Laurie Colwin

October 17, 2013

who are your food stars?

By Raleigh-Elizabeth. Picture of Laurie Colwin at the Empire Diner in New York in 1990 taken by Nancy Crampton.

We are guilty of watching far too much t.v. (NCIS, why do you continue to woo me despite your sliding plot lines?) but I rarely, rarely watch the Food Network. This seems kind of crazy to even me. I love food. I love Master Chef (and Master Chef Junior! Which is too cute for words!). I enjoy many of the recipes that originate on the Food Network, but besides a Thanksgiving marathon while I get the house and feast together, it’s just not something I like to watch.

Behind the scenes, though, it’s absolutely fascinating.

In his new book, ‘From Scratch,’ Alan Salkin delves into the realities of the Food Network and how it went from piddling, middling maybe-watched network into the media baron of the food industry. Did you know that in the beginning, Mario Batali was actually cooking without an oven? And when he pretended to be putting a dish in the oven to cook, he was actually stomping his foot on the floor to mimic the sounds a real oven would make?

Somehow, there’s a strange honesty in that to me. Like it says so openly, yeah, this is all performance, and we get it. That’s something I just can’t find there today.

All the gloss, adorable cake pops no human with a regular oven and a staff of one: self could ever make, shiningly polished pots and pans… they all make me wonder where the kitchen is. The real kitchen. I, for one, am always missing at least one ingredient from every recipe I make. My kitchen is pock-marked by birthday cards, mail we need to sort, stacks of unread magazines, and a small library of board books on every surface we can reach. It’s a maze of small-child toys and seating options that make you wonder if we’re opening an offshoot of Babies R Us.

My kitchen is, in all its regular, real life mess, an ode to every day food, and that’s exactly what I love best about it. I think about my favorite food writers, and I imagine they would feel at home here.

Take Laurie Colwin. Colwin (whom I fondly think of as Laurie, as if we’re old friends) is an American author who also happened to love to eat. And cook. And feed her small daughter. Home Cooking, and its follow-up, More Home Cooking, is in equal parts ode to cooking and eating. She’s one of those people who confesses to an obsession with beets and admits that she’s gorged herself on eggplant-as-meal more times than she can count in the fabulously titled tale, “Alone in the Kitchen with Eggplant.” How can you not love that?

Colwin cooked because she had a child to feed, and she ate because you have to. She graces us with a real-life approach to food that makes eaters of everybody… and even caused me to give beets a second try. (I am still firmly in the anti-beet camp. Please, share your conversion recipes in the comments. Beet lovers are very pro-beet, and I do want to like them.) Her roast chicken is just right, and she has a recipe for “damp gingerbread” that should come out of everyone’s kitchen in the next few months.

Laurie is real. She’s the kind of cook you meet in print and refer to by her first name. She’s the person you wish you could have in your kitchen just to chat while you slice up some onions and laugh as you start to tear up. She’s the kind of person you find yourself writing about one week because the most important thing you can ever think to talk about that’s food related is always Laurie Colwin, and you might as well give up ever being able to do her justice because she’s Laurie, and like any old friend, there’s just nothing you can say that will ever express your love, affection, and admiration quite enough.

Laurie died unexpectedly in 1992 at 48, long before we became friends. I like to imagine what she would be like on the Food Network today. How she’d stack up to the Stars. I can’t see her branding her own line of spatulas for sale at your nearest big-box store or festooning a plate with anything other than a fork. Instead, I imagine she’d run some well-written and decently-photographed blog, where, without much fanfare, we’d find lots of recipes for eggplant, beets, and friendship.

To me, that legacy is priceless. Laurie was a mother who successfully fed her child and filled her world with love and food, which are, in so many families, often the same thing, and wrote about it so we could all have it to keep as her own. As a new mother myself, I finally understand how hard that can be, and how great a calling. Although she’ll never make another meal, Laurie will continue to feed us for generations.

I wonder if the same is true for the food T.V. stars?

Tell me: Do you have a favorite food personality? You all know I love Nigella. But nobody, nobody nobody, will ever steal my heart from Laurie. After all, she’s the only person who has ever successfully convinced me to give beets a second chance.

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kristin October 17, 2013 at 9:21 am

Laurie Colwin is also my hero. I love her writing so much! Besides the cook books/memoirs, I love her fiction. Passion and Affect, Happy all of the Time, A Big Storm Knocked it Over…all so lovely.

I also love beets, but I hate the smell of them as they cook. My favorite recipe is a simple salad with beets, oranges, red onion and chevre over greens, with a dressing that includes a lot of orange juice, olive oil, garlic and a little raspberry vinegar.


2 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 3:31 pm

You had me at chevre! Nothing can be bad that comes with chevre. Even beets. I hope. I’ll give it a shot. : )


3 Candace February 2, 2014 at 11:21 pm

I am also a Colwinite, have all her books and re-read them, finding something new in them every time I do. While I am not overly crazy about regular old beets I do love the golden beets salad (with goat cheese, arugula and glazed walnuts) as served at Cheekwood Botanical Garden in Nashville. Yummo.


4 Amy October 17, 2013 at 10:20 am

I wanted to mention Laurie Colwin’s fiction, too! I love Goodbye Without Leaving, Happy All the Time, and A Big Storm Knocked it Over. I also love the Food Network! Barefoot Contessa, Pioneer Woman, Giada, Tyler Florence….Give up NCIS! I will never understand why people like watching crime on TV.


5 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Ohhh I’m guilty because we’re a military family, so it’s sort of familiar t.v. : ) We get a kick out of watching Gibbs wear all his ancient Marine Corps sweatshirts! That, and I really can’t explain why I’m addicted to crime t.v. I really, really can’t explain it. I also love crime novels.

Needless to say, in real life, I’m the most spooked-by-loud-noises-at-night person alive. So I should probably stop.

But I loooove Pioneer Woman too! She’s great. Her recipes are guilty-good.


6 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Also I realize I had the opening for a great bad joke, so I will now make it anyway even though I missed my logical moment… why do we like crime t.v.? BEETS me. He he he… (sorry, bad jokes get me every time.)


7 Mary Ann October 17, 2013 at 10:31 am

I have loved Laurie for years, too. For me, beets are best grated raw to add to salads.


8 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 3:34 pm

I haven’t tried that, and then I’d avoid the whole smell-while-cooking thing. Brilliant. Thank you!


9 Summer October 17, 2013 at 10:46 am
10 Megan M. October 17, 2013 at 11:03 am

That’s really beautiful. Left tears in my eyes.


11 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 3:35 pm

That’s incredible.


12 Megan M. October 17, 2013 at 11:04 am

I’ve heard a lot about her but I’ve never read any of her books. After reading this and the words of her daughter, I think I will.


13 Lynn Ryan October 17, 2013 at 11:26 am

I never comment on blog posts, but Laurie Colwin remains one of my very favorite writers! Absolutely love her fiction and food writing.


14 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Hooray! Laurie Fan Club today!


15 Des October 17, 2013 at 11:53 am

I learned to cook from watching Food Network. I don’t want to see messy kitchens and mail on the counters. I love seeing a meal come together and then displayed beautifully. I eat with my eyes first. Sometimes when things/people become branded we turn on them as if they’re giving up on their passion and they’ve succumbed to the masses. I’m part of the masses. I like using what my favorite chefs use.

That being said…..I do wish Food Network would stick to more cooking shows then reality cooking schtick.


16 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 3:38 pm

I’m not sure these chefs really use the marketed stuff they sell. I’d pay big money to see their real home kitchens. But even if they do… I do a fair bit of my shopping at big box stores too, so I second you on the masses bit : )


17 Kelly October 17, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Huge, huge fan of Colwin’s work — her novels & short stories are peopled with funny, witty, sensitive New Yorkers. A talent gone much too soon.


18 Kelly October 17, 2013 at 12:34 pm

And I also want to like beets…but just can’t! ;)


19 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 5:54 pm

I feel the same way about Colwin (obviously)… and beets…


20 Rebekah October 17, 2013 at 12:55 pm

I hated beets but was determined to like them. Once, at the Cheesecake Factory, I ordered a French Country Salad or something like that and it serves beets (I assume boiled/steamed) with fresh greens, candied pecans, asparagus, and goat cheese. They were excellent in the salad and I’ve tried them many times since. :)


21 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Ooooh. Just what I needed. An excuse to go consume Cheesecake Factory! YUM


22 Susan October 17, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Laurie is/was the best. I hope your readers will also read/re-read her wonderful short stories & novels; and also pick up the two volumes of her Home in the Kitchen. She was an extraordinary person. I’m always happy to see someone mention her. :)


23 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Isn’t she marvelous?


24 Nancy Ciminello October 17, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Thanks for giving me a new author to try. I really like Michael Symon.


25 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 5:56 pm

As a Clevelander, I’m partial to him as well!


26 Leslie October 17, 2013 at 3:46 pm

The photo of Laurie Colwin made my day. She was one of my favorite writers for Gourmet magazine and I say “ditto!” to all the comments about her truly wonderful fiction writing. Her books remain on our shelves and my husband and I have both read and re-read them–he refers to them lovingly as some of his “comfort books”. And don’t we all need those?


27 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 5:56 pm

We all do. I also have Ruth Reichl there… and Clementine in the Kitchen, which is TRULY wonderful.


28 Heidi October 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Yes-her columns were wonderful. I miss her and I miss Gourmet!! The Food Network is just a lot fluff-although Ina, Nigella and Giada are “pretty” to watch.


29 Kimberly October 17, 2013 at 5:29 pm

My favorite Food personalities still exist, but at the same time they don’t anymore. I miss the pre-hype versions of Paula Deen (before the wigs, before the veneers, before all of the butter) and Emeril Legasse (before every other word became BAM, before the live audiences, before all of the garlic). I learned techniques and recipes from them. But then someone (themselves? agents? FoodTV?) put them on the superstar track and now they’re always selling stuff and neither of them seem to know how to be quiet.

Maybe I need some Laurie Colwin. Thank you for writing about her.


30 Raleigh-Elizabeth October 17, 2013 at 5:59 pm

I know that feeling. I love old Paula, too. I love old Mario and old Emeril. I just feel like I’m being sold something, you know? A celebrity, a spatula, a pot. So often, I feel like a love of food and cooking isn’t what’s being sold, but merchandise. (Do I really need to pay more for a spatula with a name on it? Truly? It’s like the culinary version of the Call of Duty Jeep Wrangler. Same old Wrangler for a lot more.) I think we all need something real and quiet and comfortable now and then, because like mac and cheese and grilled cheese, that’s what much of our favorite food is all about. And, for me, favorite food personalities.


31 Thrift at Home October 17, 2013 at 7:57 pm

I adore Laurie Colwin – definitely one of my favorite writers of all time, food books as well as fiction. Her style is sharp and clean.

And as for beets, I like some very specific recipes:

dice scrubbed beets – no need to peel – and roast in olive oil with cloves of garlic at 425F until tender; cool to room temperature and then make a beautiful salad with a vinaigrette – maybe some feta, toasted walnuts, chopped parsley. . . or add oranges and cilantro. . . or blue cheese, pecans, and capers. . .

I also love Russian shuba, which is a potato/beet salad, but I’m not sure it’s a conversion recipe. I also make a grated raw beet salad (think raw carrots) that has a vinaigrette and dill. It’s great next to bread and cheese. Hm. I guess I really like beets! (but not Harvard beets or just steamed beets – ick).


32 Jennifer October 17, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Why force yourself to like beets? It is ok not to like them!
I happen to love beets so I make them all the time. Only 1 of my 4 kids will eat them. You know what? I do not force beets on anyone who doesn’t like them! I wouldn’t want eggplant forced on me.
If I am working hard to avoid potato chips then I am only going to choose veggies that I love.


33 Melissa@Julia's Bookbag October 17, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Laurie…..I imagine all the time that we would have been BFF’s. If I could only choose 3 cookbooks if my house were on fire, I would choose More Home Cooking (because it has my most beloved Tomato Pie recipe), Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries, and The Joy of Cooking.

I have read Laurie’s books dozens of times. When I’m sad, I read them. When I’m happy, I read them. She has made the hugest impression upon my cooking world. I adore her stories, her books, her attitude towards food. Thanks you SO much for celebrating her!


34 melissa October 18, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Laurie’s writing makes me laugh and inspires me in the kitchen…but in the real, homey way, not in the crazy self-defeating way some of those shows might make one feel. I also love Ruth Reichl’s writing, particularly Tender at the Bone. And in a different vein, but so interesting, Madeleine Kamman’s When French Women Cook. Lovely.


35 lisa thomson October 20, 2013 at 11:32 am

Oh, thank you for this post. I have wanted to get my hands on one of her cookbooks for years! Her recipes were mentioned in one of my favorite books “Simple Abundance” by Sarah Ban Breathnach, who was a huge fan of Laurie’s.
I never watch the food network but happened upon Jamie Oliver’s show the other day and I loved it. I love his kitchen, his style and his recipes.


36 Tamara October 21, 2013 at 11:03 am

I grew up watching Jeff Smith (The Frugal gourmet) and Yan Can Cook on PBS. My mom would sit on the couch with a notebook and pencil and write down all of their recipes. We affectionatly referred to Jeff Smith as “The Frug” like he was a life long friend. To me, these were the people who got my young heart excited about cooking and food. This was long before the days of The Food Network and brand named spatulas.


37 Sue Dickman December 2, 2013 at 11:16 am

I loved reading this post. I adore Laurie Colwin as well and wrote a long piece about her last year on the 20th anniversary of her death:
I’m always delighted to know how many other people still think of her so fondly (she’s my friend Laurie too, of course) and miss her so much.

As for beets, I’m not the hugest fan, but I recently made Nigel Slater’s extremely moist cake with chocolate and beets, and it was fabulous. I’ve also recently had pickled beets that I loved, much to my surprise, and, just on Thanksgiving, roasted beets in salad that were delicious. I’m trying to become, if not a beet-lover, then at least not a beet-hater.


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