melts, and you bring it to a boil and simmer for three minutes. Do not stop stirring, and run the spoon or spatula along the sides of the pan to bring sugar that sticks there down into the goo. After the three minutes are up, remove pan from heat, and stir in 7 ounces of marshmallow fluff and about 1 1/2 cups of peanut butter (your choice as to what kind, I guess; I used Skippy smooth). Pour this into your prepared pan and chill for several hours. The website I pulled this from claims it makes 64 pieces of fudge, which is total bullshit, unless your idea of a piece of fudge is something the size of a sugar cube. I don’t remember exactly how many pieces I got out of my 8×8″ pan but it was more like 36 pieces of fudge. Which is enough, don’t get me wrong — I had plenty for the birthday boy and some for a neighbor who had expressed a deep interest in sampling some peanut butter fudge (and I gave him enough that he and his teenaged sons could each have a piece or two). But, math-challenged as I am, even I know that 36 is not the same thing as 64. Now: let’s move on to the important question, namely: Is this stuff worth eating?

The answer is, Yes, but it’s clearly not real peanut butter fudge. I refer to it as “Baby Peanut Butter Fudge” — it’s a first step toward the real thing. Real peanut butter fudge is — if my research is indicative of the process — a much more finicky and daunting operation, requiring you to bring sugar to a boil to very precise temperatures and maintaining those temperatures for very precise lengths of time. Generally speaking this is my impression of how it is making any kind of fudge, which is why I’ve never gotten into it. But I’ve come to see, tasting this Fluff version, that I really do have to give it a roll sometime. The Fluff version is quite tasty. It has a certain almost halvah-like quality, which is enjoyable; my husband said it reminded him vaguely, too, of Circus Peanuts, which he likes, he claims, but for me that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. I mean, this is good to eat, for sure, and my neighbor reported he and his sons snarfed down their share of the goods, too.

Me, I missed the smooth denseness of the kind of peanut butter fudge you can get in fancy candy stores. The kind of fudge where, when you bite into it, your teeth leave a sharp scalloped edge behind. That’s the kind of fudge I want to make. And the more I think about it, the more I want to make it, even though I know in my heart that I’m not likely to be able to achieve fudge nirvana, and that I could well wind up with a panful of very hard grainy weirdness than I wind up just melting down again and whisking with heavy cream to serve as an ice cream topping.

But look: if that’s the result of a cooking failure? Please.

My daughter has a week off from school coming up and I am thinking about creating a One Week Cooking School for her, to give us something to do and to give her a chance to get to work in the kitchen a little more. I sense a peanut butter fudge project in our near future. The potential for disaster is considerable, yes, but on the other hand… even crappy peanut butter fudge is, presumably, better than no peanut butter fudge at all?

Screwing Around with Lemon Cake

My husband’s birthday called for a cake to be served Day Of and I asked him, “What kind of cake do you want?” Most years he picks something chocolate-oriented, but this year he broke down and said, “What I really want is a lemon cake with lemon frosting.” This was very brave of him because he knows I hate lemon cake with lemon frosting, and basically what he was saying was, “I want a cake that I know you will not enjoy making or eating.”
But he works hard, and he supports our little family, and frankly, he deserves a lemon cake, even if he drives me nuts. So I spent some time thinking hard about lemon cake. “Do you mean lemon cake or lemon pound cake?” I asked him, in hopes of really nailing down a concept. He said, “I don’t care.” “You said you wanted lemon frosting,” I pressed on. “Do you mean, like, a light, whipped, fluffy frosting? Or the kind of thick icing that forms a dense layer on top of the cake?” “I mean the dense layer kind,” he said decisively.

“Ok then,” I said. I began to pull out cookbooks and spread them out on the dining table and on the kitchen counter. By 8.30 in the morning, I’d gotten my butter and eggs to room temperature and I was ready to roll.

After reading many recipes, some of which called for more eggs than I had on hand, I settled on a lemon cake recipe that I found via Smitten Kitchen — it’s really an Ina Garten recipe, I’m told. It calls for a manageable two sticks of butter and four extra-large eggs (for which I substituted three jumbo eggs). This is a recipe that produces one nice big Bundt cake or two normally-sized loaf cakes; today I opted to do two loaf cakes.

It took me nearly an hour to assemble the batter for this cake, what with zesting several lemons and squeezing lemon juice. I don’t mind squeezing lemons, thanks to the miraculous Juice-O-Matic I nicked from my parents’ front closet when they got ready to sell their apartment about 15 years ago, but zesting citrus fruit is not a task I really get excited about. But I rose to the challenge. I laid out a sheet of wax paper at the dining table and sat down with a bowlful of lemons and my fine-tooth Microplane and I zested the little fuckers thoroughly until I had 1/3 of a cup of fine lemon zest.

The batter mixed up nicely and I poured it into the prepared (greased, floured, parchmented) loaf pans and then I baked them for an hour. When the cakes came out of the oven, I made a lemon simple syrup (1/2 cup lemon juice, 1/2 cup granulated sugar), and after the cakes had cooled out of the pans for a little while, but while they were still warm, I took a toothpick and carefully poured the syrup into the holes. The idea is this somehow makes the interior of the cake even better than it was originally. How this is possible — these are, after all, just lemon cakes — is beyond me, but hey, I do what I’m told.

I washed the endless dishes and then I took the last of the lemon syrup and used it to make the frosting for the cakes. This turned out to be the one aspect of the cake that I really had to wing on my own because no source I turned to seemed able to give me a recipe that would produce what I wanted. Almost every recipe I saw for “lemon cake frosting” or “lemon cake glaze” produced either the light fluffy sort of thing I’d been told to not make, or a very thin, drippy glaze that would dry to a clear varnish on the cake. This wasn’t what I wanted at all.
I read many, many recipes, and after a while it dawned on me that I had what it took to make my frosting. I did a few more Google searches to see if anyone else was doing what I was about to do, and came up empty handed. It must be out there somewhere, but I don’t see it anywhere.

What I did was I took about three ounces of cream cheese and beat it in the Kitchen Aid until it was smooth — the way I might if I were adding cream cheese to a buttercream frosting. And then I whipped in something like 1/4 of a cup of lemon simple syrup — stuff that was leftover from soaking the cake. I added a couple of cups of confectioner’s sugar and, when this resulted in something a little bit thicker than I wanted (I need to be able to pour this in very thick ribbons over the cakes) I splashed in maybe a tablespoon or two of milk.

The stuff I made was a cross between a frosting and a glaze, really; had I whipped in more sugar, or added a whipped egg white, it could have been an incredibly fluffy lemon frosting. As it was I had a very dense, heavy substance that I knew wouldn’t exactly harden but would form a crust as the top of it dried. Very importantly: it would be visible: white, not just a layer of sugary shine on top of the cakes. I poured it carefully over both of the cooled loaf cakes (pouring this stuff on a warm cake would, I know, be a disaster, don’t you even think about it) and then I set them aside for several hours. By the time we cut into one of the cakes, around eight o’clock, there was indeed a thin crust on top of the glaze, which had hardened into a soft, slightly-glossy, not-quite-solid, white mass on top of the cakes; handsome drippy bits fell down the sides here and there, just like in the magazines.

It occurs to me that it might have made for a somewhat prettier glaze if I’d cooked the lemon syrup with some corn syrup and then added that combination to the cream cheese. There are certainly ways to make this glaze work in a more fondant-y manner and yet taste better than fondant. Maybe I’ll work on that. A chocolate variant of it is already forming in my mind, too.

But regardless: the cake was viewed as a success. When I cut into the cake I had no idea of what to expect. What effect would the soak have had? What would the crumb look like? How would all of this taste?

Well, due to the soak being applied to the bottom crust of the cake, the bottom of the cake had a distinctly more sharply lemony flavor to it than the rest of the crumb; but there was a distinct lemon flavor to the whole cake. I found the frosting too puckery, but my husband and child seemed to like it. I did finish the thin slice I’d cut for myself — probably the first time I’ve eaten an entire serving of any lemon dessert — but am not moved to eat any more. The rest of the family, though, will presumably decimate the rest of the cake very easily in the next couple of days.

And what of the second loaf? “Can we freeze it so I can have lemon cake later?” my husband asked eagerly — the subtext being, “Can you not give this cake away, but freeze it so that  can have it, for god’s sake, some time when I’m tired of eating Mallomars and hot fudge?”

I’ve wrapped it up tight in many layers of plastic wrap. It’s in the freezer. And in the meantime I’m going to think about chocolate simple syrup frostings.

When Two Cakes and Two Custards Equal One Boston Cream Pie

I have earned an entirely undeserved reputation as someone who can walk into the kitchen and emerge two or three hours later, unflapped and holding aloft a pretty decent cake. This is why I am relied upon to come up with birthday cakes and cakes for festive occasions. What people don’t realize is that the disasters they feel I am exempt from are, in fact, just as likely to befall me as them — the difference is, I think, that I allow for such disasters in terms of timing. In other words, it’s not a measure twice cut once situation: it’s a measure, mix, bake, and see if it works, and make sure you’re working with enough time such that if it doesn’t work, you can do a second measure, mix, and bake. Because the odds that disaster will strike twice are, truly, pretty slim.

Let us consider, for example, last Friday. We were expecting family to visit in honor of my husband’s birthday. I knew my husband would want some kind of fancy iced cake, and since I happened to be aware of our houseguest’s love of Boston Cream Pie, I decided that the thing to do was make a Boston Cream Pie. My husband is not against Boston Cream Pie, either, so really, it seemed like a safe bet, in terms of “will people be happy with this.”
Now, normally I would view this as too much of a pain in the ass to take on, but there were some extenuating circumstances. One: birthday. Two: I already had a jar of fudge in the fridge which would work very well as the chocolate icing. Three: I have a tub of Bird’s Custard in the sweet drawer, which means I thought I wouldn’t have to fuss with making a real pastry cream (something I’m sure I could do, but didn’t want to start experimenting with just then).

“No problem,” I said to myself, and I stared at a Nigella Lawson recipe for Victoria sponge and thought, “Perfect.” I whipped up my Victoria sponge batter, it looked great, I bunged it into the pans precisely as instructed, and when I went to examine the cooled layers an hour later I saw that my nice cake layers had undeniably crashed. What I had was two lovely vanilla pancakes. “Okay,” I said to myself, looking at the clock. “This sucks. BUT. Onward.” I had two hours in which to bake a second cake, and I managed to get two very nice Golden Vanilla cake layers out of the oven in good time (God bless King Arthur Flour for that recipe, along with everything else they do).

I had hoped — naively — that I would have the entire cake assembled before my husband came home from work, but it was not to be. Instead, come 5.30 Friday evening, while he stood around the kitchen having a beer with our houseguest, I worked on the custard filling. Which failed. This isn’t fair: it was Bird’s, there was nothing to fail, exactly; the problem was that I abused the product and overcooked it and wound up with something I could not use as a cake filling. I had to throw out a panful of rubbery custard and start over. The second time around, I managed to get it more or less right, and I forced the necessary cooling by dunking the pan in an ice bath (worked pretty well! whisk hard all the while you’re doing this, though, lest the custard get weird on you). My husband tried to not watch me and tried to stay out of my way, aware that as I swore and gritted my teeth, I was doing all of this ostensibly for his benefit (though it’s really both for his benefit and out of my own sense of obligation because this is something I should be able to do). “You realize,” I snarled at once point, “that this is actually the second cake I’ve baked today.” He got a look of horror on his face — suddenly understanding that the frustration he was witnessing over the custard was really just the tip of the iceberg. “It’ll be fine,” I said, “I’ve got the chocolate layer taken care of anyhow.” This thought was, in fact, comforting, and I cooled as the custard did, feeling like I could get this done without throwing anything against a wall.

I did have to whip up a little more hot fudge sauce, in the end, because it turned out the jar of sauce I had in the fridge wasn’t quite enough to cover the job — but making hot fudge sauce is, I swear on all that’s holy (the Joy of Cooking, for example) that making hot fudge sauce is infinitely easier than making a cake or custard. Making hot fudge sauce is like this: you take about 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup corn syrup, 1/2 cup cocoa powder, a couple tablespoons of butter, and some whole milk or cream or even evaporated milk (maybe 2/3 of a cup), and you whisk it together over medium heat. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer for three or four minutes. You could put in a dash of salt if you wanted. Cook and stir — do not stop stirring, ever — and after a few minutes take it off the heat. Sprinkle in about 1/2 cup chocolate chips and a dash of vanilla and stir until the chocolate chips have melted. Depressingly, this is all it takes to make hot fudge sauce that is perfect on ice cream but is even better to eat by the spoonful straight from the jar. It also makes a perfect topping for a Boston Cream Pie; the corn syrup makes it nice and glossy and you can do things like what I did, and use a spatula to swirl the birthday boy’s initial into the chocolate, just for kicks.

My husband missed seeing me make the extra hot fudge sauce, because he was out picking up the Chinese food we’d ordered for dinner (his choice! not a matter of my being unwilling to cook!). If he had witnessed it being made, he might be less impressed by it. However, the upside of his having gone to get dinner was that by the time he got home, I had assembled the Boston Cream Pie and knew it would be a humdinger.

Yes, there are things I’d do differently next time. Next time, for one thing, I think I’ll attempt a real pastry cream, with actual eggs, and I’ll make a lot of it so that I can have a really nice, thick layer of it between the cake layers — I was a bit stingy with filling this cake. For another thing — well, come to think of it, there isn’t another thing. This cake was otherwise perfect. The cake itself was wonderful, the chocolate was excellent, and we ate all of it up by the end of Sunday.

Which is lucky, because my husband’s actual birthday is this week, and we need to make room for the lemon cake he’s asked me to make him. I’ve never made a lemon cake before, so the truth is, this will be an adventure as well… but what could go wrong?

Family Happiness: A Beautiful Dud of a Book

Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows I’m a huge Laurie Colwin fan and I’ve read all of her books many many times and I’ve got them all internalized to a probably unhealthy degree.

There’s a novel of hers, though, that I’ve read distinctly fewer times than anything else she ever wrote. It’s called Family Happiness, and it’s a book that I know is loved by many of her fans.

It is not loved by me.

It’s not hated by me, either; it just leaves me sort of uninterested. Though the writing is as recognizably — and enjoyably — Colwin as anything else she wrote, the story and characters give me very little to work with. It’s about a devoted wife and mother who has an affair. That’s all. It’s not really very complicated (not that Colwin books really are; they’re all basically novels of the heart and novels of manners). There’s nothing wrong with it, but our heroine, Polly, isn’t interesting enough for me, and the characters who are spiky enough to be interesting aren’t given lead roles. Other Colwin novels, the spikier types get much more dialogue, and I think the books are much more fun as a result.

But that’s neither here nor there. What I want to talk about is, Giving the book a chance. The first time I read Family Happiness I think I was about twenty-two or twenty-three years old. I was decidedly pro-Colwin, and it was among the last of her works of fiction I read. It did very little for me, but I remember thinking, “This is one of those books where I’ll probably like it a lot better if I read it when I’m a little older.” Like I knew that I wasn’t really old enough to appreciate it on the correct levels.

So while I would re-read Goodbye Without Leaving and Happy All the Time annually, and keep the cookbooks on hand in the kitchen, my copy of Family Happiness tended to just sit around collecting dust. Every few years I would notice it and think, “Yeah, I should re-read that.”
Well, it’s now been decades since I first read that book. I’ve read it I think two times in the intervening years, and I just read it again last week, and I’m here to tell you: I will never love that book the way I love the other Colwin books. Mostly, I think, because I think Polly’s a twit. I mean, I kind of sympathize with her, but not that much. All the flaws people call out in Colwin books — they’re completely blind to serious entitlement issues, they’re completely unrealistic to the vast majority of Americans, almost no one actually lives on Planet Colwin — are there but to the absolute nth degree in Family Happiness. Other books of hers will give at least some kind of lip service to class issues, race issues, and so on — sometimes more than lip service, in fact — but Family Happiness is the kind of worst-case-scenario of Colwin books. Here’s a woman who’s got, seriously, no big problems, except her rich lawyer husband works a lot, and she’s an emotional wreck because of it.

Well, look, babe. Such is life. I’m not sure how to empathize with you, given what I know about your life. You think that people who do grocery shopping in supermarkets on Sundays are morally bankrupt wretches? Really? Oh, Polly: What would you do in today’s America? How would you react to Blue Apron and Plated and Instacart?

I’m going to be blunt and just say what I think: I think Family Happiness is a beautifully-written dud of a novel. However, its flaws, for me, serve a crucial purpose, which is that they make the other books, which I love, seem so much better.

It’s now 2018 and been thirty years since Home Cooking was first published. It’s time for a major assessment of Colwin’s work. I plan to work on this, and I’m glad I’ve got Family Happiness out of the way, because now I can think about the stuff I actually like. In addition to the thorny problem of what to make for dinner tonight.

Building a Lifestyle Brand

My friend S., who leads a life that one could view as moderately glamorous (in that it involves a lot of travel to posh-sounding places) (my standards for these things are pretty low, I think), has asked me on more than one occasion why I haven’t done more to promote this blog and my lifestyle brand. He’s said to me, “Think of how many people would admire you, if they knew about you!” He clearly envisions beautiful photographs along the lines of, well, every other blog in the world written by some thin blonde woman or some thin sable-haired woman with perfect nails. I am not thin, blonde, sable-haired, or manicured. There’s no point in having a manicure when you cook as much as I do.
“The truth about the Hausfrau really isn’t that interesting, though,” I laugh, when he asks me about my lifestyle brand. “I don’t do anything so exciting. Or admirable.” “Maybe not,” he said, “but you look good doing it!” This, I suppose, his way of complimenting me, of acknowledging and appreciating my refusal to walk around in yoga pants or similar. If I’m having a “messy day,” I don’t think anyone’s ever aware of it, because the fact is, I tend to put on a black wrap dress, a pair of black tights, and a pair of black boots on days when I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, and most people seem to read that as “Whoa, she’s doing something big today.” Nope, just scrubbing the toilets. Even when I go out to shovel snow, I admit, I layer my multiple scarves just so, and I won’t wear a hat that looks stupid on me. I may be a Hausfrau but I’ve got some pride, too.

The fact remains, however: I don’t have a good way to photo document just how good I look doing much of anything, since I’m not a compulsive selfie-taker and — bizarre as this sounds — the local paparazzi have no idea I exist. No one has ever asked to spend a day following me around observing my routine. The New York Times has never asked me to describe my usual Sunday. And I don’t know why they would. My usual Sunday usually starts with me asking my daughter, “Did you brush your hair before you went to bed? Yeah? Then how come it looks like you haven’t brushed it in three days? Jesus, come over here and bring the brush.” I brush her hair and pull it into a ponytail. Then I tell her to go put on her bathrobe because it’s freezing, is she out of her mind, and put on some slippers too or at least a pair of socks. She rolls her eyes at me but puts on a robe and slippers or socks. Then I pour her a bowl of cold cereal and tell her to not bother me while I read the paper.

It’s all very glam.
Look: We don’t go in for photogenic breakfast trays here with little pitchers of hot milk and sprigs of whatever garnishing the toast. Even if I did put a sprig of parsley on the side of the plate, it wouldn’t get me very far because my daughter would eat it before she ate her breakfast. I’m not sure why but my daughter has always been a garnish-eater. It’s actually raised eyebrows more than once among the waitstaff and management of restaurants both in the U.S. and in Canada. Anyhow, I’m not a garnisher. The aesthetics of the plate are not my bag. My bag is How do I get through the day?

Consider my Tuesday morning, today. Tuesday is Monday, this week, because yesterday was a holiday. To un-do the effects of a three day weekend with my husband and child in the house all weekend long (because it’s so damned cold outside), I had to turn into a kind of domestic tornado as soon as I saw the kid off to school today. I finished my second cup of coffee and then I got to work. By noon today I had done the following things:

Emptied the dishwasher, which we ran last night as we went to bed; washed and dried three loads of laundry, which are now piled up on my bed waiting to be folded and put away; set up pizza dough, and dough for the week’s loaf of pain de mie; set up a big pan of onions to caramelize; vacuumed the first floor and the front foyer; cleaned the toilet in the first floor bathroom; scooped the three litter boxes in the basement; taken out all the trash and two very seriously overloaded recycling bins; washed the filters for the vacuum cleaner, which were vile, and because you have to hand-wash these things, it counts as a task unto itself even though you wouldn’t think it would; changed the tablecloth on the dining table; cleared the piano of all flotsam and jetsam in anticipation of the tuner arriving at 11; and sharpened all the non-serrated knives.

Here’s the thing. Are any of these activities the kind of thing that lifestyle brand people talk about? Are there chicly-outfitted ladies who snap pics of themselves  taking out recycling and scooping cat shit out of litter boxes? Do they really find it worthwhile to pay for the posting of these photos? I cannot imagine so.

Having written this: I’ve learned that we’re expecting another snowstorm tonight. This means the odds are reasonably good that tomorrow there will be no school, which, in turn, means the Hausfrau (no copyright yet registered) will have to use all her Lifestyle Brand Skills to come up with a plan to keep the child from going stir crazy and to keep herself from being driven barking mad by the stir-crazy child. The first floor, which is finally reasonably clean (if not as tidy as some of us might like) for the first time in over a week, will become a vortex of filth once again.

But I can face this. I have milk; a loaf of pain de mie is about to go into the oven; and I’ve laid in a supply of ice cream and have what it takes to make hot fudge sauce, should anyone request it. I can make a yogurt cake tomorrow; I can play Rack-O for an hour if I absolutely have to. Tomorrow, indeed, we can entertain ourselves by folding laundry and listening to WPLR (the local classic rock radio station) and talking about whether or not Van Halen sucks. My daughter will ask the deathless question, “How come they never play Suzi Quatro?” I will sigh heavily and admit that life is full of such sad mysteries.
In the event the child has school, I will skip the WPLR and the Rack-O, sure, but either way, being the Hausfrau: it’s not glamorous, but one thing I’ve got going for me, that my world-traveling friend doesn’t, is that whatever happens, the odds are in my favor that I can roll with it.

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