We owe a great debt to Laurie Colwin. She gave us bracing inspiration in our cooking development, insisting in her brief yet potent essays for Gourmet, collected in Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, that anyone could do this thing called food. Her taste in comfort food, insistence on good meals ready in a snap, and her brisk, no-nonsense voice shaped us and called us into the kitchen.
But her inspiration didn't stop there. She also made us believe in short stories again.
We swore off short stories after too many years of English university education and mornings spent reading The New Yorker. Short stories these days seem a fast way to a nice day of feeling depressed. Enter Colwin's three collections of short stories.
She wrote what she knew - middle to upper class New Yorkers, well-educated and sometimes intimidatingly well-off. Her characters are usually of the wealthy, entitled and unthinkingly privileged class whose unconscious assumptions of centrality are part of what we find so off-putting in much high-end literary fiction.
But Colwin's characters are heartfelt, even when she is skewering pretensions and sketching swift, Austenesque portraits that deflate stereotypes but recognize true archetypes. We empathized with her characters nearly instantly; her young, up and coming professionals and academics struggling with insecurity, affairs of the heart, and the confusion and wonder of new marital states are both achingly familiar in their emotions and funny as all get-out in their expressiveness.
Colwin is an entertaining storyteller - one of those rare ones you stay up until 2am reading, yet one with stories you feel deep down are good for you. They feel true and real emotionally, yet delicious.
In this way they are not so different from her cooking and her palate. She was a wonderfully home-centered cook; she used to stuff little pats of fussy flavored butters under the skin of her roast chicken, she says in one essay, but gave it up in exhaustion after she had her daughter, and then found her own style of simple home cooking that managed to be both exotically delicious and comfortingly familar.
She cooked food that deep down was good for you - nourishing to the soul, unpretentious to the core, and yet honest and thorough - not accepting the tricks and lies of the food industry that tells us cooking is hard. It's not hard, she says, and she bakes bread on her own time, makes jam and chutney, and many, many roast chickens to prove it.
Her interest in food didn't stop in her novels and short stories, too; key points turn on food in some of her stories. We especially love some of the food scenes in Happy All the Time and the hilariously awful catering stories from one character in A Big Storm Knocked it Over.
Laurie Colwin died very young, and we are so sad that we won't ever see a new novel or short story from her. We owe her a great debt - short stories that are elegant, funny, and addictive; melancholy without depression; sweet without saccharine. And we owe her the debt of enormous inspiration in the kitchen; we've read her essays so many times sometimes we feel we hear her voice in our ear.
What's your favorite Laurie Colwin book, short story, or essay? We always come back to her love of lime pickle and fermented black beans - such an unabashed love of salt! We also love her rather autobiographical character of Misty, the prickly, overly intelligent girl in Happy All the Time - she feels so real. And when she finally lets her guard down, the imagery is pitch perfect, for she feels "as well-placed in the universe as a fresh loaf of bread." (Hat tip to Jen at Bakerina for that great bit.)
• Laurie Colwin's books at Amazon
Two Recipes Inspired by Colwin
• Coffee Fluff
• Lemon Rice Pudding
(Images: Nancy Crampton, Harper Collins)