Home Cooking and More Home Cooking - a Writer Returns to the Kitchen

By Laurie Colwin

Laurie Colwin (who died in 1992 at the age of 48) isn't as well known as other female food essayists such as M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. Perhaps it was because she wrote primarily about eating in America, without evoking any of the Old World romance that the others had (Fisher was also an American, but she lived for many years in France and Switzerland). Colwin's essays tended to be a lot shorter than those written by the others, and were much more straightforward, naming a topic ("Bread baking without agony", "How to fry chicken", "Feeding the multitudes"), writing about it, then giving relevant recipes. But many times, short and sweet is just what I'm in the mood to read.

Most of Colwin's food essays were published in Gourmet magazine, before being compiled into her books Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. In the introduction to Home Cooking, she writes, "Unlike some people, who love to go out, I love to stay home. This may be caused by laziness, anxiety or xenophobia, and in the days when my friends were happily travelling to Bolivia and Nepal, I was ashamed to admit that what I liked best was hanging around the house.

"I am probably not much fun as a traveller, either. My idea of a good time abroad is to visit someone's house and hang out, poking into their cupboards if they will let me. One summer, I spent some time in a farmhouse on the island of Minorca. This was my idea of bliss: a vacation at home (even if it wasn't my home) … In foreign countries, I am drawn into grocery shops, supermarkets and kitchen supply houses. I explain this by reminding my friends that, as I was taught in my Introduction to Anthropology, it is not just the Great Works of mankind that make a culture. It is the daily things, like what people eat and how they serve it."

Colwin's method for recipe writing is chatty, laid-back and non-judgmental (even when she's writing about repulsive dinner parties). One of her most famous recipes - baked mustard chicken - takes just three sentences, and uses no measurements: "The chicken is cut up and coated with mustard into which some garlic has been grated, along with a little thyme, black pepper and a pinch of cinnamon. It is rolled in fine bread crumbs, dusted with paprika, dotted with butter and cooked at 350 degrees [180 degrees Celsius] for about two hours. It can be served hot or at room temperature and will never let you down."

One of her recipes for gingerbread (she gives several) is something I make often, and I'm waiting for the right time to try her recipes for black cake and yam cakes with hot pepper and fermented black beans. Other recipes in the books include pepper chicken with polenta and broccoli di rape; beef, leek and barley soup; creamed spinach with jalapenos; pot roast; lemon chutney; classic shortbread; and Nantucket cranberry pie.