Two very good books by Laurie Colwin: Home Cooking + Passion and Affect

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988)

I have Dorian (at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau) to thank for introducing me to Laurie Colwin. (You can read more about the background to that intro in my review of Colwin’s 1982 excellent novel, Family Happiness, by clicking on the link.) Alongside fiction, Colwin also wrote about food – specifically, home-cooked food, the kinds of simple yet flavoursome dishes that any good cook needs to have in his or her repertoire.

First published in 1988, and reissued by Fig Tree in this lovely 2012 edition, Home Cooking weaves together Colwin’s recipes, anecdotes and sage words of advice on the joys of cooking and sharing food with friends. In short, it is a delight to read – warm, generous, and completely down-to-earth, just like Colwin herself, I would imagine. In some respects, reading this book feels like having your warmest, smartest, funniest friend over for dinner – someone with a willingness to share their culinary tricks and treats alongside their unmitigated disasters.

There are chapters here on Friday Night Supper, How to Disguise Vegetables and Easy Cooking for Exhausted People. All the recipes seem eminently achievable – tried and trusted versions of Colwin’s family favourites, including Warm Potato Salad with Fried Red Peppers, Orange Ambrosia and Extremely Easy Old-Fashioned Beef Stew (which can be pimped up accordingly once the basics have been mastered). Pot roasts and baked chicken feature heavily, as do eggplants (aubergines) and broccoli, two of Colwin’s favourite vegetables. I will definitely be trying some of her ways with orzo as there’s a packet languishing in my cupboard as we speak.

Orzo with butter and grated cheese is very nice. Orzo with a little ricotta, some chopped parsley and scallion, butter and cheese, is even better. Orzo with chopped broccoli and broccoli di rape is heaven, and it is also a snap. While you cook the orzo, steam the two broccolis—the amounts depend entirely on how many people you are feeding—until tender. Chop and set aside.

Drain the orzo throw in a lump of butter. Stir it in, add the broccoli, some fresh black pepper and some grated cheese, and you have a side dish fit for a visiting dignitary from a country whose politics you admire. (pp. 85-86).

She’s not above sharing some of her kitchen nightmares, either – the culinary disasters that have lingered in her mind. After all, as Colwin generously admits herself, having just served crunchy pasta to her husband’s friends, ‘if all else fails, eat out’.

There’s also a particularly amusing chapter on ‘Repulsive Dinners’ recounting the horrors that Colwin has experienced elsewhere. In this passage, she recalls an invitation to supper in Connecticut where the ‘local markets were full of beautiful produce of all kinds.’ Unfortunately, none of these tempting ingredients found their way into the host’s meal. Instead, ‘an old-fashioned fish bake’ was produced – even those words themselves sounded ominous, as Colwin conveys.

The old-fashioned fish bake was a terrifying production. Someone in the family had gone fishing and had pulled up a number of smallish 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 grâce, they were stuck in a hot oven for a brief period of time until their few juices run out and the sour cream had a chance to become grainy. With this we were served boiled frozen peas and a salad with iceberg lettuce. (p. 153)

What I love most about this book is the way Colwin writes – hopefully you’ll get a flavour of her style from the passage I’ve quoted above.

In summary then, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen is a wonderful collection of essays, recipes and reflections on the joys of simple yet delicious dishes. An ideal present for any food lover, especially the unpretentious ones!

Passion and Affect (1974)

I’ve also been reading some of Colwin’s short stories over the past few weeks, dipping in and out of her bittersweet collection Passion and Affect. Colwin writes beautifully about quiet, unshowy people, many of whom are drifting through life, searching for happiness or fulfilment, even if they can’t quite recognise it when they find it. While not necessarily outsiders, many of Colwin’s characters are somewhat odd or idiosyncratic, written with a kind of humanity that makes them seem entirely recognisable despite their inherent strangeness. Here we have stories of people falling in and out of love, not quite connecting through mismatched expectations, failing to compensate for their respective flaws and imperfections.

As one might expect with any collection of short stories, some pieces will resonate more strongly than others, so I’ll focus on a few of my favourites from the fourteen included here.

In The Water Rats (probably my favourite story), we meet Max Waltzer, a thoughtful, successful man who adores his wife and four children so much that his happiness threatens to overwhelm him. For Max, the fear of potential tragedy manifests itself in the form of water rats, recently sighted on the nearby shoreline.

In the beginning of the spring, geese flew in V formation. Max watched them from the bay window. He looked out over the water and saw the first of the small craft battling its way to an old mooring. On the weekends he liked to sit by the bay window and watch his part of the Sound. It soothed him, and it gave him a sense of propriety to see the latticework gazebo, firm on its slope. A family of barn swallows was building a nest in its thatched roof. (p. 49)

This is a beautifully written story in which a man must come to terms with his fear of loss – a worry that poses a more significant threat to his wellbeing than any hypothetical catastrophe.

In Children, Dogs and Desperate Men, a woman slips into a dalliance with a married man – a cartographer she meets at her cousin’s engagement party – even though she knows it’s unlikely to lead to anything lasting. As with many of Colwin’s characters, Elizabeth is somewhat fragile, viewing herself as ‘shaken and out of place’, still recovering from an earlier unhappy love affair. This touching, wryly humorous story ends on an unresolved note, leaving the reader to wonder what might happen in the future.

This dry (and frequently direct) style of humour runs through several of Colwin’s stories, perhaps most noticeably in The Big Plum, one of the best pieces in the collection. Harry, a supermarket manager, studying for a degree in art history, becomes fixated on Binnie Chester, a checkout girl who reminds him of Vermeer’s famous painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Harry studies Binnie closely, fantasising about her home life in ‘an old house of ruined elegance’ with her vaguely tragic relatives – perhaps a rakish father and a faded, abstracted grandmother. Somewhat inevitably, Harry’s dreams are punctured when he finally plucks up the courage to talk to Binnie out of hours, an exchange laced with humour and poignancy as the normality of her life is ultimately revealed.

I’ll finish with a final quote that gives a hint of Colwin’s skills in conveying character. Her descriptions are often memorable and distinctive, just like the individuals themselves.

Holly was impeccable: she had not opted for neatness, it had been thrust upon her by nature. She had simple, unadorned features, and thick straight hair that fell unalterably to her shoulders. Clothes on her looked somehow cleaner and more starched than they did on other people. (p. 89)

Passion and Affect is published by Harper Perennial; personal copy.

34 thoughts on “Two very good books by Laurie Colwin: Home Cooking + Passion and Affect

  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    A conversational style cookbook is so much more interesting to read than a conventional in my humble opinion. Much more likely not to gather dust and perhaps the recipes remain more memorable when there’s an interesting anecdote. Oh fishbake, I was almost put off fish for life thanks to childhood versions of that, thankfully there are many more ways to appreciate it, guided by the right culinary creative.
    And short stories to delve further while the dish cooks. Perfect apero.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I completely agree. Some of my favourite food writers have a chatty, conversational style that works well in that respect. Writers like Nigella and Nigel Slater are good examples, I think. Plus, they make their recipes seem eminently achievable for the humble home cook!

      Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    Both of these sound very appealing, particularly Home Cooking. Haven’t we all had disasters in the kitchen with guests about to ring the doorbell! Am I right in think some of Colwin’s books are being reissued?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, W&N reissued Happy All Time (which I’ve yet to read) earlier this year with Family Happiness to follow next spring. As for Home Cooking, it’s a delight – the culinary disasters and repulsive dinners are particularly entertaining!

      Reply
  3. buriedinprint

    I really don’t remember anything about any of her books…just the feeling that, in my reading memory seems to have sprung from the whole lot of them taken together…but I enjoyed reading your thoughts about them and am thrilled on behalf of those “discovering” her, via your thoughts, for the first time. After I happened upon the first one, in the stacks of a public library, I read everything I could find. Unfortunately, that was a short (but lovely, at the time) venture.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, I get the sense that her individual novels and story collections might start merging together over time, a little like Barbara Pym’s fictions with their excellent women, fusty academics and young curates. Still, there’s plenty more Colwin for me to enjoy before I run out of steam!

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Isn’t it lovely when you get introduced to a new author and they turn out to be great? The cookbook sounds wonderful – I’m a huge fan of reading them if they’re entertainingly written, and those quotes really are. And the fact that she’s happy to diss the bad meals she’s been served would definitely add to my enjoyment, especially if there’s more like the one you quoted. Quite tempted, even thought she would be cooking what for me are unspeakable things!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely! Dorian definitely knew what he was doing when he recommended Colwin to me. Her food writing is wonderful – full of warmth and generosity, just like Colwin herself, I suspect. On a similar subject, I think I may have recommended this to you before, but have you read The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes? (I know you’re a fan of his work). Anyway, if not, it’s well worth a look. His style is rather different to Colwin’s, but he’s equally willing to share his culinary bete noires to very good effect!

      Reply
  5. Nan

    How very, very wonderful to see that you are reading her. I just love her work, her self. I’ve written about her over the years, and keep meaning to re-read. Thank you for this post.

    Reply
  6. banff1972

    Of course I’m delighted you enjoyed Home Cooking so much, J! Thanks for the shout-out, too, I dip into it every once in a while and I increasingly love both how much it’s of its time (80s NYC) and the foods people were loving then (eggplant!), but also how much it still feels relevant (not timeless or anything, but definitely not dated).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks again for the recommendation, Dorian. Absolutely spot-on, as usual! (Hopefully I’ll get around to that crime writer you mentioned to me fairly recently – Dolores Hitchens, I think?) And you’re right about Home Cooking feeling very of its time, yet still useful for classic recipes that will never go out of fashion. I’m definitely going to try some of her orzo recipes, for sure.

      Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    Thank god for being vegetarian – the perfect reason to avoid horrendous meals like the fish bake! That chapter is wonderful and her humor and warmth waft off every page she writes. It’s been too long since I’ve read her.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes! That fish bake reminds me of a terrible dinner I had to eat as a student. Oddly enough, it also involved some unidentifiable white fish, together with a spoonful of tasteless white sauce and a mound of undercooked white rice. Oh, the joys of flat sharing with someone who couldn’t cook…

      Reply
  8. heavenali

    Laurie Colwin is a new name to me. Although I am not a cook at all, I can see how Home Cooking would be a warm and comforting book. That chapter about easy cooking for exhausted people sounds like what I might need. Though honestly her short stories sound much more up my street. I love that quote which starts with the geese. A great pairing of reviews.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you would enjoy her short stories, Ali. She writes quiet, understated fiction about slightly odd or quirky people who somehow feel very recognisable. There’s a lovely combination of warmth and wry humour in her writing, so I’m glad Dorian recommended her to me.

      Reply
  9. Grier

    Colwin’s books sound very appealing. I prefer reading about food to cooking it so Home Cooking is right up my street, and I’ll also look for the Julian Barnes book. Her short stories sound very good, too. I’ll keep my eyes open for it. Grier

    Reply
  10. fswolfe

    Happy to see Laurie Colwin’s work being promoted–she died too young. So talented, funny, perceptive… Loved her books and occasionally make her ginger cake (from a NY Times article).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I love ginger cake! It’s perfect for the season, too. Thanks you for mentioning that – I shall have to look it up. And yes, she died far too young. Forty-eight is no age at all…

      Reply
  11. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Decades ago (literally!) I read Colwin’s Goodbye Without Leaving and always meant to explore her work further, particularly her food writing. Life, and other writers intervened, I moved on and pretty much forgot about Colwin. Your reviews are a great reminder of just how interesting a writer she was. As for the exploring — well, better late than, as they say. I just added Family Happiness to my enormous TBR and I’m considering Home Cooking as well!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great to hear! I loved Family Happiness and Home Cooking, so hopefully you’ll enjoy them too. W&N are in the process of reissuing some of Colwin’s books over here, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything about GWL in their schedules. One to investigate further, I think…

      Reply
  12. Jane

    Laurie Colwin is a new name to me and she sounds fabulous! I love that gossipy, chatty cooking style, it’s what eating and cooking is all about isn’t it? And the short stories just make me excited to get myself a copy – thank you!!

    Reply
  13. madamebibilophile

    Her cooking style sounds wonderful and the quote ‘you have a side dish fit for a visiting dignitary from a country whose politics you admire.’ is completely entrancing! I’ve never read Colwin but I do want to give her try, she seems such an engaging writer whether in fiction or non-fiction.

    Reply
  14. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Hi Jacquiwine! I’ve already weighed in on your great review, but thought you might be interested to know that the current New Yorker has a great article on Colwin, apparently prompted by the fact that all her work is currently being reissued by Vintage & Harper Perennial. The article’s focus is on Colwin’s food writing but also includes some discussion of her fiction, her biography and her general attitude towards life. There’s a pay wall but I think TNY allows a few free clicks. Oh — there’s also a great photo of Colwin in the kitchen!
    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/10/18/laurie-colwins-recipe-for-being-yourself-in-the-kitchen?utm_source=onsite-share&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=onsite-share&utm_brand=the-new-yorker

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how wonderful to see that she’s enjoying a bit of a renaissance! Thanks so much for the link. I’m going to bookmark this to read over a coffee break later this week. :-)

      Reply
  15. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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