Back before there were food blogs, there was Laurie Colwin, and her monthly columns in Mademoiselle magazine….
I learned about teen and fashion magazines, when I went away to sleep-away-camp for the first time. I may have been about fourteen years old. It was through one of these magazines, specifically Mademoiselle, that I came to know and love the writings of Laurie Colwin. Though she passed away at an early age, her writing lives on, and my love of her writing continues to be a life long love affair. Besides her significance as a writer of fiction, most importantly to me, she was one of the first food writers. But she did not just write about food, it was the combination of food and life, that made her stand out as a writer. Laurie Colwin started out as a columnist, and not a blogger. She preceded computers, and the herd of food bloggers born with that technology. Her way of writing so personally is what meant so much to her readers, such as myself.
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.”
My first summer at sleep away camp came late in life. I think most children my age went to camp at a much earlier age. I had no need for camp because I spent all of my childhood summers in a bungalow on Sackett Lake in the Catskills. I liked being as free as a bird. But there was a summer camp across the lake from our house, Camp Roosevelt, and over the years it called to me. I wondered what it would be like to be a camper there. It felt like a rite of passage through which I needed to go through. Though my parents did not have much money, somehow they managed to be able to send me to sleep-away-camp that summer. When they told me I would be able to go, I remember celebrating that moment with my older brother. We jumped up and down and hugged each other. To this day, it pleases me that he was happy for my happiness.
It was the same summer I learned how to shave my legs. Another summer I wold learn to take in the legs of my pants so that my pants were as tight as could be. My mother never taught me such things. I learned through my peers. Living in a bunk full of girls started me off on a life time of being obsessed with my body, in a way I never had before. Innocence was lost. I do not mean a sexual innocence, but a lack of self-awareness that gives one total freedom. There had been no censorship to life, yet. This was the innocence that was lost in my transformation during that summer.
The magazines arrived in care packages from home to my fellow bunk mates, in August, toward the end of camp. There were Glamour, Mademoiselle, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and most notably Vogue. The boys’ equivalents of them were probably Playboy, of course, and the swim suit issue of Sports Illustrated. Innocent porn, compared to what may be found on the internet today. Vogue, for the girls, was most notable, because the August issue was unbelievably thick, one to two inches. The fashions were too old for us and did not apply, but the amount of pages to flip through were mesmerizing. The most appropriate to us at the time was Seventeen, but it always felt a bit babyish, and we aspired more to Glamour and Mademoiselle, magazines for college girls, like the ones who were our counselors, and seemed so much more grown up that we were. When we read Cosmo, we were strictly voyeurs. The advice in Cosmo was more like taking a walk on the wild side.
Nothing suited the hot summer days of August than laying around on towels in our bathing suits, outside the bunks during rest hours, acquiring sun tans, and devouring the extra fat August issues of these magazines. I learned how to look for ads in the back pages that would allow me to send away for samples of items. If I mailed in a card along with twenty five cents, I could get a baby bar of a prized expensive soap, that was yellow, smelled wonderful and was transparent. The soap was Neutrogena. This was the summer I learned how to wash my face with Noxzema, and may have received a small sample jar through the ads in the backs of the magazines, too. For some reason, in doing all of this, learning some of the ins and outs of fitting in and being a girl, life at the time felt good. Later, fitting in would no longer feel good at all, as I grew up, and just wanted to be myself, whatever that was. Growing into the real me, has been a life long learning process, and continues to this day.
Mademoiselle held some legitimacy that the other magazines lacked, because it published reputable fiction, and also had the guest editor program, which over time was attended by women, later to become famous. Per the NYT article, “After”The Bell Jar,” Life Went On, ” dated June 22, 2003:
Long before it folded in 2001, Mademoiselle was known as a forum for exciting new fiction by writers like Truman Capote; Dylan Thomas’s ”Under Milk Wood” was published there in its entirety. The guest editor program started in 1939 and its purpose was twofold: the magazine’s advertisers could get valuable feedback from the cream of its market, and the women whose writing and artwork were the best of the best could travel to New York and work on the enormously popular August college issue. Among them were Joan Didion, Francine du Plessix Gray, Gael Greene, Betsey Johnson, Ali MacGraw, Ann Beattie, Mona Simpson and Linda Allard of Ellen Tracy. In the 1970’s the program went co-ed and it ended in 1979.
I first started reading articles by Laurie Colwin in Mademoiselle magazine. I liked her writing so much, that I looked forward to each issue. Her column was the first page I turned to, when a new magazine came out and I bought a copy at the local news store. I would often cut her columns out, and tape them to a wall or keep them in a special box, to read over and over for the wisdom they imparted. They explained life to me, and felt intimate. I read about how to cook a chicken and many other basic foods. I read about how she would invite friends over for a dinner party in her tiny tiny apartment, and the wonderful atmosphere that she created in bringing her friends together over food. I did not know that she also wrote for the New Yorker, Gourmet, Redbook, Allure and Playboy. I was only up to magazines like Mademoiselle which I continued to read even well past college. A lot of knowledge about life seemed to be imparted through these magazines. Until, I had enough, and they seemed vapid, full of ads, lacked content, and no longer served my needs.
But my love of Laurie Colwin’s writing is a mainstay. I became aware of her fiction, about the time I first got married, and my husband and I, young, in love, and newly wed, read her books as they came to our attention. We identified with her quirky characters, loved the stories she created, and felt a kinship with her sensibilities. But the books I truly fell in love with, were her works of non-fiction,
Her non-fiction books (Home Cooking and More Home Cooking) are collections of essays, and are as much memoirs as cookbooks. In the foreword to Home Cooking, Colwin wrote: “Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers. In my kitchen I rely on Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, the numerous contributors to The Charleston Receipts, and Margaret Costa (author of an English book entitled The Four Seasons Cookery Book),” – Wikipedia.
When my nieces had birthdays in their late teens, I would give them each copies of “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking,” and would give these books to friends too, when special occasions called for presents. I would press these books upon those I loved, with an almost religious fervor, hoping they would convert, too. In retrospect, I know that I am not alone in the way that I related to Colwin’s writings. She has a large following of women, like myself. Anytime you read about her life and what she wrote, you will read about the almost cultish following she has engendered.
Laurie Colwin died unexpectedly at the age of forty-eight in October 1992. Her food essays were a precursor to all of the writings of the food bloggers of today’s world. I wonder what Colwin would have made of our overly informative world today. They say that after you die, you live on, as long as someone still living in this world, holds you in their memory. Through her non-fiction, memoir-ish food writing, as well as her fiction, I remember and treasure Laurie Colwin’s short-lived existence in this life. I will always go back to her books and read them again and again.
Thank you, Laurie Colwin, for inspiring me to cook and weave cooking into my life as you did in yours. Food going hand in hand with family and friends are part of the richness and goodness of life. I am grateful.