In Praise of the Domestic Sensualist: Laurie Colwin at 80


Had she lived to see her 80th birthday, Laurie Colwin would no doubt be baking her own cake. Towards the end of “How to Give a Party”—one of many memorable chapters in Home Cooking—Colwin shares: “My birthday is sort of a makeshift affair. My favorite cake is gingerbread with chocolate icing, and I make the cake the night before.” She goes on to describe the thick raspberry jam filling and the “plain butter, sugar and chocolate icing,” which sound perfectly delicious and appropriately celebratory for any age.

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While tempted to fixate on the cake, I find myself even more intrigued by the description of Colwin’s own birthday as a “makeshift affair.” Rather than being fussed over, she takes charge of her own celebration and makes do with what’s on hand. In this way, she rises above the plight of Polly (Solo-Miller) Demarest in Family Happiness, who annually receives a desultory “breakfast in bed on her birthday,” though she will craft the meticulous celebrations of others. As Polly’s sister-in-law recalls, “I remember when you made the barnyard lunch for Dee-Dee’s birthday. When you had pigs made of eggs dipped in beetroot juice and a pig yard made of spinach and a little fence of fried potatoes. That was an enchantment. It made me feel my girlhood once more.” Like Polly, Colwin had the uncanny ability to create enchantment, but for herself as well as others.

The delicate china teacups, a lovingly roasted chicken, or Holly Sturgis’s perfect picnic at the end of Happy All the Time, which included her “homemade salad dressing… four wooden candlesticks and four beeswax candles as well as a bottle of champagne,” represented a set piece of adult life that seemed entirely within my grasp and yet just out of reach in those post-college years. Colwin created a magical place that I had not yet found a way to enter. And it wasn’t just the food or the furnishings.

Colwin also understood the complexities surrounding friendships and marriage; around figuring out your place in relation to a significant other’s family, or past, or best friends; and one’s ambivalence about having a baby. She knew it was okay not to think the same way as everyone else, but also to stop expecting them to “behave as you would behave.” Colwin’s real magic—whether as a baker, a food writer, or novelist—was the way she allowed her reader to imagine a space for herself in this ideal world.

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My introduction to Colwin was, appropriately, on my birthday. It was the early 1990s and I was a graduate student living in the West Village. One of my friends gave me a copy of Happy All the Time, intuiting that the narrative and the writing would resonate with me. It quickly became one of my favorite books and the start of my fascination with all things Colwin. I read nearly everything she wrote, but never wrote about her or her fiction, perhaps because I didn’t want to break the spell she had cast on me.

When I realized that Colwin’s 80th birthday was approaching, I started to revisit her work, mostly to see if her stories still had the same pull. Other writers have persuasively argued for Colwin’s ongoing relevance, particularly in regard to the 2021 reissues of her fiction and cooking essays. But my questions were more personal: Would her narratives speak to me nearly 30 years after first reading them? Would I still revel in Colwin’s enchantment? Was it finally time to write about her and what she had meant to me?

I still have my original copy of Happy All the Time and, on the title page, the numbers 13 and 131 are written in faint pencil. On page 13, also in faint pencil, are two brackets, enclosing the following passage:

Every Sunday she read the paper in a certain order. This Sunday was no exception. She read the society pages first to see who was getting engaged or had gotten married. Then she read the obituaries to see who had died. She read the arts and leisure section with special attention to the garden page, although she had no garden. She read at least two articles in the magazine section, studied the recipe of the week with a frown of disapproval, and then breezed through the fashion pages to see if there was anything she approved of.

Beyond my amazement that Colwin was daring enough to end a sentence on a preposition was the realization that her description of Holly Sturgis so accurately described me and that I was canny enough to note it. In those days of reading an entire Sunday Times in print and in discrete sections, I followed a pattern eerily similar to Holly’s. I was even writing a dissertation on gardens (Edith Wharton’s) though I, like Holly, had no garden. In a twist that I could not have anticipated at that moment, the friend who had given me the book would, like me, have her wedding announced in the “society pages,” now referred to as the Styles section, in the not-too-distant future.

Colwin’s real magic—whether as a baker, a food writer, or novelist—was the way she allowed her reader to imagine a space for herself in this ideal world.

Page 131 has a smaller, penciled bracket around the description of Vincent Cardworthy’s mother, who “was an Edith Whartonite and a fanatic gardener.” R.W.B Lewis’s biography of Edith Wharton had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976, putting Wharton squarely back on the literary map that Colwin’s characters were considering in 1978. I was not surprised by Mrs. Cardworthy’s interest; it was the yoking of Wharton and gardening, my own particular area of focus, that caught my attention. It was as if Colwin had been talking to me, reaffirming my decision to investigate the significance of the garden to Wharton’s fiction.

I rarely marked up my books in those days. There was a clear delineation between texts, the ones I was studying and writing about, and books, which I read for pleasure. It felt wrong to write on those clean, crisp pages, to question or compete with the brilliance of the written word. All of this is to say that when I did underline a phrase, jot down a page number, or bracket a passage, I was signaling to myself that these words and phrases mattered.

And if ever a phrase mattered, it was right there in Happy All the Time: “Guido pegged Holly as a strong domestic sensualist. She had a positive genius for comfort but he was only a visitor: that comfort had been created long before he met her” (emphasis mine). I found this description deeply appealing, wondering if I had the capacity at 25 to be (or become) a “domestic sensualist.” It sounded exotic and mundane at the same time and offered the possibility of something more to a bookish graduate student living in a boxy, post-war sublet on West 12th Street.

Other than those few lines in Happy All the Time, the only other ones I marked in a Colwin book were in The Lone Pilgrim. There, for the second time, I encountered her signature phrase, nearly buried in a reflection by the title story’s narrator:

Oh, domesticity! The wonder of dinner plates and cream pitchers. You know your friends by their ornaments. You want everything. If Mrs. A. has her mama’s old jelly mold, you want one, too, and everything that goes with it—the family, the tradition, the years of having jelly molded in it. We domestic sensualists live in a state of longing, no matter how comfortable our own places are.

First there is the glorious apostrophe to domesticity. In Colwin’s hands, the smallest and homiest details are elevated to a status usually reserved for more valuable items. That she then allows her narrator to enfold the reader in the “we” that precedes the original “domestic sensualist” speaks again to her generosity. Yes, she is saying, you are—or can be—one, too.

The story of “The Lone Pilgrim” appeared in The New Yorker in 1976, predating the publication of Happy All the Time by two years. Writers recycle phrases all the time, even holding on to cherished ones for the perfect opportunity. (I am thinking here of Edith Wharton who at one time planned to call The House of Mirth “A Moment’s Ornament,” a phrase she instead used more than 20 years later to describe a character in Hudson River Bracketed.)

What’s striking here is how deeply the “domestic sensualist” resonated with Colwin’s readers who use it again and again to describe Colwin herself. It may well be the phrase most mentioned in relation to her and her work, defining the writer and the person equally. Everyone from food bloggers to New Yorker book reviewers, to Colwin’s oldest friends refer to her in these terms. As Willard Spiegelman, whose friendship with Colwin dates back to the 7th grade, has observed:

Laurie the writer and the person was a “strong domestic sensualist,” whose interest in home, kitchen, and domesticity was a means of keeping disorder at bay and of controlling one’s surroundings. The drive for perfection or precision compensates for the equally strong counter-tendency to sloppiness and emotional upheaval. Writing does the same thing, and in a telling simile Laurie makes the apposite comparison: “Just as novels are written chapter by chapter, so are dinner parties put together course by course.”

Whether planning dinners or writing novels, Colwin was always paying attention to the fine details that made a simple moment feel like a richly layered celebration. Take for example, Vincent’s birthday in Happy All the Time. Holly and Guido, who “had just the sort of apartment Vincent had imagined,” designed the perfect moment: “Holly cooked his favorite meal and Guido poured his favorite wine. After dinner, they sat before the first fire of autumn eating apples and drinking brandy. Vincent wanted to stay forever.”

I did, too. Holly and Guido’s reminded me of a home on Patchin Place where a couple I knew had once lived. I wanted their exposed brick and the wedding china, the courtyard view, and the Cuisinart. The smell of woodsmoke and spicy geraniums in the window boxes evoked the domestic and the sensual simultaneously. It felt adult and luxurious, yet bohemian and attainable—just as Colwin would have imagined.

As Vincent departs his birthday dinner, Colwin writes that “he felt that domestic happiness was forcing the extra man out the door and onto the lonely streets.” The extra man is like the “Lone Pilgrim [who] sits at the dinner parties of others, partakes, savors, and goes home in a taxi alone.” In that story, Paula “Polly” Rice, like Vincent, is the “perfect houseguest,” near enough to domestic bliss to crave it and seek a version of it for herself. For them, marriage to a worthy partner brings the warmth and domesticity they desire.

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Thinking back to the friend who gave me that first Colwin novel, it strikes me that she, too, would have seen her work reflected in Laurie Colwin’s. This friend went on to write a book about the “marriage plot” in British and American literature, and while she did not analyze Colwin’s texts, she easily could have included their trajectories in her discussions. Did reading Colwin plant ideas in our heads? Were we at 25 susceptible to her ideas about order, marriage, and domestic spaces?

Certainly, my own writing on Wharton’s gardens mirrored Colwin’s aesthetic of the domestic sensualist. How perfectly Colwin’s phrase rendered the garden as an intersection of the domestic and sensual. For every kitchen garden and carefully lined allée that fed the domestic soul, the hidden spaces and giardino segreto permitted the sensual; Wharton’s fiction revealed gardens as spaces where women could express themselves authentically and even sexually in ways that they could not have done indoors.

In Colwin’s hands, the smallest and homiest details are elevated to a status usually reserved for more valuable items.

In so many ways, Colwin became an essential guide to my life as a graduate student in New York. As Rachel Syme puts it, “Colwin is a bard of burgeoning adulthood. Her forte is firsts: first shitty job, first apartment, first poached egg, first marriage, first affair, first homemade loaf of bread. She wrote about people with minds and lives not yet fully cooked, who are nervous about what everything will look like when it finally comes out of the oven.” Everything included writing, teaching, and relationships, especially with those friends who were struggling through their research and coursework alongside me.

We so easily could have been characters in a Colwin novel, not brave enough to ditch the dissertation for a stint as a backup singer like Geraldine Colshares, but certainly tempted to think about it. We wished we were Colwin’s younger sisters or better yet, dear friends. She was exactly the kind of person who would read your writing in its messiest, earliest stages; who would laugh when you told them that they couldn’t possibly be an “old maid” because they were still younger than Lily Bart; who would share their recipe for blueberry muffins and their anxiety about baking along with it. Perhaps Ruth Reichl said it best: “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.”

That was exactly it—Colwin met me on my own terms when I was 25 and has the power to do the same thing now. I may no longer see myself in Holly Sturgis, but I admire her exquisite taste and what my friend described in a letter as “the intentionality of living—giving everyday life its artful and careful due.” And, like Jane Louise in A Big Storm Knocked It Over, I want to stay forever at Teddy’s mother’s house, where

…behind a stone wall, Eleanor grew beans on poles, and English peas. Her tomatoes ran up an arched trellis. She grew garlic, onions, chard, and celery. Along the stone wall in the back of the garden was the blackberry and raspberry patch. In a sunny corner near the potting shed was the asparagus patch, now green, fuzzy, and full of ferns. Her rhubarb was forty years old.

Eleanor’s kitchen garden recalls the domestic part of the Colwin equation, only to be complemented a page later by the wonderfully sensual description of the bedroom, scented of “chamomile, which grew wild on the lawn, and thyme, which grew between the cracks of the marble slabs leading to the front door, and lavender, which Eleanor grew in profusion in her two front gardens.” Hers is the grown-up house I still long for; here I am in my mid-50s, incapable of keeping a garden flowering.

But now I can accept, as I suspect Colwin did, that this is okay. Some of that fictional world was meant to be unattainable and much of it was imperfect. Many relationships were strained, adultery was common, and not everyone could make that perfect salad dressing. The good life, the one that matters, is what we live in between the overflowing bookshelves, the weedy garden, the messy mudroom. As Teddy puts it to Jane Louise: “I know what you want… Safe house, warm hearth. Communion with nature. Happy cooperation. Good vibes.”

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Of course, we could also have been her daughters. Colwin was born in 1944, the same year as my own mother, something I didn’t realize until very recently. While I don’t recall her reading any of Colwin’s novels, my mother most certainly had a subscription to Gourmet magazine, to which Colwin was a frequent contributor. My parents even belonged to a “Gourmet Group,” consisting of four couples who rotated to host a themed dinner, each pair responsible for a different course. I remember being kept awake by the clinking glasses and silverware, laughter, and enticing aromas. For Laurie Colwin, who “loved to eat in,” these familiar dinner parties would have made her feel right at home. And much like Colwin, my mother knew that to “sit down with family and friends to a good meal is nourishing not only to the body but to the spirit. If our world is heartless, we must start somewhere.”

For me, the leftover desserts were the best part of hosting Gourmet Group. Chocolate mousse, lemon bars, black forest cake—I was happy to taste them all. Remembering these stalwart classics brings me back to Colwin’s birthday gingerbread. In addition to serving as the self-made birthday cake in Home Cooking, it makes a second appearance in More Home Cooking, where Colwin embarks “on a quest for the perfect gingerbread.” As anyone who has read and loved Colwin might have predicted, she admits: “Like most heroic quests, this search has not turned up any ultimates, but the adventure has definitely been worthwhile.” When I think of the experiences Laurie Colwin never got to have, I am comforted by this line. While she did not live to see her 50th birthday—never mind her 80th—Colwin appreciated the adventures as she had them.

Other than novels that I’ve taught, I rarely reread books. Colwin’s works have become the rare exception. Whenever I return to her writing, I discover “another marvelous thing”—to borrow one of her titles. What I see now and never appreciated at 25 is the underlying messiness; that has become Colwin’s ultimate gift to me. I have the Wedgwood china, but the dinners are not always elegant or inventive; the house is lovely, but the dining room table serves double duty as my desk; the friendships are old and deep, and too often long-distance. But they are mine and, like Colwin, I will take comfort in their ordinariness.



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