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 dare say none of us is impervious to fads and fashion, but my cooking seems to change mostly according to where I am in my life, and at that time I remember rolling endless meatballs – or rather, getting my children to do so, their small hands perfectly suited to the job. The pasta machine, a basic hand-cranked model, was often clamped to the kitchen table, too. My kids used to love turning the handle. Makes me feel I should reclaim it from the back of the cupboard and bring it into play again, even if I have to turn the handle myself!

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?
Cooking, certainly, had always been central, but in such an ingrained way, I didn’t even register it. I suppose I just didn’t see it either as a separate, observable entity. True, I knew I wasn’t one of those eat-to-live types, and I had first got a glimmer that not everyone cooked as a matter of course when I was at university, but it had never occurred to me to regard it as anything other than entirely natural, as much part of my life as breathing. In the sense that breathing is absolutely central to life, without one’s having to pay attention to it, cooking was just an essential part of being alive. But while I took that for granted, I never thought that it might be central to my working life. Even after How To Eat came out in 1998, I still saw myself as a (non-food) journalist who had happened to write a book about food. I had no idea that I would go on to write another 11 books, or that it would be a career. I think I’ve accepted only very recently that it has been my life, rather than a divergence from what I really did. There’s not a day that goes past when I am not immersed in what I’m going to eat, and it seems a quite extraordinary piece of good fortune, bafflingly so actually, to find that the greed, obsessiveness and culinary curiosity that are an inextricable part of who I am have provided me with a living. And it gives so much pleasure.

What is more important when it comes to devising a recipe: the writing, the cooking or the eating?
In terms of the actual birth of a recipe, the eating always comes first. But when it comes to devising a recipe, I find it hard to separate the cooking from the eating. That’s to say, my starting point is always a response to what I might feel like eating, but it’s not really until I get cooking that it starts taking shape. I can’t make decisions about food in the abstract: I have to rely on my instincts as I cook. And because of that I need to be as loose as possible, clearing my head of too many preconceived notions, and as much as possible forgetting that it might end up as a recipe. I find that too constricting, and I also think it prioritises an idea or one’s thoughts in a way that seems to be essentially antithetical to cooking; smell, touch, taste are much more helpful guides. Not that everything I cook becomes a recipe. But every recipe begins with my clattering about my kitchen, and has to be part of a real meal. This is one of the reasons I couldn’t write a book a year. The recipes that come out of what I cook have to be tested and retested. Even if I don’t feel that a recipe needs changing, the more often I cook it, the more of a sense I get of it. And this is necessary to convey to the reader what is essential, what can be changed and what to look out for while cooking.

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.

Cooking a dish on Nigella Bites, her first TV cookery show (1999-2001).

Do you have an internal monologue when cooking? And recipe writing?
My friends tease me that I give a running commentary on everything I do – which certainly lends itself to making television programmes – and so I fear what should be an internal monologue is actually external. Frankly, whether voiced or not, there is always a jumble of thoughts and questions in my head as I cook, though – at the risk, I know, of sounding pretentious – I don’t think of it as a monologue, but as a dialogue with the food.

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?
It’s strange how one can occupy two spaces at the same time while cooking. I can feel myself entirely in the present – something I value enormously about cooking – and yet I’m also, to some extent, reliving or revisiting all the other times I’ve cooked. I tried to explain that in the recipe for cherry and almond crumble in Cook, Eat, Repeat, which I quote here, as it expresses what I mean, even if I should be embarrassed to do so: “When I stand at the kitchen counter, with my hands immersed in cool flour, fluttering my fingers against the cold cubes of butter to turn these two disparate ingredients into one pile of soft and sandy flakes, I feel, at one and the same time, that I’m not only repeating a process but reliving the memory of all the times I’ve done so before, and yet utterly immersed in the present, alive only to the sensation of flour and butter in my fingers, as they scutter about the bowl.”

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?
It’s hard for me to think of a recipe I don’t tinker with when I cook. And unless I’m baking, I don’t tend to follow a recipe anyway. I’m referring here to my own past recipes, which I go through to inform my shopping list, and to remind myself of what’s involved, but then tend to disregard once at the stove. If I’m trying out someone else’s recipe, I try as much as possible to stick assiduously to it the first time out. More often, I’m not reviewing a book of recipes, but merely leafing through one for interest and inspiration, in which case I don’t feel shackled to obedience.

Restaurants aside, what does a night off from the kitchen usually involve?
As I’m neither a professional cook, nor have a full house to feed every day, I don’t quite have the concept of a night off from the kitchen. But on those evenings I don’t cook, I am ecstatically happy with bread and cheese, or, frankly, just bread and butter, or a beautiful, creamy-fleshed smoked mackerel from Rex the fishmonger (so very different from the fillets that come vacuum-packed) with some fierce horseradish sauce.

Which is more enjoyable, eating alone or cooking for others?
While I admit to being something of a feeder, to say the least, I love cooking just for myself. I can’t help thinking more people would enjoy cooking if they didn’t think that the whole point of it were to feed others. What makes so many of us anxious in the kitchen is feeling we’re going to be judged, and from that can come such a crippling fear of failure. And that in turn engenders a self-consciousness that can really get in the way of unencumbered spontaneity.

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.

Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver at the OFM Awards in 2017.

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?
It gives me so much pleasure. I can’t think of more of a gift to a food writer than seeing people’s pictures and reports of cooking your recipes in their home. I will never grow tired of it, or stop finding it touching and profoundly happy-making. Obviously, it’s gratifying, but there’s more to it than that: it feels like the proper recognition of a relationship. The person following a recipe is not a passive recipient, but an essential part of the dialogue.

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?
Television always has the most impact on what recipes people cook of mine, and that’s just inevitable. I’m grateful, but perhaps it makes me more particularly moved when the recipes that become popular haven’t been on TV. I feel it gives them their moment in a quiet way. My recipe for sweet potato macaroni cheese from Simply Nigella is a case in point, as are the salt and vinegar potatoes from At My Table. But it’s always a thrill when I see people cooking a recipe of mine for their dinner, and I suppose most recently the recipes that have got the most traction are the fish finger bhorta, black pudding meatballs, crab mac ’n’ cheese, and chocolate peanut butter cake. But it’s the recipes that people have carried on cooking, and that have become part of their family life, that mean the most to me. Recently, someone tweeted a picture of the Malteser cake they’d made for their son’s 18th birthday, and told me she’d made it – at his request – for every birthday of his for the past 12 years. It’s an honour and a privilege, and I know it sounds a bit gushy and Oscar-acceptance speech to say so, but it’s the truth.

Which foods are underrated? Which are overrated?
I’m really bad at questions like this. I tend to shrink from the what’s in/ what’s out or ratings approach to food writing. Personal taste is no more than that: if you like a foodstuff I don’t, I’m not sure it makes sense for me to see it as overrated. And if an enthusiasm is billed as celebrating a food that’s underrated it seems to be claiming a discernment lacking in others. I’m uncomfortable with either stance, really. But OK, I’ll play. If pushed, I’d say that I don’t really understand the fuss made about black truffles. I don’t hate them, but they rarely taste of anything more than mildly scented bark to me. It’s true, I once had a potato gratin with black truffles in the Périgord that made a convincing case for them, but that was a one-off. Mostly they seem to me to do no more than confer a certain smugly celebrated luxury status.

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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