A re­ally great cook­book teaches us about life and love – as well as good food

The Guardian Weekly - - How To Eat, now - By Jeanette Win­ter­son Jeanette Win­ter­son is an award-win­ning novelist

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 •

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