Laurie Colwin

Zoals zij over eten schreef…ik wou dat ik het kon…

Laurie Colwin:
A writer in the kitchen

Laurie Colwin is mijn favoriete kookboekenschrijfster. Hier een integraal overgenomen artikel in het Engels over haar.

Nearly ten years after her death, Laurie Colwin?s works?fiction and food books?are still in print. There is no greater testimony to a writer?s staying power. I met her in the seventh grade in 1957, and I miss her every day. There is no greater testimony to a friendship. Nor am I alone in my sense of loss. Scanning the readers? reviews of Laurie?s books on the web page, I find that people who never knew her still write about her as though they did, and as though she were still alive. Which, thanks to her books, she is. What do her life and work tell us about the relations between cooking and eating, on the one hand, and reading and writing on the other? A lot.

Eating is the sybaritic pleasure most closely connected to the civilized life if only because it is the one that provokes (even more than ***) the liveliest, most amusing talk. And unlike *** (for the most part) food is best experienced not alone or in pairs but in larger groups. Its preparation and sharing are among the hallmarks of refinnement as are, even more, those other kinds of sharing known as writing, reading, and talking. An interest in and a willingness to value cuisine generate pleasure. Spread that pleasure around and you have a society in which people want to live. Someone once called Berkeley the capital of enlightened hedonism, because the most important people there are chefs, maitre d?s, other restaurateurs, grocers, and foodies of all stripes, followed slightly down the ladder by massage therapists, yoga instructors, and personal trainers. A person who can get a good table at Chez Panisse at the last minute is a very important person indeed. Royalty begins with Alice Waters.

My thinking about food and literature owes a lot to my longtime friendship with Laurie, who died in 1992 at the age of forty-eight, unexpectedly and tragically. We were pals throughout high school, went our separate ways during college, and re-connected afterwards when I was a college professor in Texas and she an increasingly popular New York (and New Yorker) writer. Laurie?s books made people?even those who were nervous beginners in the kitchen, or absolute non-cooks?feel at home with food and, more generally, in human relations, because of her marvelously breezy style and the combination of authority, intimacy, and tolerance generated by her tone of voice.

The associations among food, writing, domesticity, and human relations are the most salient part of her legacy. Last spring, visiting Parma, I had dinner with friends. We were a group of eight?academics, scientists, writers, Americans and Italians?gathered around a large and groaning kitchen table. After a typically Emilian dinner?an antipasto of prosciutto and figs, tagliatelle swimming in butter and fresh sage, roast chicken with rosemary, grilled asparagus, insalata mista with baby greens straight from the garden, a wheel of Parmesan, and strawberries lightly dowsed with balsamic vinegar?I asked the group whether they could all recall their most memorable meals. Oh, yes, everyone agreed enthusiastically, and began describing the dishes. But wait, I said. Answer me this first: Did those meals take place in a restaurant or at someone?s house? They looked at me as though I were mad or foolish. A casa, certo! They replied in one voice. Despite our professed interest in family values, Americans might be the world?s least domesticated creatures. For an Italian, the table is the place of love and friendship, and the preparation, serving, and sharing of food at table generates something that no restaurant could possibly duplicate. Home, in other words, is where the culinary heart is.

Laurie knew this. For her, it was a point not worth arguing. Thus, the beginning of Home Cooking, her first series of columns originally printed in Gourmet:

One of the delights of life is eating with friends, second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends. People who like to cook like to talk about food. Plain old cooks (as opposed to the geniuses in fancy restaurants) tend to be friendly. After all, without one cook giving another cook a tip or two, human life might have died out a long time ago.

It is the voice of a comforting friend. As Laurie continues: ?I love to eat out, but even more I love to eat in.? She might have added something about the extra consolation of reading cookbooks while dining solo.

Even in high school in suburban Philadelphia she understood the relationships among hospitality, the literary life, and domestic pleasures. In our green suburb of single-family houses she was the only person I knew who lived in an apartment, so that her father could take the commuter train into work every day. Later I realized that the apartment had a distinct New York feeling to it. Her mother was an art dealer and collector and the walls were lined top to bottom with paintings and artifacts. She was also a grand hostess who collected interesting people of the sort you don?tfind in the suburbs every day. But teenaged Laurie kept a rival salon. Squeezed into her narrow bedroom (formerly intended, it appeared, for a maid), our crowd would sit for hours leading the degage life of suburban wise guys. We smoked cigarettes and acted like baby Beatniks. Laurie was not so much a queen bee as the facilitator, the hostess.

The angst-ridden teenager turned into a successful grown-up. ?Show me a happy adolescent,? Laurie once said to me, ?and I?ll show you a psychopath.? The adult Colwin was an anatomist of sanguinity. Happy All the Time, Family Happiness, Another Marvelous Thing (even the titles are delicious) plus the two collections of mini-essays from Gourmet all attest to the deep pleasure she took in simple, surface sensations, a capacity shared by all healthy adults who are not totally ascetic or sensorily deprived. She even proved Tolstoy wrong: Happy families are not, pace the famous first line of Anna Karenina, all alike; they have their distinctive shadings, nuances, and tensions. Only a simpleton will confuse happiness, a potentially deep feeling, with smug contentment or self-satisfaction.

Neither literary life in the fast lane of New York publishing circles nor eating in restaurants held any appeal for Laurie. After her first book of stories came out I wrote a wide-eyed letter from the provinces asking whether she?d been feted at a famous East Side literary eatery. She responded, calling it ?a drab place?with tatty pub types at the bar?a very awful place and not where one wishes to have a nifty meal. How about Chock Full O? Nuts, or the Bagel Bar?? Now those were places to grab her attention. As was any project requiring will and muscle. In a letter from 1982, which begins ?I am an orderly person and so here is an orderly letter,? Laurie remarked that, apart from her continuous writing, ?I struggle to be the editor of the newsletter for the Coalition for the Homeless (I am not good at this) and once a week I help cook and serve lunch at the Olivieri Center for Homeless Women on 30th Street (I am very good at ladling, cleaning the counters, and saying, ?I?m sorry?we don?t have any more bread.?)? Glamour was, for her, the closest thing in the world to Hell.

Which is why she stayed home. An incipient agoraphobic (she hated elevators and once boasted that she hadn?t been north of 23rd Street all year), she realized that the best meals are always those that are shared, often improvised, and that lack the theatrical vulgarity, not to mention the noise (whoops, I mean the ambience) of fancy restaurants and the sculpted, architecturally conceived, vertical constructions that decorate plates on restaurant tables.

At the memorial service for Laurie, almost a thousand people filled Symphony Space on Upper Broadway in Manhattan one cold and snowy February night. An almost equal number of unhappy fans were turned away. For an agoraphobic, Laurie had lots of friends, people who had come to think of her as a chum through the hospitable qualities manifest in her writing, both the fiction and the work on food. It says something about any writer when she is able to generate such personal responses from people who had never met her. Of the baker?s dozen of people who spoke at the memorial, novelist Walter Abish had perhaps the most extraordinary role. ?I am here representing the people who did not know Laurie,? he said, and proceeded to read selections from the countless letters that flooded in to her family after her death from strangers (well, hardly strangers) who felt that they, too, had lost an important friend.

It is easy?and partly correct?to say that all of Laurie?s female characters are versions of herself, or of her idealized self writ large, and they all share her passion for the refined pleasures of domestic life. Food looms large in the stories and novels, not necessarily the magisterially symbolic boeuf en daube around which everything seems to crystallize in Virginia Woolf?s To the Lighthouse, but delicate markers of class, character, mood, and a person?s dealing with self and others. So the aristocratic Solo-Miller clan (from Family Happiness) enjoys squeezing fresh orange juice, and they all sit down together to a brunch where ?there were heavy white plates of smoked salmon, silver baskets of toast points, dishes of capers, lemon slices and scallions, and a cobalt-blue dish of nicoise olives. There were covered dishes of poached eggs and sauteed chicken livers.? These are Jews so far up the scale that there?s not a bagel in sight. Another memorable epiphany: at the end of Happy All the Time, the quartet of lovers who have finally come together in perfect harmony sit at an elegant country inn, the men having caught a large striped bass, which the staff will grill for them. The women have come with a wicker basket containing flutes, place settings of good silver and linen napkins. They have bought lettuce, potatoes, and a Lady Baltimore cake. Holly Sturgis has brought her homemade salad dressing, plus beeswax candles, four wooden candlesticks, and champagne. They drink to ?a truly wonderful life,? and unless you are absolutely repelled or unconvinced by the possibility of happy endings, you believe them.

At Laurie?s memorial celebration, Anna Quindlen, reading the wonderful essay entitled ?Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,? said that Laurie wrote on behalf of all the young women like her who come to New York to establish a career, an identity, and most of all (as both reflection and cause of the others) a small domestic space. This is not the debutante career girl of the fifties, but a more realistic, hard-headed and romantically capable young woman who, if she doesn?t get bored, tired, or swept away by Prince Charming and move to the suburbs, hangs on and makes a life for herself in Manhattan.

Like all great food writers who do more than merely give recipes (Elizabeth David, M.F.K. Fisher, and John Thorne leap immediately to mind) Laurie admits her readers into her kitchen and her opinionated orneriness. We experience food as part of her personal and social life. Her instructional impulse is matched, even exceeded, by her narrative or anecdotal one. She explains what it is like to live in a teeny apartment where the tub serves as the kitchen sink and where a hot plate is the only stove; where an eggplant is a girl?s best friend; and how one learns to make do and, even more, to flourish. And we learn about entertaining a beau, dating an Englishman, marrying a Latvian, about entertaining strangers, relatives, and friends (and, along the way, about how friends now constitute family in the lives of many Americans), about cooking shepherd?s pie for one hundred and fifty people once you?ve decided to do some good deeds, about throwing out of the window various time-consuming chores once a baby has entered the household. By opening a book we come to know the writer; even a cupboard contains personal data.

We sense how the early years of poverty and bachelorhood still hold a modest nostalgic sway over the mature and worldly mother. This is why Anna Quindlen could identify so clearly with the narrator of ?Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant?:

When I was alone, I lived on eggplant, the stove top cook?s strongest ally?. Now I have a kitchen with a four-burner stove, and a real fridge. I have a pantry and a kitchen sink and a dining room table. But when my husband is at a business meeting and my little daughter is asleep, I often find myself alone in the kitchen with an eggplant, a clove of garlic and my old pot without the handle about to make a weird dish of eggplant to eat out of the Meissen soup plate at my desk.

Laurie?s life weaves itself into the food writing, with just enough sentiment to make you smile, and just enough realism (she once said that she never wrote in her fiction about poverty because she had been poor and didn?t find it very interesting) to keep the nostalgia from seeming sappy.

Laurie?s prose, like her advice and recipes, fluctuates between the simple, the epigrammatic and the comforting, and the complex and the challenging. She wins you over with her old-fashioned common sense: ?I do not believe that you have to spend a lot of money to eat well: it is hard to beat a plain old baked potato?; ?To feel safe and warm on a cold wet night, all you really need is soup?; ?Without salt, things taste like themselves?; ?Lentils are friendly?the Miss Congeniality of the bean world.? Yes, this is the kind of host you would like to have, or to be, and the kind of teacher you need to get you started and then to move you along. Don?t worry if you don?t have a Cusinart, let alone a tagine; a basic batterie de cuisine consisting of a couple of knives and pots will do perfectly well (and Laurie gives a recipe for sauteed vegetables and a poached egg, all in a single pot). Quivering with anxiety, sweating to make a good meal and a good impression? Try a simple dish that requires long cooking. (And Laurie gives you a basic, sure fire beef stew recipe). Buy something simple for hors d?oeuvres, get a loaf of good bread and something nice for dessert, toss fresh greens with oil and vinegar, and voila! You too can entertain. Try her easy potato salad, the fried chicken, the perfect and easy (and healthy!) chocolate cake. For a saltless meal try her sensible recipes for baked chicken with garlic and apples, or cold roast chicken with buckwheat noodles, and a salad dressing with ginger.

At the same time, Laurie warns you that everyone makes mistakes and can learn from them (?My own greatest disasters have been the result of inexperience, overreaching, intimidation and self-absorption?). See the uproarious chapters entitled ?Kitchen Horrors? and ?Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir? for a description of disasters and a reassurance that a bad meal can be turned into a good story if all else fails. English food and cooks take special honors in this dubious category, but disasters and horrors are the stuff of family legend and can be as easily transformed as straw into gold if you think about them. Here, for example, is the description of something called an old-fashioned fish bake:

Someone in the family had gone fishing and pulled up a number of small fish?no one was sure what kind. These were partially cleaned and not thoroughly scaled and then flung into a roasting pan. Perhaps to muffle their last screams, they were smothered in a thick blanket of sour cream and then pelted with raw chopped onion. As the coup de grace, they were stuck in a hot oven for a brief period of time until their juices ran out and the sour cream had a chance to become grainy. With this we were served boiled frozen peas and a salad of iceberg lettuce?. For dessert we had a packaged cheesecake with iridescent cherries embedded in a topping of cerise gum and a light tan coffee.

One might question Laurie?s opinion that repulsive meals and kitchen disasters ?edify? one (if by ?edify? she means ?makes you into a better person,? then I am not so sure), but both learning and delight result. Above all, good language transforms horrible food into delicious prose. The brain has been nourished in the privacy of the reading chair, just as the spirit of the person who suffered through the actual experience is enlivened through the memory of something sublimely awful.

Like the female characters in her fiction, most of whom are stand-ins for their creator, Laurie the writer and the person was a ?strong domestic sensualist,? whose interest in home, kitchen, and domesticity was a means of keeping disorder at bay and of controlling one?s surroundings. The drive for perfection or precision compensates for the equally strong counter-tendency to sloppiness and emotional upheaval. Writing does the same thing, and in a telling simile Laurie makes the apposite comparison: ?Just as novels are written chapter by chapter, so are dinner parties put together course by course?. And just as novels are not necessarily written from beginning to middle to end (although they end up that way), it is easier to think about a dinner party course by course, but not consecutively.?

She encourages her readers to take control of their domestic lives, to treat themselves?and their friends and family?well and not to allow themselves to become overwhelmed. Acknowledging that people rarely have servants, and seldom have even enough time for an entire family to eat together, she affirms that ?cooking is like love? and that you don?t have to be beautiful or exciting to fall into it. You merely need to be aware of what is around you and of how to recreate what gives you pleasure. In the last piece in her posthumous More Home Cooking, Laurie tells us that once she had a child she was forced to abandon certain highfalutin and time-consuming kinds of kitchen operations, and that it didn?t make any difference. Never truss a chicken again, if you don?t want to. The chicken will taste just as good. Her last words?a fine valedictory piece of advice that applies to cooking and to much else in life is ?You just have to relax. I assure you that if keep it simple, everything will turn out just fine.?

Writing keeps authors and their characters alive. So does the memory of our friends. Although eating exists only in the present tense, even those of us with imperfect recollections of food, whether the most sophisticated or the most primitive of gustatory experiences, can be reminded of, and vicariously refreshed by, delicious tastes when we read delicious words. Laurie Colwin seems to have made everything turn out fine for her readers.

Laurie: “Cookbooks hit you where you live. You want comfort; you want security; you want food; and you want to not be hungry; and not only do you want these basic things fixed, you want it done in a really nice, gentle way that makes you feel loved. That’s the big desire, and cookbooks say to the person reading them, ‘if you read me, you will be able to do this for yourself and for others. You will make everybody feel better.”

Bron: Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol.1 No.4

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2 Reacties

  1. Dat je artikel niet is te lezen. Mag waarschijnlijk niet gelinkt worden?

    Ik ben wel nieuwsgierig overigens ;-)

  2. Dat je artikel niet is te lezen. Mag waarschijnlijk niet gelinkt worden?

    Ik ben wel nieuwsgierig overigens ;-)

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