Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On 20 years without Laurie Colwin

Photo by Nancy Crampton
 I still remember the day I found out.  I was living in Eugene, OR, then, in my last year in graduate school at the University of Oregon.  For some reason, a day or two earlier, I'd felt the need to re-read one of Laurie Colwin's books.  I can no longer remember which one.  Happy All The Time, perhaps, or The Lone Pilgrim?  All I know is that the book was sitting on the kitchen table, and I was eating lunch and reading the New York Times.  And there was Laurie Colwin's photograph.  I stared.  It didn't make sense.  This wasn't on the arts page or in the book review column.  It was an obituary.  Laurie Colwin dead of a heart attack at 48.  I was heartbroken.

It's been 20 years since Laurie Colwin died, and I still miss her.  I never met her.  This was not a personal loss, except that it was.  Colwin was my first favorite writer as an adult, the first one whose books I read over and over, the first one I turned to for comfort and sustenance, the first one I wanted to be like.  By the time she died, she'd published 4 novels, 2 books of short stories, one book of linked short stories and a book of food writing.  Posthumously, a fifth novel and a second collection of food writing were published.  She'd written for the New Yorker and Gourmet, for Mademoiselle and for Playboy.  She'd won prizes, received glowing reviews.  And yet she was not an intimidating writer at all. You suspected, if you met her, that you would just gab and gab, as if you were old friends.  At least you hoped you would.

Losing Colwin was like losing a friend, and I am certainly not the only one who felt that way.  Several months after her death, I read that there would be a memorial service at Symphony Space in New York City.  I would still be in Oregon--there was no way I could attend.  But my friend Bill--whose departure from Eugene the previous spring had briefly wrecked me--was in New York, and I was determined that he should go for me.  Alas, he didn't.  (And, it turns out, it was so packed that he may not have been able to get in!)  But a few months after that, the memorial service was played on WNYC radio, and Bill taped it for me and sent me the cassette.  (Yes, it was a different world 20 years ago.)  He said that listening to the service made him wish he had gone.  I didn't say, "I told you so." I just thanked him for the tape, which I listened to instantly.

Because this is now, and not 1992, I googled "Laurie Colwin memorial Symphony Space" to see what would turn up.  And what turned up was a special 2009 issue of the New Haven Review in which there was a Laurie Colwin tribute.  (The link opens a PDF file of it.)   A number of essays from the memorial service are reprinted, and I read them for the first time since I'd listened to them almost 20 years ago.  Deborah Eisenberg and Anna Quindlen both read excerpts of her work.  Willard Spiegelman, editor of The Southwest Review, spoke of winning the cha-cha contest with her at their 9th grade prom in Elkins Park, PA.  Colwin's friend, novelist Anna Shapiro, read excerpts of letters Colwin had written.  (Colwin died before the advent of email.  What would she have made of it?  Would she still have sent friends a series of canning labels pasted onto postcards, as one friend mentioned? I kind of hope she would have.)  But what I remembered most clearly was the contribution of Peter Smith, then dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University.   Smith had not known Colwin personally, but he had loved her books, and he was given the task of reading a few of the letters written to Colwin's husband and daughter after her death.  Because, it turns out, they received hundreds and hundreds of letters of condolence from Colwin's devoted readers, one of them from me.  My letter was not read at the memorial service, but more than anything, I was both heartened and humbled that so many other people were as stricken by Colwin's death as I had been, that so many people felt her loss so deeply. (For a more recent tribute to her, see this blog post.)

The original hardcover, 1978
The newest edition, 2010

 What remains, these 20 years later, are her books, all of which, amazingly, are still in print. (In his Washington Post essay on Colwin published in 2003, Jonathan Yardley points out how rare this is--and it is still true almost ten years later.)  And publishers, it seems, are still looking for a fiction writer who can match her combination of snappy dialogue, seemingly effortless prose, quick wit, a big heart.  Multiple times in the past 20 years, I've seen a new novel--a domestic comedy, perhaps, written by a woman based in New York or Philadelphia--with Laurie Colwin hopefully mentioned on the back cover.  I almost always read these novels, but I am also almost always disappointed.  These writers, these novels, might be good, but they are not Laurie Colwin good.  The publishers are looking for another Laurie, and maybe I am looking for another Laurie, but we will almost certainly never find her.

 The one writer I've discovered who feels like a spiritual cousin to Colwin is Barbara Trapido.  Trapido is a South African living in Britain, but she and Colwin were born within a few years of each other and share a love of the domestic detail, among other things.  Trapido's books are denser and more whimsical than Colwin's, but there is--in my mind--an essence that they share.  Trapido's first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, was published in 1982 and highly praised on both sides of the Atlantic.  I wonder if Laurie Colwin, a self-admitted Anglophile, ever read it.   

I recently stumbled upon a blog (reached through the same "Laurie Colwin memorial Symphony Space" search) written by another fan of Colwin's (one who actually attended her memorial!).  He writes of how he wanted to write like Colwin and a grad school professor told him to be careful.  The danger for him was writing characters like Colwin's--upper middle class, urban WASPs or assimilated Jews with old money and lots of things.  This was interesting to me because when I think about my own desire to write like Colwin, it's not her characters I wish I could emulate--though I do enjoy it that she's particularly good at prickly, complicated  women (see Misty Berkowitz in Happy All the Time and Billy De Lielle in Another Marvelous Thing).  It's more her spirit, her optimism, her way with the perfectly chosen detail, her humor, her dialogue.  Colwin's prose reads so easily that it seems that it must have been easy for her to write that way, but of course, it probably wasn't.  

Two brief examples.  In Happy All the Time, Colwin is describing the dauntingly accomplished dilettante Holly Sturgis Morris:

Holly could cook, do needlework, play tennis, and fish.  She had studied the Italic hand, the Carolingian minuscule and the restoration of paintings and china.  She could balance her checkbook to forty-five cents, make a perfect pie crust, identify most wild flowers in the northeastern United States, and bandage simple wounds.  She could stand on her head, do a swan dive, repair lamps and knew the collections of most major museums.  Guido had once recited this list to Vincent, including the fact that Holly spoke French and Italian.

"Does she fly on commercial airlines?" Vincent had asked.

"Of course she does.  Why?"

"Anything short of a transport carrier would crash under the weight of those accomplishments," Vincent had said.
My favorite phrase in the whole thing--"bandage simple wounds." It's what still makes me laugh.

 And here's this brief bit from Another Marvelous Thing, a collection of linked stories that follows the love affair (and aftermath) of a pair of unlikely lovers, a gallant older man and a cranky younger woman.  From the first story, "My Mistress," originally published in Playboy.

In movies, men have mistresses who soothe and pet them, who are consoling, passionate, and ornamental.  But I have a mistress who is mostly grumpy.  Traditional things mean nothing to her.  She does not flirt, cajole, or wear fancy underwear.  She has taken to referring to me as her "little bit of fluff," or she calls me her mistress, as in the sentence: "Before you became my mistress I led a blameless life." 
A few pages later, we learn how they meet, in one of my favorite pickup lines in all of literature:

Billy and I met at a reception to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the journals to which we are both contributors. We fell into a spirited conversation during which Billy asked me if this reception wasn't the most boring thing I had ever been to. I said it wasn't, by a long shot. Billy said: "I can't stand these things where you have to stand up and be civilized. People either yawn, itch, or drool when they get bored. Which do you do?"

I said I yawned.

"Huh," said Billy. "You don't look much like a drooler. Let's get out of here."

My fiction favorites remain Happy All the Time, Another Marvelous Thing and The Lone Pilgrim, though I also have a soft spot for her first novel, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object.  (I alternate favorites, depending on my mood.)   Her two volumes of food writing (Home Cooking and More Home Cooking) have a cherished place on my kitchen bookshelf.  I still consult her for advice on gingerbread, chocolate cake, Ismail Merchant's creamed corn.  She is less strong on precise measurements and much, much stronger on perfect details.  I would love Home Cooking for no other reason than that it includes the essay "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir."  But even less good Colwin is still better than much else.  When I lived in Delhi in 1993-95, I took her novel Family Happiness out of the American Center library more than once.  It's probably my least favorite of her  novels, but it was the only one they had,  and even lesser Colwin was desirable when Colwin was what I needed.

A month or so ago, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Northampton League of Women Voters book sale.  It's held every year in late September in the vocational school cafeteria.  Hardcovers are $1 and paperbacks $.50.  No matter what promises of restraint I make to myself, I always fill a bag.  This year I spotted, in quick succession, copies of Happy All the Time and The Lone Pilgrim, donated by the same person (I knew this by the initials penciled in.)  I snatched them up, and I gave them to my friend Janna, whose birthday was approaching.  It felt right to give them to Janna because Janna was 7 when Laurie Colwin died, and it seemed that the best present I could give her (well, along with a tart pan) was an introduction to Laurie Colwin.  I envy her her first encounter with Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy, with Holly Sturgis and Misty Berkowitz, lucky people who are lucky in love and can toast to a truly wonderful life without irony.

It's been 20 years without Laurie Colwin.  Her husband is now a novelist, her daughter grown. There is even an official Laurie Colwin website. And, the books are still in print.  There is some comfort in that.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Last Gasp of Summer: Easy Oven Roasted Tomatoes

 I know that summer is over.  There are flashes of red on the trees outside my window, an additional pile of blankets on my bed.  My window of opportunity to run late in the day is growing narrower.

And yet, there are still tomatoes.  Tomatoes at the farmers' market and tomatoes in my garden.  Not in the copious quantities of August, certainly, but as September has edged into October, summer into fall, there are still tomatoes.  I have made plain tomato sauce and roasted tomato sauce, this tomato soup and that tomato soup.  I've made several batches of luscious eggplant and summer vegetable gratin  (Quick, there's still time, but not for much longer!) And still, there are tomatoes.

Every summer, or at least most summers, I make an attempt at oven roasting tomatoes.  I've tried the kind that you leave in a very low oven for hours and hours.  I've tried the kind that you start in a hot oven and then turn the heat down as they cook, supposedly to replicate the Italian version in which tomatoes were roasted at the end of the day in a cooling bread oven.  (For more on the story, see The Splendid Table.)  I had fleeting successes but no recipe I tried became my go-to oven roasted tomato recipe.  (And given that I'm very loyal to my favorite recipes, as indicated by my list of tomato-based things I make repeatedly each summer, that's saying something.)  

But now, my flirtation with oven roasted tomato recipes may be ending.  I may have found The One.

In late August, I came home from a few days on the Cape with my brother, sister-in-law and nieces to find a heavy Amazon box waiting for me.  In it were the first six volumes of Canal House Cooking, a birthday present from my brother.  We'd had a long conversation about Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones and Butter, which I had just listened to on my iPod and he had read (on his iPad), and which we both thought was terrific.  (More on that in another post.)  I mentioned that I had looked up Gabrielle's sister Melissa, formerly of Saveur, and discovered that she was one of the women behind Canal House Cooking, which is a cross between a magazine and a set of small, lovely cookbooks.  My brother, to his credit, remembered that key detail, and with my September birthday fast approaching, he acted.  It was and remains a great present.  A subscription buys you 3 seasonal cookbooks in a year, beautifully designed, written and photographed.

Being a logical Virgo, I started with Volume 1, Summer, in a lovely shade of tomato red, and I went straight to the chapter called "Too Many Tomatoes."  And just for the hell of it, I decided to try their version of oven roasted tomatoes, which is less a strict recipe and more guidelines.  (You can roast them in a hotter oven for less time or a cooler oven for longer, for one thing, and there are no amounts set for anything.  "Make as many as you want to make," it instructs.)  I made, in the end, two cookie sheets worth.

I liked it that the recipe specifically called for plum tomatoes (of which I had many) and that it was light on the oil (the words "drizzle" and "a little bit"" indicated that). My tomatoes went in plump and meaty:

And came out hot and chewy:

In the past, I've put oven-dried tomatoes in the freezer for the winter.  Occasionally they get eaten, but more often, they sit in their little foil packets until the next summer, and then I toss them.  This year, though, will be different, because this year, I obediently followed the Canal House ladies' instructions and put them in a zip-loc bag very neatly, with a few basil leaves for flavor.  (Please ignore my dirty cutting board beneath my nice packet of tomatoes--I had been chopping tomatoes on it, after all, and I did wash it post-photo.)  (I should remember to do that before I take a photo next time, I realize.)

That night, pre-dinner, I toasted some country bread from the Hungry Ghost Bakery and spread it with some fresh goat cheese from Hillman Farms.  (Their goat cheese has been one of my favorite discoveries of the summer.)   I chopped up some of the newly oven-roasted tomatoes and put them on top.  There was no time to photograph them because we ate them too quickly, and then two more pieces almost immediately thereafter.  The tomatoes were sweet and savory both, not too oily, a perfect complement to the tang of the goat cheese.  They were also a perfect way to say farewell to summer and greet the fall with cheer, knowing that among the many tomato-based products in the freezer, there are several bags of these, a hit of summer waiting once winter has truly arrived.

Canal House Cooking Oven Roasted Tomatoes.  

 The recipe really is more a suggestion than an actual recipe, but the keys are to use plum tomatoes, to spread them cut-side up on a cookie sheet and to drizzle with a bit of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  They recommend using a 325 oven for an hour and a half, or until the tomatoes have "shriveled up a bit and their juices have concentrated and caramelized somewhat."  I was cooking something else at the time so my first batch ended up in a 350 oven instead, and it was fine.  Use your judgement for how shriveled and concentrated you'd like them to be.  Mine cooked at the slightly warmer oven for about the time recommended. 

You can drizzle them with a bit more olive oil when they're out.  To store, pack in a bag or container with a bit more olive oil and herbs for flavor--a bay or basil leaf or sprig of rosemary,  They will keep in the fridge for a week or so and in the freezer for up to a year.