The magic of Nigella

Be­fore she was one of the world’s most fa­mous TV cooks, Nigella Law­son wrote How to Eat, an ir­rev­er­ent ode to the joy of the kitchen. The book in­spired a gen­er­a­tion of home chefs

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By Bee Wil­son

Since I was a child, I had been an ob­ses­sive reader of cook­books but had never en­coun­tered a voice like Nigella’s be­fore. Un­like Ray­mond Blanc, she wasn’t mak­ing me feel I ought to pay homage to au­then­tic French food tra­di­tions. Nor was she im­ply­ing – as plenty of ear­lier recipe writ­ers had done – that it was my duty as a woman to mas­ter a cer­tain num­ber of dishes, and serve them on a cer­tain kind of crock­ery. “Never worry about what your guests will think of you,” she wrote, re­as­sur­ingly. All she asked of her read­ers was to dis­cover what we loved to eat, and then learn how to cook it, as­sum­ing it wasn’t too “fid­dly”. In con­trast to dozens of male chefs, she felt no urge to awe us with her ge­nius or her knife skills. As she an­nounced: “I have noth­ing to de­clare but my greed.”

For those of us who love How to Eat, what it of­fered was that orig­i­nal voice, which worked its way into your head and made you feel braver in the kitchen. It was the voice of a woman who did not feel the need to hide or dis­guise her own ap­petites, as so many of us are taught to do. Amer­i­cans had al­ready known some of that bold­ness about food from the late MFK Fisher, au­thor of Serve It Forth (1937) and Con­sider the Oys­ter (1941), who pa­raded her joy in eat­ing to please only her­self. But in Bri­tain, the free­dom of Nigella’s voice felt very new. She did not tell us – as El­iz­a­beth David did – the cor­rect way to do some­thing, but the way that hap­pened to give her the most plea­sure for the least amount of has­sle. In her recipe for rata­touille, she de­parts from “Mrs David’s” firm­ness about pre-salt­ing and drain­ing the aubergines, not­ing point­edly that “miss­ing out this stage hasn’t re­sulted in a hope­lessly soggy mess”.

Those who only ar­rived at Nigella later, on TV, will never fully un­der­stand that her first and great­est ap­peal as a food writer was non-vis­ual and writerly. How to Eat con­tained not a sin­gle pho­to­graph of food and only one of its au­thor, on the dust-jacket. It re­lied purely on text to in­form as well as to amuse. It’s a far fun­nier book than most recipe col­lec­tions. Much of it took the form not of recipes but of chatty thoughts and med­i­ta­tions on food: on what she kept in her kitchen cup­boards, or on the ways in which mak­ing may­on­naise from scratch was like read­ing the nov­els of Henry James: easy un­til an out­sider sug­gests oth­er­wise. It prob­a­bly wouldn’t be pos­si­ble, she has ob­served, for a first-time au­thor to have such a book pub­lished now.

Dur­ing the Re­nais­sance, cook­books were of­ten re­ferred to as “books of se­crets”, filled with care­fully

hoarded for­mu­las, although in re­al­ity these se­crets were of­ten hope­lessly in­ac­cu­rate recipes re­hashed with­out test­ing. Wil­liam Kitchiner, au­thor of The Cook’s Or­a­cle, claimed in 1830 to be the first cook­book au­thor ever to have tried out all the recipes in his own book. Kitchiner was ex­ag­ger­at­ing – he had over­looked such gems as Mrs Raf­fald’s 1769 book The Ex­pe­ri­enced English House­keeper – but not by much. Even Is­abella Bee­ton, au­thor of the 1861 best­seller Book of House­hold Man­age­ment, prob­a­bly only ever cooked a hand­ful of her own recipes.

Over time, recipe books be­came more prac­ti­cal and re­li­able but not nec­es­sar­ily more ex­cit­ing. There was a lit­tle flurry of in­ter­est­ing English cook­books in the 1920s and 1930s, most of them sadly for­got­ten, but it was only in the mid 20th cen­tury that the genre of the home cook­book fully came alive. When El­iz­a­beth David pub­lished A Book of Mediter­ranean Food in 1950, it was a de­par­ture be­cause of the way that she wrote, with po­etry and schol­ar­ship and a sense of ad­ven­ture – and about a world of in­gre­di­ents beyond Bri­tain: apri­cots, olive oil, gar­lic. David gave rise to a gen­er­a­tion of trav­eller-cooks such as Jane Grig­son and Clau­dia Ro­den, who saw food as a lens through which to ex­plore the world and its cus­toms.

When Nigella burst on to the scene, she was clearly steeped in the recipes of Ro­den and Grig­son, but no longer so bound by a sense of tra­di­tion. How to Eat is a book nei­ther of cus­toms nor of se­crets but of pas­sions, from ham in Coca-Cola to baked, spiced aro­matic plums. “I love the but­tery creami­ness of the sauce, saltily-spiked with hot-cubed pancetta”, she wrote as a pref­ace to spaghetti car­bonara. The book was a clar­ion call to stop all the silly pre­tend­ing about food that had gone on for far too long in Bri­tain: the snob­bery and the din­ner party one-up­man­ship. “Re­mem­ber,” she wrote in her chap­ter on week­end lunches, “you are not try­ing to pro­duce the de­fin­i­tive Sun­day lunch … The idea is to make a lunch which you want to eat and can imag­ine sit­ting down to do so with­out burst­ing into tears.”

Re­turn­ing to the book, one of the sur­prises is how lit­tle the food has dated. There’s noth­ing here that I wouldn’t still eat with rel­ish. Long be­fore Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi spear­headed a cau­li­flower re­nais­sance, Nigella was roast­ing it in the oven with cumin. She was ahead of the game on in­gre­di­ents such as tahini and kale, and in her sea­sonal devo­tion to quinces and damsons and seville oranges. This book also pre­fig­ured the cur­rent ob­ses­sion with avo­cado toast in its recipe for gua­camole, which in­sisted – rightly – that avo­cado was bet­ter mashed with lime, co­rian­der and chilli, but no to­ma­toes. With­out the to­ma­toes, she ob­served, “in­stead of the usual burst-boil mulch, you end up with a per­fect but­tery-yel­low and jade clay”.

Be­cause Nigella’s writ­ing is so ap­petite-driven, it’s easy to miss the fact that the recipes are re­mark­ably pre­cise. The tim­ings and the ra­tios can be de­pended on, and the food they pro­duce is re­li­ably won­der­ful. For 20 years, it has been the first ref­er­ence guide I look to when I have for­got­ten how much oil to vine­gar to put in a salad dress­ing or how to roast the po­ta­toes for Christ­mas din­ner.

There is a par­tic­u­lar bond of trust be­tween a cook­book writer and his or her reader that is not at all the same as the re­la­tion­ship we have with a novelist. We don’t just need the words to make us feel things on the page, but to teach us what our own hands are ca­pa­ble of. It is a vis­ceral con­nec­tion. A dis­ap­point­ing novel can sim­ply be aban­doned halfway through, but a bad recipe can leave a hor­ri­ble taste and the cook sim­mer­ing with a sense of be­trayal. I have a ten­dency to write an­noyed scrib­bles in the mar­gins of cook­books when the au­thor tells me to do some­thing il­log­i­cal, or for­gets an in­gre­di­ent, but in the whole of How to Eat I only ever wrote one mild com­plaint – when Nigella says to get the but­ter for a rasp­berry bakewell tart “very soft”, only for it then to be melted. No mat­ter. My an­noy­ance evap­o­rated the mo­ment we tasted the tart, which was more fra­grant and but­tery than any bakewell tart I’d ever known.

Now al­most ev­ery Bri­tish cook­ery writer chan­nels a bit of that at­mos­phere of lib­er­ated and unashamed greed. I can see her spirit in all the best young food writ­ers, such as Thomasina Miers, Rachel Roddy, Thom Ea­gle, Gill Meller and Felic­ity Cloake. I can hear echoes in the writ­ing of vege­tar­ian chef Anna Jones, when she writes, in late sum­mer, of try­ing to “wring out ev­ery last drop of the sea­son”. There’s some­thing of Nigella, too, in the bril­liant de­scrip­tive writ­ing of Meera Sodha, who notes that fold­ing spinach into a pan is like “push­ing a du­vet into a mag­i­cal hand­bag”. And she is surely there when Ruby Tan­doh urges us to ditch the guilt of fad di­ets and “eat what you love”.

I don’t sug­gest that any of these writ­ers are di­rectly copy­ing Nigella – her in­flu­ence goes deeper than that. In How to Eat she men­tions From Anna’s Kitchen by Anna Thomas, and that she of­ten cooks “if not ex­actly from it, then in­spired by it (which is more telling)”. I would say that the same is true of Nigella’s ut­terly per­va­sive in­flu­ence on Bri­tish cook­ery writ­ing. No one had ever de­scribed food in quite her dic­tion be­fore: the “de­sir­ably crunchy cara­pace” of a roast duck, the “Blakean” yel­low of a saf­fron-tinted fish pie. She in­tro­duced us to a whole new set of com­pound ad­jec­tives for food. Take this sen­tence, de­scrib­ing a dish of sage and onion puy lentils topped with cod wrapped in Parma ham: “This looks won­der­ful – the peb­bly, oil-wet khaki-black­ness of the lentils like a cob­bled street un­der­neath the cat’s-tongue-pink slabs of ham-wrapped fish.”

With ev­ery sen­tence, Nigella was as­sert­ing a right to speak about food from the truth of her own senses rather than out of a cor­don bleu rule­book: “In cook­ing as in eat­ing, you just have to let your real likes and dis­likes guide you”. Many of her tastes – for roast grouse, for white truf­fles, for sole with chanterelle mush­rooms – are un­de­ni­ably posh,

Nigella in­tro­duced us to a whole new set of com­pound ad­jec­tives for food

but she doesn’t see any point in pre­tend­ing to be some­thing that she is not. She makes no at­tempt to soften her food prej­u­dices – she de­spises green pep­pers and can­not abide fruit bowls that con­tain more than one va­ri­ety. For years, I would sep­a­rate the ap­ples and pears in our fruit bowl be­fore I re­alised that this bug­bear was Nigella’s, and not mine.

How to Eat marked the end of the reign of the chefs and the start of a new era. The most in­flu­en­tial of the cheffy books of the 90s was White Heat by Marco Pierre White (1990), which was full of smoul­der­ing black and white pho­tographs of chefs in the kitchen wield­ing cleavers, like rock stars-turned-pi­rates. The mes­sage was clear: we civil­ians might mas­ter White’s in­cred­i­ble le­mon tart or his seabass with essence of red pep­pers, but we would still al­ways be in­fe­rior to these kitchen gods. To Nigella, how­ever, good food was good food, what­ever the ori­gin. Un­like so many other cook­ery writ­ers, who seem to fear re­veal­ing their lack of orig­i­nal­ity, she was punc­til­ious in nam­ing her sources. Her recipes were openly bor­rowed from some of the great Bri­tish food writ­ers who came be­fore her: from Ara­bella Boxer and Anna del Conte, from Nigel Slater and Si­mon Hop­kin­son. But her ver­sion al­ways added some­thing new, be­cause of the tone of hon­esty and warmth in which she talked us through the method.

I was try­ing to re­cap­ture what was wrong with so much recipe writ­ing be­fore How to Eat when my eye fell on Pas­sion for Flavour by Gor­don Ram­say, first pub­lished in 1996. This was the book I cooked from the most af­ter I got mar­ried and be­fore I had chil­dren, when I had time on my hands for mak­ing such things as lan­gous­tine stock and co­conut tu­iles. We ate well that year, thanks to Ram­say’s recipes, which in­cluded a rich dark choco­late tart and a vi­brant green broc­coli soup with goat’s cheese ravi­oli. But re­turn­ing to his writ­ing I was re­minded of the daft as­sump­tions that so many cook­books used to make. Ram­say’s book is full of “trick­les” of this and “driz­zles” of

“lightly in­fused” that, along with boast­ful dec­la­ra­tions of how ex­cited peo­ple will be when you present the great man’s mas­ter­pieces to them, in a spirit of tri­umph.

At one point, Ram­say an­nounces a recipe as “an­other sub­limely sim­ple dish”. This turns out to be a starter of oys­ters poached in their own juices served with a wa­ter­cress veloute and tagli­atelle. Be­fore you can even em­bark on the veloute, he ex­pects you to make a fish stock, prefer­ably us­ing one and a half ki­los of tur­bot bones. You then con­vert this fish stock into fish veloute us­ing shal­lots, two kinds of cream and a cup each of dry white wine and ver­mouth, re­duced down to a syrup. Only then are you in a po­si­tion even to start mak­ing the wa­ter­cress veloute and tagli­atelle, to go with the poached oys­ters. Sub­limely sim­ple?

How to Eat was one of the first books to make the case that home food should not apol­o­gise for not be­ing res­tau­rant food. Beyond the “tyranny of the recipe”, cook­ing is best learned at your own stove, Nigella in­sists. “I couldn’t help notic­ing,” she writes, that “some chefs … have no au­then­tic lan­guage of their own”. She of­fers the then-fash­ion­able phrase “pan-fried” as an ex­am­ple, which as she rightly points out, usu­ally means noth­ing more than “fried”. Un­like Ram­say – and so many other chef au­thors – she does not pre­sume that we have an end­less ar­ray of kitchen equip­ment at our dis­posal. My love for How to Eat was ce­mented when I fol­lowed her recipe for chick­pea and pasta soup, which in­cludes three sprigs of rose­mary tied in muslin. She knows the muslin sounds “per­nick­ety” but warns us that when she ig­nored the ad­vice she found the sharp rose­mary nee­dles “an un­pleas­ant in­tru­sion”. Her won­der­fully prag­matic so­lu­tion is that if we are in­tim­i­dated by muslin, we can use “a pop-sock or stock­ing and tie a knot at the open end”.

Two decades on, the task of trust­ing our own palates to tell us what to eat has be­come more com­pli­cated than ever. We are as­sailed on all sides by forces try­ing to twist our palates and make us mis­trust our own senses. On the one hand, there is the ag­gres­sive mar­ket­ing of the food in­dus­try that pushes sug­ary foods in dis­hon­est pack­ag­ing at us. There is also a grow­ing well­ness in­dus­try that preaches ter­ror of ba­sic ev­ery­day in­gre­di­ents, from grains to cheese. There has never been a bet­ter time to re­turn to the san­ity of this book and its call to come to our senses in the kitchen

A 20th an­niver­sary edi­tion of How to Eat is pub­lished by Vin­tage Clas­sics Beyond the ‘tyranny of the recipe’, cook­ing is best learned at your own stove, Nigella in­sists


Law­son is cred­ited with chang­ing Bri­tish at­ti­tudes to foodIn 2006 for her TV Christ­mas spe­cial, now a sea­sonal fix­ture

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