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.