On a night when television, social media and frankly even conversations in the street are a little too stressful (even in countries where we are not electing anyone), I have come up with the perfect antidote: the marvellously calming, deeply comforting More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.
It would have been very useful if, when I’d read it back in 2014, I’d reviewed Colwin’s first volume of food writing (entitled, you will not be surprised to learn, Home Cooking). I did not but just trust me on the fact that it was wonderful and so is this follow up book, published posthumously in 1993 after Colwin’s untimely death the year before at the age of just 48.
Her writing is so friendly, so familiar that after just one essay you feel as though you’ve been reading something written directly to you by someone you’ve known your whole life. Colwin shares herself with the reader through friendly asides, personal anecdotes, and lots and lots of cookbook recommendations (many of which come prefaced by irritated disclaimers that the book is not available in North America due to ignorant publishers – I enjoy these particularly). All this builds an intimacy that is almost unbearably poignant for the reader, knowing as we do that Colwin’s days would be cut sadly short.
While the book includes many recipes, they are almost beside the point. Yes, I want to try her recipes for Lemon Pear Crisp and Wensley Cake and Gingerbread, but what most stands out are her stories around the recipes. I have no memory of what recipes were included in the essay on black beans but the introduction is unforgettable:
I had my first taste of black bean soup on a cold winter Saturday when I was sixteen years old. A friend, home for the holidays from a very glamorous college, gave a lunch party and invited me. Seated at her table, I felt that I – mired in high school and barely passing geometry – had died and entered a heaven in which people played the cello, stayed up at night discussing Virginia Woolf, saw plays by Jean-Paul Sartre, and went to Paris for their junior years abroad. But it was the black bean soup that changed my life.
And I may never need to poach a pear, but I certainly loved to read about Colwin’s first experience doing so:
I first made poached pears in the kitchen of the man who would later become my husband. He had bought a nice bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, and I thought I would use some of it to poach the fruit. As the pears were simmering, I decided to take a little nip. My, I thought, this is fizzy. It tasted like a kind of sublime grape pop but not as sweet. By the time the pears were ready, the rest of the wine had been consumed without so much as a drop left for my sweetheart, but I was quite cheerful.
She writes like the novelist she was. In fact, I kept thinking of Elinor Lipman’s writing as I read this. They have the same gentle optimism and sense of humour and, of course, love of food. I was deeply upset when I realised that Lipman’s wonderful novel, The Inn at Lake Devine, was published in 1998 – six years after Colwin’s death – because I am certain she would have loved it.
Most of all, Colwin feels like an encouraging friend in the kitchen. Someone who is sharing her best tips, her amusing failures, and all of her love. I came away with half a dozen cook books to track down (chief among these is the irresistibly titled Curries and Bugles), a burning desire to make mulligatawny soup (which I fulfilled on Sunday night with delicious results), and a sense of thankfulness for the generosity these essays embody. And in that spirit, let us tonight remember that it is far easier to share with others and build friendships than it is to carry on disagreements and maintain an exhausting animosity. If you chose to do this with cake, all the better:
I like a cake that takes about four seconds to put together and gives an ambrosial result. Fortunately, there are such cakes, and usually you get them at the homes of others. You then purloin the recipe (since you have taken care to acquire generous friends) and serve it to other friends, who then serve it others. This is the way in which nations are unified and friendships made solid.