You know, everyone talks about how great Laurie Colwin’s food writing is, and this book is why. It’s on my Classics Club list for a reason – so many exceptional food writers of the current era cite Colwin as an influence, and I’ve really heard only good things about her work. Broadly speaking, I found the hype to be true – this is almost as good as everyone says (and even the bits that didn’t quite work for me personally may, I think, just be a cultural and generational mismatch). I actually finished reading this over the Christmas holiday, and my review has been sitting unposted in my drafts since then – I have not been a very well-organised blogger so far this year!

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Home Cooking (1988) is a series of essays, each with a recipe attached, many of them about a particular era of cooking in Colwin’s life – which makes it into a fascinating time capsule. Colwin was writing in the late eighties, reflecting on the time she lived in New York in the sixties, and to a lesser extent on her childhood in the late forties/early fifties. Over the course of the book, the essays gradually become about what she was mostly cooking at time of writing, and so by the eighties they cover fad diets, the emergence of veganism, and the disappointing discovery that her excessive salt consumption had had some pretty negative health effects. All the best food writing is also society and culture writing, and this is certainly that. I felt like I was being brought right into Colwin’s kitchen, and she was perching me on a stool and giving me some carrots to dice while she stirred the sauce and chatted away merrily. That style of storytelling doesn’t always work for me, but it was just wonderful here.

One of my favourite chapters is the one on Colwin’s experiences as a young woman just starting out in New York. She manages to make living on a shoestring budget in a tiny studio flat sound much more enjoyable and glamorous than I ever found it to be. Maybe her landlord was less terrifying than mine was. Perhaps the building was less damp. Whatever the reason, I really loved the sections about what life was like in New York in the sixties, and especially the anecdotes about trying to entertain there, and the disasters she had being overambitious in the tiny space. Anybody who has ever learnt to cook for herself – especially if, like myself and Colwin, she has done mostly it as an adult rather than at her mother’s knee – will find things to relate to here. She has captured the gradual but growing sense of freedom that learning to cook gave me, and that I am sure is shared by most people who love to cook.

Sometimes food writing can come across as very old-fashioned, very hearth-and-home, and accordingly rather sneering about people who live alone – as if dinner for one is the saddest thing the author can imagine. It’s the prose equivalent of those #blessed #attitudeofgratitude #familytime Facebook posts. After being mostly on my own for two years, I’ve got no patience for people who waffle about how the whole purpose of food is to bring people together and celebrate with loved ones. Certainly that’s part of it (and my joy at being able to have friends round for dinner again is truly unparalleled), but the actual point of food is to keep us alive. Whether you are one person living alone or the stay-at-home parent of six, you deserve to have decent meals. In contrast, I thought Colwin did a fantastic job writing about how much she loves cooking for her family. She never adds any moral element to it – she likes cooking and she has a family, ergo she cooks for them. She doesn’t dismiss people living and eating alone – in fact, the chapter Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant is so good that it ended up supplying the title for a whole (brilliant) collection on the subject by other authors – and she spends at least as much time writing about cooking for friends as she does about family.

Because of the nature of the book, Colwin is really reflecting on how she became someone who cooked regularly, and even though it’s so specific to her time and place I think there will be a lot here for anyone who enjoys cooking. She is enjoyably frank about the times when things have gone wrong – even once she was a very experienced cook – while also taking pleasure in things going well. The book is funny – though less funny than I’d heard; I think that’s where the slight cultural mismatch comes in – and warm, and happy; you can really feel how much Colwin enjoyed writing it, and I think that accounts for a large part of how much I enjoyed it too. Highly recommended!