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.

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.

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.

The Pros and Cons of Picnics

The Hausfrau is, pretty much by definition, someone who wants to avoid the Great Outdoors. If I have to be near nature, it has to be under controlled circumstances, or there will be hell to pay: I become very unpleasant to be around, very quickly, if those needs are not met. One, there must be proper bathrooms within easy walking distance. Two, there are certain creature comforts that must be brought along for the duration. These include, but are not limited to: good food; appealing reading material; and something comfortable to sit on that separates my tush from nature. I don’t require sunscreen. I don’t require a tent (though maybe I should). I don’t see what’s so appealing about being uncomfortable, and it always seems to me that being outdoors equates to being uncomfortable. I have never gone on a hike, and I plan to keep it that way.

However, I have a child, and that child finds picnics delightful. So does her father. Over the years, as a result, we have developed a pretty solid system for picnicking. There are different versions of our picnics; we select which version we’re doing based on where we are going. And the quantity of preparation involved depends entirely on which type of picnic is anticipated, and how long we will be away from home.

The short, easy version of a picnic is what my daughter and I do when we have lunch in the courtyard of our apartment building. This is the most bare-bones picnic I do, which should alarm you. Supplies include:

Large, easily laundered blanket or tablecloth; cloth napkins; an entree; a crunchy snacky thing to have on the side (e.g. potato chips or similar); something light, juicy, and crunchy to eat, like sliced cucumbers or grape tomatoes; some cold fruit; beverages; some small sweet thing for dessert; reading material. The blanket is carried outside and spread out by my daughter while I stand holding a tray on which everything else is stacked. A picnic like this generally lasts about an hour, maybe 90 minutes if we decide to lie down on the picnic cloth and just read for a while after eating, or if my daughter decides to go look for praying mantises while I lie down and read. Cleanup is simple. Everything is stacked back onto the tray, and the blanket is rolled up, and things are carried back into the house.

A more involved version of this picnic is the setup we use when we go to the pool to spend a few hours. Depending on the time of day, we either need to bring lunch and snack with us, or snack and dinner. Either way, the above list is (minus the tray) packed into a large tote bag with some carefully arranged additions: the drinks might, for example, be packed into Ziploc bags containing ice. This keeps the beverages and everything else cold, which is important on a hot summer day, but keeps the entire enterprise still highly portable, which is also important because we take the bus. The two of us have to be able to carry all of our stuff comfortably for a distance equal to roughly two blocks. That’s not so far, but I can promise you that carrying a heavy cooler two blocks would be no fun. So: bigass tote bag, and bags of ice (which serve a dual purpose, because you can use the ice water, if you want to, to rinse hands, cool foreheads, or even drink, if it comes to that).

If my husband is joining into the picnic things will become even more elaborate, because then we usually have the luxury of being driven to the picnic location. If we are headed to a beach, then a beach umbrella is involved. Using a car means we can use the cooler and the tote bag, or even two coolers (one for food, one for drinks).  It means things are likely to get pretty elaborate.  Food that requires plates, forks, knives, food that will be cooked on-site on a grill. Ziploc bags of food will be prepped and sealed up for safe travel — marinated steak or chicken; sliced veggies on skewers; the various components for a salad to be assembled upon arrival. Salad dressing goes into an old spice jar or an old jam jar, depending on how much dressing is needed. All forks, knives, and spoons are packed into their own Ziploc bag, so they’re clean when we sit down to eat; and after we eat, when they’re dirty, they go back into the bag to be carried home for washing without getting other things all gunked up while in transit.

Often, it is necessary to have sharp knives with us when we are having this kind of picnic. Sharp knives require special packing effort. Because we are not professional chefs, we don’t have one of those snazzy rolls for safely toting knives around, but I’ve managed to come up with a fairly acceptable homemade system, which involves using dishtowels to wrap the knives up, and rubber bands to secure the little bundles. So long as only my husband and I unwrap them, it works fine (our daughter knows to not help unpack those items).

It is smart to bring a light plastic cutting board or two on a serious picnic. Something thick enough that you can safely use it on the ground, if you have to — not just one of those flexible plastic mats that seem so perfect for picnics because they’re so light and take up so little space. They’re also so light they’ll blow away in a strong breeze. Leave those at home and get something a little sturdier and pack it into the tote bag. If you’ve got a nice loaf of bread you want to slice to eat with the meal, you don’t want to cut it on the birshit-covered picnic table, do you? And after you’ve covered the birdshit covered picnic table with a cloth, you still don’t want to use the cloth as a cutting board. Bring a cutting board.

Cloth napkins are preferable to paper napkins because they’re also not so likely to blow away in the wind while you’re at table/on picnic blanket. That said, it is smart to bring along at least part of a roll of paper towels, because they can be really useful. Paper towels — which I almost never use at home — are the kind of thing that takes almost no effort to pack, and doesn’t seem like a big deal, and you think, “eh, it doesn’t matter, the napkins will be fine.” And if you leave them at home, everything is fine until you run into trouble (you need to clean up some big mess/want to drain something/want something disposable to rest a bacteria-laden object on) and don’t have anything appropriate.  And then you find yourself asking the air around you, “Does anyone have any paper towels?” So do yourself a favor and just pack some paper towels. If you don’t want to carry a whole roll, just tear off ten or so towels and pack them into something that will keep them clean, dry, and unrumpled. If you don’t use them on this jaunt, you can keep them safe for the next outing.

Stacks of paper plates are a good idea if you can’t have proper place settings. Some people have plastic dishes they use for picnics; I admire that but we don’t have any and I’ve yet to convince myself to invest in any, but am definitely not taking my proper plates to and fro for picnics. I know that it’s not environmentally friendly to use paper plates, but sometimes in life we make compromises. Mine is using the occasional small stack of paper plates. Sue me. Similarly, I don’t have a supply of plastic cups I reserve for picnics. We drink cans of seltzer or bottles of beer from the can or bottle, and call it a day. Wine drinkers; you’re on your own, I have no sage advice for you.

So you haul all this stuff to the place where you will be picnicking. If you’re going to cook, you set up your on-the-road mise en place. Someone mans the grill while someone else sets the table: tablecloth goes down first, whether it’s on the ground or on an actual table. Anchor the corners of the tablecloth with heavy-ish objects that everyone will need as the meal progresses — cans of seltzer, or bottles of condiments; the bag of cutlery can anchor one corner until the contents are pressed into use.

You set the table in such a way that it’s comfortable. You want everyone enjoying the meal to be able to enjoy the meal; no one should sit down to eat and not know where their napkin is, or where their fork is. Just because you’re eating outside, it doesn’t mean you have to live like animals. You don’t have to have dirt in your food. And you don’t need special gear, those fancy picnic basket sets (or not so fancy ones, even) that look so charming. Believe me, I think they look charming, too, but I’m convinced they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Most of us have what it takes to haul our stuff to a picnic without investing $30, let alone $150, on special picnic gear. You own serving spoons; bring a few with you so that you’ve got a way to serve your green salad and your fruit salad with different implements. You don’t want vinaigrette on your watermelon and blueberries, do you? No, you don’t. So just pack some spoons. Pack some tongs. If you’re going to do this, do it right.

Because — and this is crucial — I know it seems as though you’re preparing for Armageddon, when you’re packing up. But when you come back home, there won’t be as much stuff, because most of it will have been eaten. And then it’s just a matter of washing up. If you used paper plates, well, you threw those out already, right? It’s a matter of silverware and serving utensils, maybe a couple of trays, your cutting boards, the bowls you packed your salads in… it’s really not so bad. Now that we have a dishwasher, it’s pretty easy for me to just carry the tote bag of dirty stuff to the dishwasher and load the machine straight from the bag. Leftovers are already in bags or plastic tubs ready to go into the fridge. The tablecloth goes into the laundry with the napkins (and the beach towels and bathing suits that probably have to be laundered anyway). And if you never had to open your packet of paper towels, really, you’re ahead of the game for the next outing.

The really fun part of planning a picnic, as I learned from Laurie Colwin years ago, is the same thing that’s really fun about attending a picnic: the food. That is what I’ll talk about next: the food.

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