NEW YORK – Emily Gould stood in an Upper West Side kitchen on a Saturday evening and gazed into a crumb-encrusted pan full of creamed spinach. “It kind of suffered on the subway a little bit,” she said.
It was a moment that might have appeared in an essay by food writer Laurie Colwin, whose recipes were on the menu that night. Gould is a writer whose first novel will come out this summer, and the apartment belongs to her friend Sadie Stein, a contributing editor for the Paris Review. Both hang out with a young, literary, food-obsessed crowd, and they had met up with two friends to eat baked mustard chicken and that creamed spinach, debating and paying tribute to a writer whose work overflows with stove-centered gatherings just like this one.
Colwin was an author, self-described “refined slob” and passionate, idiosyncratic home cook who died in 1992, when the members of this salon were still in grade school. During her life, she gained a reputation first and foremost as a novelist and a composer of delicately calibrated short stories. But in the years since her death, at 48, her following has only grown, and her highly personal food writing, collected in the books “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking,” has attracted a new, cultishly devoted generation of readers. Her musings, anecdotes and quirkily imprecise, not-altogether-reliable recipes show up with regularity on food blogs. Which only makes sense, because even though Colwin expressed wariness about technology and cranked out her essays (most of them for Gourmet magazine) on a mint-green Hermes Rocket typewriter, there is something about her voice, conveyed in conversational prose, that comes across as a harbinger of the blog boom that would follow.
“I think of her as kind of a proto-blogger,” said Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, which in 2012 inducted Colwin into its cookbook hall of fame. “I would say she’s a transitional figure between M.F.K. Fisher and Julie Powell.”
Ruth Reichl, the writer, editor and former New York Times restaurant critic, said: “You want to be in the kitchen with her – that is her secret. She is the best friend we all want. She never talks down to you.”
In turn, friendships have formed around her work. Stein, 32, first picked up “Home Cooking” when she was 9 or 10; her parents had it around the house in Hastings-on-Hudson. “I quietly commandeered the book for my own use,” Stein recalled. Years later, a shared passion for the Colwinesque view of food and life brought her together for those dinners with Gould; Ruth Curry, who works in publishing; and Lukas Volger, a cookbook author and entrepreneur.
Acolytes like Stein and Gould don’t merely read Laurie Colwin. They revisit her passages over and over again, and develop a guardian-angel-style attachment to her. When Reichl arrived at Gourmet as editor-in-chief, in 1999, she discovered in her office a cache of about 400 letters from mourning fans who had written to the magazine after Colwin’s death. Reichl’s “very first act” as editor, she said, was to have the letters messengered over to Colwin’s husband, Juris Jurjevics, a founder of the Soho Press publishing company who lives these days in Brooklyn.
Among those who did know her, Colwin was a catalytic force. Vibrant and vigilantly observant, she drove fast, despised elevators, collected colanders, specialized in spot-on mimicry and had what might be called a Proustian enthusiasm for domestic splendor.
“She was a great cook, but the fiascoes were kind of fabulous,” Jurjevics recalled. “She cooked haggis once that was like the advertisement for ‘Alien,’ with the cracked egg.”
Later on, Colwin and Jurjevics moved into an apartment. (They married in 1983.) “She was not somebody who went out a great deal,” recalled her friend Alice Quinn, now the executive director of the Poetry Society of America. “But she loved, loved, loved having people over to her home.” The food she served was “always very simple,” Quinn said. Guests might have found flank steak, watercress salad, chocolate cake.
That lack of pretension continues to endear her to readers. (Open Road Integrated Media recently signed a deal to release all of her works as e-books.) As Nozlee Samadzadeh put it: “You can’t be a snob when you’re cooking on a hot plate. But you can eat very well.”
Samadzadeh, a 26-year-old programmer and editor behind a blog called Needs More Salt, encountered Colwin after falling in love with a recipe for tomato-and-corn pie that was published on the blog Smitten Kitchen. (Deb Perelman, the creator of Smitten Kitchen, said that Colwin’s work is “so relatable that you feel like it could have been written five minutes ago.”) Before long, Samadzadeh found herself gorging on Colwin’s books, trying out the scattershot recipes and silently asking herself a question at one life juncture after another: “What would Laurie Colwin do?”
Rosa Jurjevics asks herself the same question. Now nearing 30, Colwin’s daughter, also a writer, rents an apartment where she holds onto her mother’s favorite French mug, serving bowls, photos, recipe binders.
Jurjevics was only 8 when her mother died, overnight, of a heart attack. For fans of Colwin’s essays, she is a pivotal figure: the girl who made “spider webs with the fancy chicken-trussing strings, which I do remember doing,” she said. She was there to witness the process of her mother’s experiment with the legendary “black cake,” a Caribbean dessert whose ingredients steep in their own fruit-dense flavors for months.
Jurjevics can’t always relate to the predominantly heterosexual, comfortably upper-middle-class demimonde captured in her mother’s fiction, but she picks up her mother’s voice, her phrasing, her opinions, her way of looking at the world, on every page of “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking.”
She has gone back to those books countless times. The novels, she said, “may be wonderful, but they’re not what I’m looking for. I just want more of her.”
Time: 45 minutes
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, additional for buttering pan
1/2 cup light or dark brown sugar
1/2 cup light molasses
2 large eggs
1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 and 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger, or to taste
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
2 teaspoons lemon brandy or vanilla extract (see note)
1/2 cup buttermilk (or milk with a little plain yogurt beaten into it)
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch cake pan and set aside. Cream remaining 4 ounces butter with the brown sugar. Beat until fluffy, add molasses, then beat in eggs.
2. Add flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.
3. Add lemon brandy or vanilla extract and buttermilk and turn batter into pan.
4. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes (check after 20 minutes). Cool on a rack.
Note: Lemon brandy is hard to find, but recipes for homemade lemon brandy can be found online and in cookbooks. Do not use lemon extract.
Yield: One 9-inch cake
Creamed Spinach with Jalapeño Peppers
Time: 1 hour 10 minutes
2 10-ounce packages whole-leaf frozen spinach (do not thaw)
4 tablespoons butter, additional for buttering pan
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup evaporated milk
3/4 teaspoon celery salt
6 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, cut into cubes
1 pickled or fresh jalapeño pepper, chopped, or more to taste
1/2 cup soft buttered breadcrumbs (see note)
1. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Meanwhile, cook the spinach according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1 cup of liquid, and chop finely.
2. Butter a shallow 8-inch-square casserole dish or other shallow 4- to 6-cup baking dish. Melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and add flour. Blend and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Do not brown. Add onion and garlic.
3. Add the spinach liquid slowly, then add evaporated milk, some black pepper, the celery salt and the cheese. Mix well and add jalapeño and spinach. Cook until all is blended.
4. Turn into the casserole dish, top with buttered breadcrumbs and bake until lightly browned, about 45 minutes.
Note: To make buttered breadcrumbs, combine 1/2 cup fresh soft breadcrumbs with 1 to 2 tablespoons melted butter and toss well.
Yield: 8 servings
Baked Mustard Chicken
Time: About 2 hours 45 minutes
3/4 cup Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Salt and black pepper
2 cups fine dry unseasoned breadcrumbs
2 chickens, 2 to 3 pounds each, quartered, rinsed and dried
1 tablespoon sweet paprika, or as needed
3 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine mustard, garlic, thyme, cinnamon, a pinch of salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Place breadcrumbs in another large bowl.
2. Working in batches, coat chicken quarters on all sides with mustard mixture. Shake off excess mustard, then coat completely with breadcrumbs. Arrange in a single layer in a large, shallow baking pan.
3. Dust the chicken with paprika and scatter butter pieces on top. Bake until crust is deep golden brown and crispy, 2 to 2 and 1/2 hours. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings