In Which I Reluctantly Let Nigella Lawson Teach Me How to Eat
This essay is part of a feature, Food Writer Friday, which highlights a significant food writer and explores the ways they have shaped us as writers, thinkers and cooks. Tag us online with #foodwriterfriday to share your greatest influences.
I hesitate to admit it, but once upon a time I found Nigella Lawson tremendously inspiring.
Not the Nigella who became an unwatchable food porn parody of herself, cavorting before a lascivious camera, peach juice dripping down her chin and dollar signs dancing in her eyes. Nor the Nigella who gaily appropriates from every food culture with which she comes even slightly into contact and whose recipes often don’t work—why does my brownie mix look like chocolate granola, and what should I do with that baking powder you mentioned?—the British socialite whose entire reputation in Britain is founded on an obscure recipe from the American South for ham in Coca-Cola.
No, my Nigella is the Nigella of How To Eat, which is, next to Delia Smith’s How To Cook, by far the most tattered, dog-eared and bespattered book in my vast cookbook collection.
I had been aware of her long before her culinary fame. We’re a similar age, had both been to Oxford and lived in London and, although our circles scarcely overlapped, her doings as the privileged daughter of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and intellectual It Girl on the London literary scene were easy to track. The Evening Standard, London’s newspaper, talked sniffily of undeserved publishing deals, her witty journalist husband John Diamond documented their family life in his eponymous column in the Sunday Times and I would occasionally read her column on make-up and beauty in the same publication.
When a food-lover friend of mine told me that I should absolutely read Nigella’s first cookbook, I was sniffy in turn. The title is stupid. I already know how to eat. And what does she know about cooking anyway? I became resolutely determined to ignore the book, even as it raced up the best-seller charts and became a cultural phenomenon. But my friend, bless her, is as persistent as I am stubborn, and for my next birthday I was presented with a weighty tome accompanied by a wry smile.
It was some time before I opened the book (I told you I was stubborn), but when I did, I was immediately entranced, her chatty delivery beckons you in as if you’re an old friend, sitting at her kitchen table, listening to her retell her latest culinary exploit over a slice of clumsily presented, but still delectable cake.
It’s a huge book, made all the more remarkable by the fact that there is no photography of the finished dishes. There was no need to document the gooeyness of her chocolate puddings, or the baroque, burnished skin of her roast chicken in images, when every ooze and every drip, "the dusty carmine of the rhubarb, the soft green of the pistachios, the soft squish of cream between," had already been lovingly immortalized in Nigella’s lavish, sensual prose. Her syllabub is textured like "the cool buttery flesh of a newborn baby," her gingerbread has a "seductive, highly scented stickiness" and her spinach comes with a "fragrant cocoa-brown dusting of freshly grated nutmeg."
As it turns out, the title is perfection. Here was a woman who loved to cook because she loved to eat, whose entire life from early childhood onwards had been punctuated by a series of memorable bites, each one of which she had meticulously recorded and endeavored to recreate. There is a story behind every recipe—real stories of family meals and eccentric relatives, late-night eBay shenanigans trying to score Bundt pans (somewhat of a novelty in Britain at the time) or buying cookbooks by obscure foreign writers in the days before the internet. Nigella describes her failures and her shortcuts; the tricks and tips hard won by the effort of getting food on the table; the culinary secrets of mothers-in-law, mentors and foreign au pair girls. She has tips on how to host a kid’s birthday party—yes, stirring Marmite into softened butter to make little finger sandwiches is a genius idea—proffers advice of dubious nutritional merit for losing weight and makes cooking for one seem like a celebration, not a chore. Unlike her later books, which are clearly the work of a woman and her culinary assistants trying to cash in, this is Nigella’s autobiography in food. These recipes worked, dammit, because she had cooked them time and again in her daily life and poured her heart and soul into documenting them.
Nowadays it’s hard to comprehend how truly revolutionary this approach was. Before it became too disgustingly food-spackled and this became too clichéd a compliment, How To Eat was the first cookbook to sit on my nightstand, as I eagerly devoured a headnote or two before going to sleep. I learned through bitter experience not to dive delightedly into an introduction while distractedly trying to cook a recipe from another section. Because yes, I’ve cooked from this book a lot. When I come to write my own autobiography in food, this book will play a starring role. Because of Nigella, I roast a chicken about once a fortnight, a meal that will play a starring role in my daughter’s own food memoir. Nigella’s pavlova led indirectly to me writing for Edible Seattle, while her Great Aunt Myra regularly attends our roof deck potlucks through her pea, mint and avocado salad. Nigella encouraged my romance with rhubarb and my passion for passion fruit; her mince pies grace my Christmas table; while I often bake the cheesecake of her Jewish forebears with the precise sour cream topping her grandmother would have specified.
And now twenty or so years later, though I consult the book only infrequently and can’t remember the last time I read the headnotes, it is because of this Nigella that I know that we home cooks, with no culinary training and armed only with a love of flavor and a well-turned adjective, can make a profound contribution to our culinary discourse. Although, to date, I have never once felt the need to bake a ham in Coca-Cola.
Paola Thomas is a half-Italian Brit who has lived for the last ten years in the glorious Pacific Northwest. A food photographer who can write, she documents food stories and captures the flavors of a place or season through her photographs, writing and recipes. Find her work in Eater and in her regular profiles and recipes for Edible Seattle.