Laurie Colwin: Cornbread and Prosciutto Stuffing (and Giveaway)

Laurie Colwin: Prosciutto and Cornbread Stuffing

Let’s play a drinking game: Find a restaurant or cookbook review and take a shot every time these words come up: delicious, exquisite, velvety (for soups), pillowy (for gnocchi), complex, simple, seasonal. Drunk yet? Certain food words and phrases get more than their fair share of column space—so much so that, despite being guilty many times over, I still cringe when another squash soup is described as “autumn in a bowl.”

That’s why, although I’m usually focused on food in fiction (and the authors who ate it), I have a special respect for those writers who make food their lifelong subject. It’s easy to polish the perfect dinner party scene in a novel when there’s only one to write. But describing dish after dish, new “modern American small plates restaurant” after restaurant, and turning each into its own reason for being? That’s what separates the laymen from the legends. For many, that legend is M.F.K Fischer. For me, it’s Laurie Colwin.

A fiction writer herself (of both short stories and novels), Colwin’s essays on food for Gourmet are what gained her celeb status—and a passionately devoted readership. After her early death at 48, the magazine received hundreds of letters expressing their grief. When she took over as editor, Ruth Reichl remembered, “Every writer that came in said that he or she wanted to be the next Laurie Colwin.”

Colwin’s one-liners made her the Dorothy Parker of food (“Grilling is like sunbathing. Everyone knows it is bad for you but no one ever stops doing it.”) She would never call a soup velvety; instead, she’d describe the desultory chive sitting in it. But more than her wit, readers loved Laurie for ‘fessing up to all our guiltiest kitchen thoughts, without fear or shame. After throwing dozens of dinner parties in her tiny Manhattan apartment, she’d been there: from cooking five courses on a hot pot to secretly wishing your dinner guests shut up and just ate meat already. Every unglamorous food frustration you’ve had? Laurie understood.

Home Cooking, a collection of Colwin’s essays, was released in digital form for the first time this month and I’ve been revisiting them as preparation for the kind of big dinner that always comes this time of year. (Spoiler: I have a copy to give away!) As with any contemporary book of food essays, there are recipes, and they’re simple, seasonal and (yes, I’m saying it) delicious.

But it’s the moral support, the tableside pep talk, that makes it a kitchen essential. “No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present.” Colwin is one of those kitchen guardian angels, peering over your shoulder when your sauce splits or your soufflé falls flat, telling you not to worry—and gently reminding you that, in a pinch, there’s always takeout.Laurie Colwin: Cornbread Prosciutto Stuffing Recipecolwin5 colwin3

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Ralph Ellison: Molasses Cornbread

There’s a scene in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man that has become one of the most famous food passages in history. The unnamed narrator, passing a sweet-potato vendor on the road, is transported back to his childhood in the South, happily recalling meals of fried chicken and chitterlings – foods that soon became too racially charged for him to enjoy. But in this moment, the narrator is changed: He gets three orders of potato, newly determined to eat what he likes without shame. “I yam what I am,” he shouts, transformed (and if your mind went straight to Popeye, just remember what a dramatic effect food had on him).

Food unexpectedly changed the course of Ellison’s life: When he started studying music at the Tuskegee Institute, he also began working long hours in the dining hall, in order to pay off his tuition. You could find him on the early shift – 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. – baking cornbread and pouring bowls of molasses for the breakfast service. And after graduation, it was cooking – not music – that landed Ellison a job. Failing to score a coveted spot as a trumpeter in a military band, he instead found work as a cook on a Liberty ship, turning out versions of the Southern staples he learned at Tuskegee: cornbread, biscuits and fried pies.

It wasn’t until Ellison began traveling abroad, away from the Southern dishes that had defined his early years, that he realized how they had worked their way into his being. Living in Rome in 1956, Ellison wrote to his friend and fellow writer Albert Murray, “I got no way to get any corn bread … no sweet potatoes or yellow yams, a biscuit is unheard of – they think it means a cookie in this town – and their greens don’t taste like greens.”

Today fried chicken and stewed greens have gained gourmet cred – collard green risotto is totally a thing – but there will always be foods that feature guilt as a main ingredient. The phrase “you are what you eat” has become a grim warning, baking shame into things that ought to be enjoyed in moderation. We focus so much on the physical effects of our diet, it’s easy to forget that food can change us in other ways – ones that don’t involve calories or celery sticks but instead affect our minds and hearts: sweet potatoes for comfort, ice cream for renewal, chocolate for joy.

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