We speak of cult musicians or novelists, and while it might seem odd to speak of a food writer that has such a following, Laurie Colwin does, primarily I think because Colwin has one thing that other food writers in this age of kitchen glamour don’t, which is a total lack of pretension.
Colwin, who died in 1992, the year before the Food Network was founded, wrote in an era when food and cooking were still relatively pedestrian topics. Sure, Martha had already spread her elegant wings, Prudhomme was burning up the scene and of course Claiborne, Childe and Beard had lit the way, but Colwin wasn’t a media personality. Far from it; she was a working writer and mother. In addition to her two collections of culinary essays, Home Cooking (1988) and More Home Cooking (1993), which were inducted into the James Beard Hall of Fame in 2012, Colwin published eight novels and her work appeared in The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, Allure and Playboy.
Colwin doesn’t have a style so much as she does a voice, which some might say is much the same thing, but no: she writes as if she were talking to you across a picnic table or at a bus stop, intimate but breezy, alternately tongue-in-cheek, insistent and certainly droll at times, always warm; somehow when reading her my mind hears her as what the Brits would call “fruity”, though not strained or shrill. “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” is usually cited as a signature piece, but “Kitchen Horrors” is essential, as is “How to Avoid Grilling” and my favorite, “How to Cook Like an American”. Colwin writes a great deal about how to (and not to) cook for children and the infirm, how to feed a multitude with grace under pressure but above all how much of our lives revolve around the things we see, touch, hear and eat every day.
Colwin’s fans constitute a cult in that they are devoted to her writing as a source of discovery as well as comfort, and acknowledge self-effacement as a virtue in those who know their craft and practice it with modest aplomb.