A really great cookbook teaches us about life and love – as well as good food
What makes our mouths water when we read a cookbook isn’t the food on the table; it’s the story of the food on the table.
Open Nigella, and even if you have never done more than cheese on toast, already, you’re listening to her voice. Nigella cookbooks are intimate – something like a diary. Confessionals of failures, flaws, greed, indulgence, accidents good and bad, the joy of doing it right. Of showing off for friends. Of sitting alone with a plate piled with lemon linguine.
She writes: “I first had salsa verde when I was a chambermaid in Florence.” Then I go on to discover that she ate it in a trattoria where most of the diners were transvestites – and I’m at the long table with her, and the burnished blond bombshells she describes, and we’re dipping our bread into the “deep flavoured spiky sauce the colour of snooker-baize”.
Nigella is funny. The writing rolls along and then there are the oneliners. A pinch of Woody Allen: “Christmas is like the country; not much to do apart from eat and drink.” A dash of Oscar Wilde: “Being right isn’t everything.” A drop of Joyce Grenfell looking straight to camera and saying: “Remember that defrosted strawberries take on the texture of soft, cold slugs.” When she’s writing about feeding children I can’t decide whether she’s Mary Poppins, kind but firm – “It’s never too soon to get a child used to pink lamb and blue beef,” or whether she’s channelling Roald Dahl: “A pan so big that both the children could fit in it together – and have the lid put on too …”
When How to Eat was published 20 years ago, the title told us what to expect – that this was not only about the pleasure of cooking, but a reminder that cooking is not an end in itself; we cook because we like eating. The title put the book into the timeless category. Everyone needs to eat – but do we really know how? Eating, like love, like language, comes naturally, but also needs to be learned – especially if we want to do it well.
Here was a practical philosophy – a way of getting more enjoyment for yourself and others. Food, for Nigella, becomes a way of talking about what is good and what is not, in the deepest sense of what nourishes us and what doesn’t. Why else would she call a recipe “Spring Lunch to Lift the Spirits?”
That simple lemon linguine, by the way, is just gorgeous •