Culture

Foodies and Readers: You Must Know Laurie Colwin

June is the perfect time to savour this likable kitchen companion.

By Shannon Rupp 25 Jun 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

June marks the birthday of the best writer you've never heard of, let alone read, unless you have a particular passion for charming food writing of another era.

Laurie Colwin, who also penned five novels and two collections of short stories, is the sort of writer who finds her way into the lives of her readers and takes up residence like a friend. Her unexpected death in 1992, at 48, in her sleep, caused remarkable sorrow for thousands of people who had never met her.

She is often compared to Jane Austen because, as male critics tend to say of them both: nothing ever happens in their novels. That's nonsense of course. They're both satirists with a gimlet eye for human eccentricities. There is much going on in these tales of interpersonal relationships, which include the essays on comestibles.

Both writers died young, and it is also true they chronicled the lives of the relatively privileged -- although Colwin's gentry live in New York in the 1970s and '80s. She was a contemporary of Nora Ephron and her work hits some of the same notes. They all wrote odes to resilience. What their fiction and journalism really celebrates is the ability to see the humour in some lousy situations.

All these genteel writers have a fine sense of the absurd, even in the face of tragedy. It's a curious thing, but extramarital affairs in Colwin's novels always seem so wholesome. There's never a hint of the tawdry. Which you might think would take the fun out of having an affair, but apparently not in the Colwinverse.

Like Austen before her, Colwin has a cult following that keeps her memory and her works alive -- she has enough support to keep her books in print, most of the time, but not so much that you can get her on e-book. She's one of those writers you find through recommendations from a friend or the sort of serendipity that is less likely to happen the further removed we are from her era.

An original low-fat skeptic

I tripped over Colwin's work accidentally, in the 1980s, when a stylishly insane roommate dragged home a stack of Gourmet magazines she'd found in a secondhand bookstore. She was on (yet another) course of self-improvement and had decided competitive cooking would be her thing. I was relieved, since it seemed so much more pleasant than her previous "thing," competitive opera going. She liked to brighten Sunday mornings with highlights from the Ring of the Nibelung. (To this day I hate Wagner.)

Gourmet Magazine is now a pale shadow of itself, living online, but at the time it was the best example of what would become known as food porn. Gorgeous, faintly erotic photos of food were mixed with copy that read like satire. It was a compendium of hilariously elaborate recipes that took hours to prepare and involved blanching things. And de-boning. And making roux. The prose often bordered on the purple, and I suddenly had an insight into where writers of the Harlequin ilk were getting some of their metaphors.

Except for Colwin, who wrote with a restrained, comic tone, as if she was about to burst out laughing. Reading Gourmet, I knew exactly how she felt. She alone seemed to cook and eat like a real person, and her column was appropriately called "Home Cooking."

The columns have since been collected into two books, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen and More Home Cooking, and they include recipes, but those are incidental. The pieces are really short stories with food, which is how she liked her literature. In the introduction to More Home Cooking, she enthuses over Anna Karenina because of the endless descriptions of what those 19th-century Russians were eating. She admires the all-but-forgotten novels of Barbara Pym for the same reason -- Pym provides meal reports on mid-20th-century Brits.

All of Colwin's writing has that timeless quality I associate with great literature, particularly when she's musing about food. But she also offers a valuable glimpse of when and how our diets went wrong. In "The Once and Future Dinner Party," she muses over the bizarre food fashions that would eventually leave us all wondering what was safe to put in our mouths.

She also talks about the beginnings of the trends that led to the low-fat mania that so many researchers now suspect of driving obesity statistics.

"In the past three decades many things we counted on are said to have fallen by the wayside... What cannot be found is a group of people who will sit down and eat what you feed them without a problem. And what cannot be reclaimed is that happy, mindless sense of festive occasion in which no one thought it odd if your dinner party consisted of a rib roast with a crackling rim of fat, a runny triple cream cheese with salad, garlic bread, blue cheese dressing, and a dessert made with a pint or two of cream and six egg yolks."

Apparently half her pals were on a diet, the other half had food allergies, and a third half -- she could never resist a joke -- just couldn't bear to eat the way their parents' generation had. Thirty years later the problem is the same, although the offending foods are different. I wish she had lived to see the day when researchers would be arguing in favour of red meat with fat, but only if it's grass fed and kindly raised.

She'd appreciate that, since she favoured roasts of all sorts. Courtesy of Colwin, I departed from my vegetarian ways and learned to roast chicken. But I find that her cooking columns rarely lead me to food. They mostly lead me to her fiction.

No mere trifle

Colvin wrote comic novels, often rom-coms about the upper middle class, and as is frequently the case with witty women writers, critics are prone to dismissing her books as trifles. When men spin a romance, we don't hesitate to call it art -- just consider The Great Gatsby, or Shakespeare. But it's somehow suspect when women do it. In contemporary times, Nick Hornby writes satirical novels, but Helen Fielding writes chicklit.

In my favourite Colwin novel, the sparkling and ironic Happy All the Time, she captures the slightly ridiculous experience of falling in love. It's the perfect gift for the sort of friends who announce with amusing regularity that they've found "The One."

There's a passage in which one of the heroes, Guido, finally wears down the woman of his dreams and finds himself in her apartment enjoying what is obviously a shrine to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Holly decants everything into glass jars: soap, pencils, cookies, salt and paper clips. Her shoes are stuffed with pink tissue. She can tell when one of her arrangements is a smidgen off and fights the urge to straighten pictures in other people's homes.

While we see her through Colwin's cool eyes, the author reports the view of Holly through the eyes of her newly smitten lover, who concludes that "She was an only child, an only grandchild, and she was nearly perfect."

I laugh every time I read it.

The distinction between men and women writers has always irritated me, although I'm a big fan of those classic novels written by dead white men. It's part of the reason, I suspect, that so little is being done to keep Colwin's superb, insightful writing alive. I was disappointed to see there isn't much to be found about her online, and even the website in her name has disappeared.

Refreshingly un-Martha

Although I hate the idea that art has to have some utilitarian purpose, this would probably be the time to point out how many Colwin fans confess to reading her optimistic prose to chase away the blues. Colwin once said that she also saw literature as a prescription for a bleak mood.

In the introduction to 1992's More Home Cooking, published posthumously, Colwin mentions that she reads cookbooks the way she reads Austen: to cheer herself up.

"And for those of you who are suffering from sadness or hangover, or are feeling blue or tired of life, if you're not going to read Persuasion, you may as well read Italian Food by Elizabeth David."

I agree with her on both counts, although I'd be more inclined to say that you may as well read Laurie Colwin. Which is what I suggest to someone -- a young writer, a would-be food blogger, a friend battling the mean reds -- every June.

My theory is that eventually, as with Austen being rediscovered in the 1920s, some scholar will figure out that she's a major, overlooked literary figure and the studies, biographies and a TV mini-series will follow.

But the fact that her books are sometimes hard to come by tells me that I need to have a chat with the rest of the cult about expanding the preservation campaign. So from here on, I'm declaring the whole of June Laurie Colwin month. (What? You think I have to be employed by Hallmark to invent a holiday?)

In the meantime, try one of her short stories from The New Yorker podcast, read and discussed by another fine short story writer, Maile Meloy.

You can listen to it while making something so-unfashionable-it's-hip, like her recipe for baked chicken.

But if you want to read her refreshingly un-Martha views on the business of dining, such as "Easy Cooking for Exhausted People" or "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir," you will have to buy an actual paper book.

That's part of the cachet of a cult: it has to be a little bit hard to join, or else everyone would do it.  [Tyee]

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