Twenty years ago, when I was the book buyer at the original Dean & Deluca in Soho, I was often lucky enough to get sample copies of new works that were about to be published. This was a boon, since I generally couldn't afford to buy new hardcover books on my meager salary. One day, a publisher's rep came in from Knopf and handed me a green hard-covered volume with a topstain, which meant, to my mind, that it was very important. A topstain is exactly what it sounds like: the tops of the pages are stained green, or red, or blue. For some reason, publishers don't really do this anymore, so you'll often only see them on antiquarian books, which sort of goes a long way towards how I'm feeling these days.
Anyway, I carried the book around with me for weeks, not opening it, not reading the flap copy, not looking at the author photo. One morning, though, I got on the IRT at my stop -- 96th Street and Lexington Avenue -- and it was packed. It was packed in the way that only New York City subway cars can be packed, and being five foot one and generally blessed with rotten public transportation luck, I found myself in the unfortunate position of having my head nestled into the furry armpit of a smallish, stout man wearing a striped tank top. I tried to reposition myself with no luck, and so this fellow glared at me for invading his private space, as though I had chosen to be standing right there, right then, with my head tucked into his personal area. At that point, I remembered the book, and managed to haul it out of my bag.
For those of you who have never traveled a New York City subway at the height of rush hour with a good many stops to go before you reach your destination, you will likely not understand the lengths to which some people will go in order to procure a seat. Some will talk to themselves, or bark out inane things -- (a lady in a navy blue fedora carrying a stuffed velvet pony once shouted "LOBSTER THERMIDOR, LOBSTER THERMIDOR" in my face until I got up and gave her my seat, whereupon she sat down and took out a copy of The National Review) -- or much worse. I hadn't really given this fact much thought when I opened the book, began to read, and started to laugh wildly and uncontrollably, like Candice Bergen did in that fake Saturday Night Live PSA with Gilda Radner, advertising The Right to Extreme Stupidity League.
That day on the subway, tears rolled down my face as I read about Laurie Colwin's kitchen travails, which were often linked to romance in one way or another. The more I read, the more I howled, throwing my head back unabashedly at the description of a beef stew that her husband once made: "The result was a kind of gray water -- rather like the gray-green, greasy Limpopo River in The Elephant's Child by Rudyard Kipling." A few pages later, she described her attempts with her friends, The Alices (because they were both called Alice), to make fondue in her tiny Greenwich Village kitchen. "Once in a while, we would dip a steak cube into the oil to see what happened. At first we pulled out oil-covered steak. After a while, the steak turned faintly gray." Pages later, she described a baked red snapper with which she tried to to entrap the man who would later become her husband, as looking like "Hieronymous Bosch's version of hell."
Eventually, people, including armpit man, had moved away from me, and in my bliss, I hadn't noticed. What I did have, though, was a seat, all the way down to Spring Street, which is almost at the other end of Manhattan. For the next month, day after day, night after night, I schlepped along Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking in my bag, and if I found myself stuck on the Number 6 Local with my head buried someplace it shouldn't be, I'd take it out, read it, and laugh... and I'd usually get a seat. When I was sad, I would read it. When I went through the kind of breakup that makes you feel so horrible that you want to do nothing but hide under the bed and disappear into the floorboards, I would read it. That book--the original one with the top-stain -- is sitting next to me right now. I don't know if I'm girding my loins for today's stomach-churning election, or if I'm still a bit griefstricken and in need of some existential coddling. Either way, Laurie is right here.
One morning, a few years after I left Dean & Deluca and went to work at HarperCollins Publishers, Rick Kot, a tall, soft-spoken man who was Laurie's editor, came loping down the stairs to the production department, where I was an assistant hoping to move upstairs to editorial (I eventually did). Had we heard, he asked, ashen-faced. Heard what? Laurie was gone. Just like that. Went to sleep in her apartment with her husband and her little girl, and just didn't wake up.
We had just finished putting to bed the second volume of Laurie's food essays, More Home Cooking, and suddenly, it was over. There were all sorts of stories, but the truth was that she had high blood pressure, and if you read More Home Cooking closely enough, you can see the overt attempt at lowering her salt and fat intake compared to the first volume (in which she makes things like fried chicken, and provides her mother, Estelle Colwin Snellenberg's potato pancake recipe, involving a quarter cup of chicken fat).
Over the years, I've tried to read Colwin's many novels, and stories, and they're wonderful. But to me, nothing comes close to the humanity, warmth, decency, intelligence, erudition, and love that leaps off the pages of Home Cooking. In these days of cheap food and fast cooking, instant this, dried that, and the belief that it's a god-given American right to be a proud illiterate boob, we need Laurie Colwin more than ever. How do you get from beef stew to the Limpopo River and Kipling? Or from an unfortunate baked red snapper stuffed with grapes, small shrimp, and black beans to Hieronymous Bosch? You read Home Cooking. As a cook with high blood pressure myself, I will never begrudge Laurie her fried chicken or her latkes (after all, I had a tartine with Jambon de Paris and sweet butter this morning).
But right now, I just want her back.