Laurie Colwin wrote two wonderful books about food—Home Cooking and More Home Cooking—and her obvious delight in it is one of the elements that unifies her fiction. Colwin died rather young, in 1992, of something heart-related; whenever I come across, in one of her (not particularly reliable) casually narrated recipes, an instruction like “you then put a lump of butter into the top of a double boiler and when it melts, add the eggs. Stir constantly, remembering to have your blood cholesterol checked at the earliest possible moment,” I feel an unhappy little frisson of real-life dramatic irony.
Colwin is an odd writer—on bad days, she rubs me the wrong way; other times I want to take the phone off the hook and read through her entire oeuvre without stopping. Her characters are affluent, good looking, with flaws that are meant to be charming rather than irritating. Their problems seem trivial. But there is a complicated undercurrent here, one that Iris Murdoch would have understood: they are trying to figure out what is a good, moral, meaningful life, no matter how unexpected the shape it may take.
Two of her books are about the place of adultery in a happy marriage; in at least one other it functions as a kind of minor chord. The excerpt that follows comes from one of the former. Francis, an aesthetic, cosmopolitan type, the sort that Colwin called, in another book, a “domestic sensualist”—keenly appreciative of the comforts of home—is having an affair with Billy, a woman who seems indifferent to comfort of any sort, physical or otherwise. Both are married, Francis to Vera, and Billy to Grey. Food is just one of the currencies of their relationship, one of the ways that manifests how they do and don’t fit together. In a neat reversal of the usual trope, here the appreciation of fine food feels more like an evasion of desire than an embodiment of it.
She was wearing his sweater which made Francis’s heart flutter. He could never quite get over her, even if he had just seen her three seconds before. He peered to see if she was going to finish her soup. He was starving and he knew he had eaten the last of the bread. He reflected that he never got enough to eat at Billy’s and that, no matter how much he got of her, his hunger for her never quite abated. He looked out the window to see that it was sleeting. The idea of going into the cold to get a decent lunch held little charm. Under the table he nudged her with his foot.
“Hey,” he said.
Billy looked up. She was half asleep. “Hey what?” she said.
“Hmm,” said Billy.
“I require an egg,” said Francis. “More soup. Anything.”
“There aren’t any eggs,” Billy said. “I ate the last one.”
“Soup,” said Francis.
“There isn’t any more,” said Billy. “This is the last can.”
“This is the last saltine,” said Billy. “Do you want half of it?”
Francis regarded the saltine half. It looked wet and it was not, in fact, half. It was more a scant third.
“There’s some wheat germ,” said Billy. “On second thought, there’s not. Gee, I’m not good for much, am I?”
“Not for food,” said Francis. “But you have compensating charms.”
“Hey,” said Billy. “I know what. You stay here.”
She went into the kitchen and returned carrying a pottery terrine in the shape of a goose. Francis knew at once that it was full of pâté de foie gras.
“I forgot about this,” Billy said. “Grey’s uncle sent it to us ages ago. And look! Water biscuits.”
Francis adored foie gras. He thought, lovingly, of brown bread with Normandy butter, endive salad, chilled white wine, and spicy little cornichons to go with it, but here at Billy’s table, they ate their slices on stale water biscuits. He thought of other meals he would like to have with it: double consommé with tiny meat dumplings, Bibb lettuce with mustard dressing, toast points. On white plates with big linen napkins. This was his way of making mental reference to Vera, who knew how to serve foie gras, without thinking about her.