The night I learned that writer Laurie Colwin had died, I went home and made mashed potatoes. I ate the contents of the entire saucepan by myself, at my kitchen table. I used plenty of milk and butter and freshly ground black pepper. I made a toast to Colwin with every forkful and let my tears drop into the potatoes. Laurie, I am sure, would have approved. She loved salt.
She loved pepper, too, and mustard. But salt seemed to be her favorite seasoning: not just in her recipes, but in the characters she created. As any decent cook will tell you, everything needs a little salt to bring out its true flavor. Colwin’s tangy characters are delectable and I’m sad that I will never taste another.
There are writers who write fiction and there are writers who write about food. Only Laurie Colwin combined the two so deftly, with such savory results. If you read Laurie Colwin’s cooking essays first, you won’t be surprised to discover that she was also a novelist. And if you read her novels and short stories first, her essays for Gourmet, later collected in Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, come as no surprise. You cannot read Laurie Colwin without developing a whole new appreciation for food — its creation, its taste, and its meaning. If a character in a Colwin story does not appreciate good food, you know that he is shallow.
The opposite also holds true: any character who seems indecipherable or mysterious — as long as he has a proper concern for cuisine — is going to turn out all right in the end. Not that there’s much concern about things turning out right in Laurie Colwin’s stories. She was most definitely an optimist. She believed in happy endings. Bad things may happen to good people, but not in her books. Good things happen to good, upper-middle-class people in her books, but you still want to read them. That’s the secret of their charm.
And charming they are. Laurie Colwin’s novels are captivating studies of relationships. They bewitch you into believing that our planet is populated by quirky people who care profoundly about the world, but who simply don’t feel the need to discuss it all the time. The plots of her books are secondary to the characters in them, who enchant you into believing that the well-to-do have problems just like the rest of us, only worse. “Once you’ve got food and shelter, you start agonizing over how you want your life to be. Next to that, food and shelter is a snap,” says Martha Nathan, the computer genius in Family Happiness.
I started reading Laurie Colwin just when I was struggling with how I wanted my life to be. I stumbled across Happy All the Time while I was shelving books at the Wheaton College library. I checked the book out, started reading it at lunch, and skipped all my afternoon classes to finish it.
Happy All the Time tells the story of best friends and cousins Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy and how they pursue and capture Holly Sturgis and Misty Berkowitz, the women they love. It is a portrait of complicated people who worry about finding love, and once they find it, appreciate it for the genuine article it is.
I adored the book and was alarmed by it at the same time. In Happy All the Time Guido and Vincent seem to think that women understand everything about love and marriage and are cool, unemotional beings while men are lovesick dogs wrung out by deep emotion. I was engaged to be married and suspected that the marriage would be a mistake, although he was a cool, unemotional being and I was a lovesick dog. When I turned out to be right and became the first divorcee in the Wheaton College Class of 1980, it was Laurie Colwin I turned to for aid: her books and her recipes.
It was in my newly-single woman apartment with Home Cooking that I finally learned to feed myself. Even though I had been married for years, I did not know how to cook, probably because there were only two dishes that my ex-husband enjoyed eating: Hamburger Helper and cheesecake. (To this day I can whip up a sour cream cheesecake in an hour, with or without a springform pan.) I made beef stew for the first time when I was twenty-seven, scared, and sure I would never find love again. I used Laurie Colwin’s mother’s recipe from Home Cooking. It was delicious.
Some of that lonely time I pretended that I was Olly Bax, the widow in Colwin’s first novel, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object. Olly discovers that her failure to put limits on her daredevil husband’s behavior helped lead to his early death. While she’s sorting all that out, she falls in love with his brother. Even though my ex- was neither a daredevil, nor dead, Olly taught me about loss and love. I was particularly comforted by her idea that adults can negotiate the terms of love affairs: that just because you love someone does not mean that you have to marry them. Colwin also gave me some very useful models of single womanhood. (Colwin’s description of Olly’s apartment also sent me off on a search for the brass angel candlesticks that I keep on my mantle all winter.)
Once I mastered beef stew, I progressed to mustard chicken, potato salad, and broccoli de rape. I also discovered Colwin’s short story collections: Passion and Affect, The Lone Pilgrim, and Another Marvelous Thing. I read and re-read “A Girl Skating” from The Lone Pilgrim, wondering if I could ever learn to write that spare and elegant prose.
One weekend I got totally snowed in and made gingerbread while I re-read Family Happiness, the story of Polly Demarest, a devoted wife and mother who has an affair with a solitary painter. It had taken me a long time to read Family Happiness again: I was reading it at my in-laws’ house the last time I saw them. When I told my mother-in-law that it was about an adulterous housewife, she was puzzled by the title. “Is it ironic, dear?”
Yes. And no. Laurie Colwin did not pretend that there is a simple answer to the question, “Is adultery wrong?” In matters of the heart, she knew that things were more complicated than that. One of the many reasons that I love her work is because she never pretended that love is easy. Worthwhile and to be savored, yes; but straightforward? No. Clear? Never.
I knew that I wanted to marry the man who is now my husband when I wanted to cook for him. Once we were married, my family started celebrating Thanksgiving at our house. I wanted to celebrate the holiday there. Part of me wanted to simply to give my mother a rest after years of cooking; part of me wanted to celebrate my thankfulness. The first year lots of things went wrong — the gravy wouldn’t remain liquid; the turkey took forever to cook; and I turned my mother’s rolls into rocks by reheating them — but the Creamed Spinach with Jalapeno Peppers from Home Cooking was perfect.
Creamed Spinach with Jalapeno Peppers has become my dish. I take it to every potluck dinner that I am invited to. I prepared it for one of my friends over and over during the months before he died of AIDS. When I uncover the casserole, everyone sighs. “Ah. Creamed spinach. I haven’t had that in years.”
It’s savory and spicy. It’s sophisticated comfort food. I make it every holiday, by request, for my loved ones. They eat it for the flavor. I do, too, but it’s also my homage to a woman who has sustained me for all of my adult life, with her words and her food.
Creamed Spinach with Jalapeno Peppers
1. Cook two packages of frozen spinach. Drain, reserving one cup of liquid, and chop fine.
2. Melt four tablespoons of butter in a saucepan and add two tablespoons of flour. Blend and cook a little. Do not brown.
3. Add two tablespoons of chopped onion and one clove of minced garlic.
4. Add one cup of spinach liquid slowly, then add ½ cup of evaporated milk, some fresh black pepper, ¾ teaspoon of celery salt and six ounces of Monterey Jack cheese cut into cubes. Add one or more chopped jalapeno pepper (how many is a question of taste as well as what kind. I myself use the pickled kind, from a jar) and then the spinach. Cook until all is blended.
Turn into a buttered casserole, top with bread crumbs, and cook for about forty-five minutes at 300˚.