Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Memory. Colwin.

I'm not sure when or how it all began. I was probably in middle school when my mother started subscribing to Gourmet. It was here I discovered Laurie Colwin. I have read and reread her columns so many times that I forget which one was the first, the one that started it all, caught my attention. She wrote about making soup, cooking for her young daughter, gingerbread, baking bread. Her writing was funny and warm and made me want to cook, home cooking, brownies and cake and stews simmering all day over a flame tamer instead of elaborate mille-feuilles and stuffed breast of veal. It was like coming home to a warm kitchen smelling of baking, or diving into the clear waters of the Mediterranean off Minorca, as she had described in the essay about picnics. You didn't need fancy equipment, or expensive ingredients, but everything was simple and easy and made with vegetables from the farmer's market or meat from the organic butcher.

Then, suddenly, she died. There was a little note in Gourmet at the end of 1992 explaining that Laurie Colwin had passed away, but had left behind another year's worth of essays that would continue to run throughout the next year. It was a small consolation. I felt as though I had lost someone dear to me, someone I had gotten to know through her own words, with each monthly column. When the last column ran in December of 1993 I felt that sense of loss all over again. It took me years to find out what happened, that she had simply died suddenly, of heart failure, in her sleep. The only things I knew were that Colwin loved stripes (for all these years I have carried in my mind that smiling woman, hair wildly curly and streaked with gray, wearing a striped sweater, or perhaps it was a t-shirt), that she left behind a husband and a small daughter five years younger than I, and several books, fiction and non-fiction, all of which have remained continuously in print, even now, and that she loved food. Not restaurant food, with little fiddly bits decorating stacks of trendy ingredients teetering over a pool of luridly colored sauces, but home cooking. The cookbooks she mentioned had titles like Good Things or English Bread and Yeast Cookery; her recipes were the sort of recipes invented by the kind of cooks who don't follow recipes. A handful of this, a pound or two of that, throw two cups of almonds in the blender, skin and all. For several years I saved back issues of Gourmet, reading her articles again and again.

In college I found the first volume of her food writing, Home Cooking, and it was like coming home all over again. Dorm life meant miserable cafeteria food, or instant noodles, or microwaved frozen dinners. I consoled myself with Colwin, Alice B. Toklas, Elizabeth David, MFK Fisher, and later, Jeffrey Steingarten. Here was a writer who loved cooking at home. Who cooked for the people she loved, with love, had the kind of life I secretly longed for. Who knew what she loved about food and cooking and wanted it share it with you, wanted you to feel the way she did, understand why food matters. And when you read her books, you did.

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