Ray McVinnie meets Nigella Lawson
Nigella Lawson is famous not only for her television series but also for her writing, and it was this aspect of this remarkable woman’s career that I was most interested in when I met with her on Monday. (Without any pretension at all she immediately asked me to call her Nigella.)
When teaching gastronomy in Auckland I often used her first book, How to Eat, as a text, quoting her down-to earth and honest reflections on food and eating from the introduction, from chapter headings and from some headnotes to the recipes. I urge anyone interested in food to read them, even if you never use the recipes.
She includes great recipes in all her books (amongst others I love the first recipe in How to be a Domestic Goddess, My Mother-in-Law’s madeira cake) and her commentaries help the reader understand what can a bewildering subject. Well-qualified to speak on foodwriting - she has about 5000 cookbooks - she told me that as well as recipes that work, good food writers (apart from writing well) include something we all have a great need for, narrative.
She says telling the story of a recipe is essential so it has meaning.
A food writer must bring you into their world so you feel you are engaged by a sympathetic or informative intelligence, one you can respond to. English food writing legend, Jane Grigson is one of Nigella’s favourite examples as her “elegant erudition” appeals strongly to her.
Nigella believes that no matter what culture you come from, or whether you cook or not, food is a universal language and has meaning everyone can understand. She puts food in general and her own recipes and writing in a particular context: “Cooking is not just about joining the dots, following one recipe slavishly and then moving on to the next. It’s about developing an understanding of food, a sense of assurance in the kitchen, about the simple desire to make yourself something to eat. And in cooking, as in writing, you must please yourself to please others.”
This is from the preface of How to Eat, and is a theme that runs through all her books. There is no place in her thinking for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods.
She believes trends are not important to the keen cook and that knowledge of food is too often about impressing people, about social capital. “How can you enjoy cooking if you think you are being judged?”
In her latest book, Simply Nigella she writes, “The Clean-Eating brigade seems an embodiment of all my fears. Food is not dirty, the pleasures of the flesh are essential to life and, however we eat, we are not guaranteed immortality or immunity from loss. We cannot control life by controlling what we eat. But how we cook and, indeed, how we eat does give us – as much as anything – mastery over ourselves.”
Cooking is vitally important and while we can buy unlimited ready cooked commercially produced food these days, she finds it odd that people would rely heavily on these to sustain themselves.
In addition she says one of the most important things about cooking is that it connects you with the natural world. She finds it strange not to know where food comes from or how the food comes to be on your table.
Nigella Lawson’s intelligent, incisive writing embraces and encourages non-faddist and uncomplicated attitudes to food. She uses her own kitchen experience to demystify cooking and eating and what these mean to human beings.
At the same she is eminently tolerant. In Feast, Food that Celebrates Life she writes, “I’m not interested in theme-park cookery: there’s no need to pretend to be a Venetian to cook recipes from the Venetian feast [one of the chapters in that book] and though it can be absorbing and rewarding to wallow in the welcoming abundance of a full-on feast, part of cooking is about choosing what you want to eat and piecing together recipes to make your own feasts. I’ve never seen my role as that of a kitchen dictator. I’m interested in the story of food: I leave the plot to you. It’s your life after all.”
Similarly she writes in her introduction to the “Sweet” chapter in Simply Nigella that “many of the cake recipes are gluten-free or dairy-free, or both. Anytime I have friends for supper there are always some in these camps, and since I have invited them because I want them to feel welcome, why would I cook them something they can’t eat?”
She is also realistic about things like the no-sugar fad, commenting that “… anything that tastes sweet is, effectively, made with sugar. A cake made with agave syrup… is not a sugar-free cake, even if this is a fashionably held belief.”
Her first book was published in 1998 but her refreshing attitude to food and cooking is to be found in all of them. When I asked her what advice she would give beginner or unconfident cooks she suggested that you cook for yourself, and cook without an audience so you can learn the basics and become competent without pressure. You also learn from mistakes. The more you cook, the more you learn to make the connections that ensure successful cookery. Eventually you will feel at home in your kitchen which is what enjoyable cooking and satisfying, delicious food are all about.