Food writer and cult hero Laurie Colwin embraced the old fashioned—now in e-book form | Bleader

Food writer and cult hero Laurie Colwin embraced the old fashioned—now in e-book form


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Rosa Jurjevics and Laurie Colwin ca. 1990
  • Juris Jurjevics
  • Rosa Jurjevics and Laurie Colwin ca. 1990
To her devoted readers—and there are many—the writer Laurie Colwin's tastes and habits are nearly as familiar as their own. Colwin was a traditionalist. She cooked with utensils she picked up in flea markets; served meals, particularly old-fashioned English tea and nursery food, on mismatched antique china; and, even in the age before Whole Foods, went to great pains to find organic food instead of processed supermarket products. She didn't own a TV. She wrote on a typewriter. Her novels and short stories are all set in a timeless Manhattan that could be any time from the end of World War II until the late 80s when computers became ubiquitous. She was concerned less with pop culture than with human interactions and social behavior. As a cook, she liked, in her words, "dishes that are easy, savory, and frequently cook themselves." Her ten books, the first of which came out in 1974, have never gone out of print.

Colwin died in 1992 when she was just 48. So no one will ever know what she would have thought about Open Road Media's recent release of e-book editions of all five of her novels, two volumes of her short stories, and Home Cooking, her first collection of essays from Gourmet that has become a classic of food writing. But her daughter, Rosa Jurjevics, has an idea.

"Oh my God!" Jurjevics exclaims. "I imagine her being reluctantly swayed. I can see me talking her though using the Kindle. I can see her not getting it. I can see her saying, 'What is a Google?' There would be a learning curve." Jurjevics can also imagine her response to the blogosphere, particularly if a publisher asked her to contribute. "She was so precise about her descriptions. She didn't waste words. And the more ridiculous she found things, the more precise she was."

Jurjevics was just eight when her mother died. She's 30 now. She lives in New York and works as a multimedia specialist in animation and postproduction. She still hasn't been able to read Colwin's novels all the way through; she finds it hard to lose herself in the stories because she's always, as she puts it, "playing Mom-detective." But she loves Home Cooking and its sequel, More Home Cooking, in which she appears as a little girl making spiderwebs out of kitchen string. She read them both for the first time not long after Colwin died.

Latvian birthday cake made by Rosa Jurjevics
  • Rosa Jurjevics
  • Latvian birthday cake made by Rosa Jurjevics
"They helped me hang onto memories," she says. "She wrote it as it was. I don't like to cook, but baking I really enjoy. I don't use gadgets. It helps me focus. I have a muscle memory of baking with her. Last year I made the Latvian cake [from Home Cooking] for my birthday. It turned out really well. I was amazed."

(She has, however, avoided the Sussex Pond pudding, an English dessert made with suet that was featured in a chapter titled "Kitchen Disasters." "She'd go to the butcher and get suet and put it out for the birds," Jurjevics remembers. "If you want to put a lemon in there, fine, but I'm not going there.")

Since Jurjevics was an only child and Colwin worked from home, they spent a lot of time together. Jurjevics has fond memories of traveling around Manhattan with her mother, visiting Balducci's grocery, the acupuncturist (where Jurjevics once got locked in a closet), and the 26th Street flea market, where, she says, "we'd spend hours looking at china and clothing. She really knew what she liked, and then she'd do it to death. She always wore these boatneck striped shirts from Eddie Bauer—I think she bought out the store—and soft gold hoop earrings you could buy in three places in Chinatown." She liked funny old-fashioned words and liked to make up and sing nonsense songs.

Jurjevics knows her mother has a cult following, and she appreciates the efforts of her fans, particularly the writer Emily Gould, to draw attention to her work. She doesn't mind—too much—that, by extension, she's become something of a cult figure, too. "I have a different expectation of privacy," she explains. "I've been written about before I was born. I'm aware there are people in the midwest who I've never met who know what I ate for breakfast when I was four. I have an unusual name, so fans will find me. That's weird. That's where I draw the line."

But she also understands why people want to be close to her mother. In the Home Cooking books, Colwin's voice is warm and bossy and prescriptive in the most comforting way possible. She will tell you what to bring on a picnic or what to feed someone who just spent ten hours on a plane or that Steen's cane syrup is the most essential ingredient for good gingerbread. ("I have one of her old cans of Steen's!" Jurjevics says. "I use it to hold my pens.") And then she will assure you that everything will turn out fine, even if dinner itself turns out to be a disaster. She knows, because she has had spectacular failures in the kitchen and has survived to share them.

"She embraced imperfection," Jurjevics says. "She wrote about imperfect people who were apologetic and unapologetic about their imperfections. They know their choices may hurt someone else, but life is not as easy as right and wrong or good and bad or success and failure. Right now, I feel like there's this kindergarten to Harvard situation where everyone is pressured to be right and perfect. That's not realistic. You can't expect it, or you'll go insane. [Colwin] embraced her own imperfections and uncomfortability. She humanized it in a way that made it OK. She wrote about embarrassing herself at a party and having a raging hangover the next day, but there was always a redeeming moment. Her friend came over with a bag of groceries, and they had the best meal of their lives."