Nigella Lawson: ‘I can be ecstatically happy with just bread and cheese’
| In an exchange of emails for Observer Food Monthly’s 20th anniversary, the broadcaster and writer explains how Twitter helped her through lockdown and what she eats on a night off
What were you doing 20 years ago this month?
I’m afraid I have only a rather muddled memory of that time. My husband, John Diamond, who’d had his cancer diagnosed in March 1997, had died in March 2001, and consequently all I can remember of this time 20 years ago, is feeling dazed, and mainlining bagels and cream cheese from Panzer’s. I know I’d been filming (and this must have been for the second series of Nigella Bites) as I had – ridiculous as it now seems – just a week off in the middle of it, and my one acute memory is feeling painfully aware that the herbs we had back of shot when John had died were still alive and flourishing when I resumed. I suspect most of April, once the series had been finished, was spent taking the children, who were then four and six, to school then going back under the duvet until it was time to collect them.
What were you mostly cooking then?
I never had much time to spend on cooking when friends came over, and there always seemed to be a tableful of them in my kitchen – which I operated on an open-door policy – and very loyally they never seemed to mind that they nearly always got the same Thai yellow pumpkin and seafood curry. I used to live near Sri Thai in Shepherd’s Bush: their curry pastes and produce made everything easy. And I was still in the first few years of my baking life, and marvelling – as indeed I still do, 20 years on – at how uplifting and comforting just mixing up a cake, rolling out biscuits or having my hands in dough could be. And, of course, it’s another thing particularly well suited to keeping children occupied.
When did you know food would be central to your life?
What is more important when it comes to devising a recipe: the writing, the cooking or the eating?
The writing is both afterthought – I don’t write up a recipe until I’m happy with it, although I scrawl endless, often indecipherable notes as I go along – and prerequisite. Until it’s written, I’m not sure it’s a recipe: it’s just something I’ve cooked. Not that this is always the final word. Often, while writing a recipe, I get a sudden insight into how it could be simplified, for example, which sends me back to the kitchen. But to some degree, these are all technicalities, and for me, a recipe has to be more than just a practical description. It needs to be able to evoke a dish, and tell the story of it. Why am I suggesting you cook it, and why – importantly – now? In that sense it is a marriage between lyricism and journalism. But the most important thing in writing a recipe is to be precise enough to be utterly reliable, without inhibiting or hobbling the person following it.
Do you have an internal monologue when cooking? And recipe writing?
I wish I could remember who said that cooking was about communicating with ingredients, but I think it has to be exactly that. I don’t like to listen to music or the radio while I cook: I need full immersion in the process, so that I can respond to what’s going on in the pan. I’m not sure it counts, though, as an inner monologue while writing, as – apart from the first sentence of a recipe introduction – I don’t decide exactly what I’m going to say before I start writing. While I know I have thoughts and words percolating, it’s the act of writing that reveals them clearly, if that makes sense. Or even if it doesn’t!
Are there any memories that bubble up to the surface when absorbed in cooking a particular dish?
Perhaps that sense of being reunited with the past while cooking isn’t about conjuring up memories, but just having a sense of the emotional hinterland of food. And that’s there even when cooking a new recipe, as the process is always a repeated one: peeling an onion, and chopping it, for example. Not having great knife skills, I have to concentrate while chopping that onion, and yet somehow I do sometimes get a flash of my mother’s hands doing the same. And I can’t roast a chicken without thinking of her, or make a white sauce, or mayonnaise, without remembering being a small child and nervously doing so under her impatient instruction.
What I became aware of only during lockdown is how much cooking a dish can make me think of those I’d cooked it for before. I found myself nourished rather than simply saddened by cooking myself food that I had initially made to eat with my children. I’d cite soupy rice with celeriac and chestnuts, and wide noodles with lamb shank in aromatic broth – to give just two examples of recipes that bolstered me in that way. Also, I mentioned meatballs in an earlier answer, and I just cannot ever make them without having an intensely physical flashback of my children with their plump little hands making them with me when they were small.
Which recipes do you always tinker with when cooking?
Restaurants aside, what does a night off from the kitchen usually involve?
Which is more enjoyable, eating alone or cooking for others?
When you’re cooking just for yourself, of course you don’t want to end up with something disgusting, or even disappointing, but it’s not quite the same as having a tableful of people to feed. And by being less stressed about the result, you can really concentrate more on the process, allow yourself to experiment and take risks, and feel your way and find ease in the kitchen. When I cook for myself I’m essentially just thinking aloud by the stove, and I relish that. (And while this is liberating for all cooks, I do think making food to eat just for oneself can be essential for women, in particular, as it frees cooking from being an act of service to others.) However, I don’t feel that the food I cook when I’m alone differs appreciably from the food I cook for others. To a large degree, the way one cooks is so much a function of personality that I’m not sure how I would begin to cook any differently.
Something that didn’t exist 20 years ago was the ability to chat to the world’s cooks on social media. How are you finding it?
I really grew to understand the importance of it all at the beginning of the first lockdown. It was the first time in my life, really, that I wasn’t feeding other people; sharing recipes with others made me feel that I still was. And it became apparent that my Twitter feed provided kitchen companionship for others, too. It’s certainly true that more people had recipe queries, but that’s only one part of it; chiefly, what I’d say is that it was about finding community in a time of isolation. The need for connection is such an essential part of being human, and although social media is much disparaged, I think it can provide that, and positively. It can be hard to keep up with it all, though. And if I slip too much behind, I can start feeling rather overwhelmed. I just hate the idea of letting people down.
There’s more thinking aloud and sharing your enthusiasms in Cook, Eat, Repeat than in previous books and you described the title as “more than just a mantra … the story of my life”. Was it a deliberate book end with/companion piece to How to Eat?
I didn’t set out to write a sequel to How to Eat, but I don’t deny there are parallels, and I’d agree that Cook, Eat, Repeat is very much a companion piece to it. But I would also put both Feast and Kitchen in the same series. And even in books of mine that are less emphatically text-led, I’d say the tone is similar, really. This is not surprising: my feelings about food and life are central to how I approach even the most basic of recipes. But it’s certainly true that in setting out to write Cook, Eat, Repeat I hungrily chose to return to a type of food writing that allowed for digression, reflection and free association – the kind of culinary stream of consciousness that feels most natural to me.
In Cook, Eat, Repeat you say that a successful recipe is “a hopeful act of communality”. With that in mind, which of your recipes have been the most successful and why?
Which foods are underrated? Which are overrated?
It’s quite hard to think of a foodstuff that’s underrated rather than merely divisive. I offer up beef dripping here: if you’re making a beef stew, why would you choose to cook the onions for it in olive oil, rather than beef dripping? It brings such glorious meaty flavour, and even if you don’t like fat, it’s much easier to remove solid fat from a casserole after it’s been chilled in the fridge than oil. But I love fat, all fats, and feel that policing them can only be to the detriment of proper cooking.
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