Kitchen revolution: how Nigella Lawson changed food writing

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Funny, literary and irreverent, How to Eat reinvented the cookbook. Twenty years on, Bee Wilson explores how Nigella Lawsons evocative, appetite-driven food writing influenced a generation

Strangely, it can take enormous confidence to trust your own palate, follow your own instincts. When I first read these words in How to Eat by Nigella Lawson 20 years ago, it felt like angel trumpets going off in my head. I was in my mid-20s, pregnant and surfacing from nearly a decade of dieting and disordered eating. This idea that I could trust myself to decide what to eat appeared both strange and liberating. Since I was a child, I had been an obsessive reader of cookbooks but had never encountered a voice like Nigellas before. Unlike Raymond Blanc or Richard Olney (author of The French Menu Cookbook), she wasnt making me feel I ought to pay homage to authentic French food traditions. Nor was she implying as plenty of earlier recipe writers had done that it was my duty as a woman to master a certain number of dishes, and serve them on a certain kind of crockery. Never worry about what your guests will think of you, she wrote, reassuringly. All she asked of her readers was to discover what we loved to eat, and then learn how to cook it, assuming it wasnt too fiddly. In contrast to dozens of male chefs, she felt no urge to awe us with her genius or her knife skills. As she announced: I have nothing to declare but my greed.

For those of us who love How to Eat above all other food books, what it offered was that original voice, which worked its way into your head and made you feel braver in the kitchen. It was the voice of a woman who did not feel the need to hide or disguise her own appetites, as so many of us are taught to do. Americans had already known some of that boldness about food from the late MFK Fisher, author of Serve It Forth (1937) and Consider the Oyster (1941), who paraded her joy in eating to please only herself, but in Britain, the freedom of Nigellas voice felt very new. She did not tell us as Elizabeth David did the correct way to do something, but the way that happened to give her the most pleasure for the least amount of hassle. In her recipe for ratatouille, she departs from Mrs Davids firmness about pre-salting and draining the aubergines, noting pointedly that missing out this stage hasnt resulted in a hopelessly soggy mess.

Those who only arrived at Nigella later, on TV, will never fully understand that her first and greatest appeal as a food writer was non-visual and writerly. How to Eat contained not a single photograph of food and only one of its author, on the dust-jacket. It relied purely on text to inform as well as to amuse. Its a far funnier book than most recipe collections. Much of it took the form not of recipes but of chatty thoughts and meditations on food: on what she kept in her kitchen cupboards (marsala and vanilla sugar), or on the ways in which making mayonnaise from scratch was like reading the novels of Henry James: easy until an outsider suggests otherwise. It probably wouldnt be possible, she has observed, for a first-time author to have such a book published now.

During the Renaissance, cookbooks were often referred to as books of secrets, filled with carefully hoarded formulas, although in reality these secrets were often hopelessly inaccurate recipes rehashed without testing. William Kitchiner, author of The Cooks Oracle, claimed in 1830 to be the first cookbook author ever to have tried out all the recipes in his own book. Kitchiner was exaggerating he had overlooked such gems as Mrs Raffalds 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper but not by much. Even Isabella Beeton, author of the 1861 bestseller Book of Household Management, probably only ever cooked a handful of her own recipes.

Over time, recipe books aimed at the home cook many of them written by cookery teachers such as Fannie Farmer of the Boston Cooking School became more practical and reliable but not necessarily more exciting. There was a little flurry of interesting English cookbooks in the 1920s and 1930s, most of them sadly forgotten, but it was only in the mid 20th century that the genre of the home cookbook fully came alive. When Elizabeth David published A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950, it was a departure because of the way that she wrote, with poetry and scholarship and a sense of adventure and about a world of ingredients beyond Britain: apricots, olive oil, garlic. David gave rise to a generation of traveller-cooks such as Jane Grigson and Claudia Roden, who saw food as a lens through which to explore the world and its customs.

When Nigella burst on to the scene, she was clearly steeped in the recipes of Roden and Grigson, but no longer so bound by a sense of tradition. How to Eat is a book neither of customs nor of secrets but of passions, from ham in Coca-Cola to baked, spiced aromatic plums. I love the buttery creaminess of the sauce, saltily-spiked with hot-cubed pancetta, she wrote as a preface to spaghetti carbonara. The book was a clarion call to stop all the silly pretending about food that had gone on for far too long in Britain: the snobbery and the dinner party one-upmanship. Remember, she wrote in her chapter on weekend lunches, you are not trying to produce the definitive Sunday lunch The idea is to make a lunch which you want to eat and can imagine sitting down to do so without bursting into tears.

The narrator of How to Eat understood what it was to feel daunted whether by the mechanics of making a gravy or a pie-crust, by the exhaustion of feeding young children, or by a desire to lose weight. If you need to eat between meals, dont allow yourself to feel youve failed, she insisted. Even the chapter on eating to lose weight managed to be sensuous and non-judgmental. She suggests that restrained eating is easier if you can make a fetish, almost, out of eating the food. Take this suggestion for figs. Cut crosses in figs as if quartering them without cutting right through them so that they open like bird-throated flowers.

Returning to the book after all these years, one of the surprises is how little the food has dated. Theres nothing here that I wouldnt still eat with relish. Long before Yotam Ottolenghi spearheaded a cauliflower renaissance, Nigella was roasting it in the oven with cumin. She was ahead of the game on ingredients such as tahini and kale, and in her seasonal devotion to quinces and damsons and seville oranges, which she recommends not just in marmalade but squirted over fish. This book also prefigured the current obsession with avocado toast in its recipe for guacamole, which insisted rightly that avocado was better mashed with lime, coriander and chilli, but no tomatoes. Without the tomatoes, she observed, instead of the usual burst-boil mulch, you end up with a perfect buttery-yellow and jade clay.

From Nigellas Channel 4 show Nigella Bites. Photograph: Channel 4

Because Nigellas writing is so appetite-driven, its easy to miss the fact that the recipes are remarkably precise. One of the reasons the book has lasted so well is that the timings and the ratios can be depended on, and the food they produce is reliably wonderful. You can tell that people actually cook from Nigella from the fact that our supermarkets now stock large bunches of flat-leaf parsley and Italian OO flour, two of her signature items. For 20 years, it has been the first reference guide I look to when I have forgotten how much oil to vinegar to put in a salad dressing or how to roast the potatoes for Christmas dinner.

There is a particular bond of trust between a cookbook writer and his or her reader that is not at all the same as the relationship we have with a novelist. We dont just need the words to make us feel things on the page, but to teach us what our own hands are capable of. It is a visceral connection. A disappointing novel can simply be abandoned halfway through, no harm done, but a bad recipe can leave a horrible taste and the cook simmering with a sense of betrayal. I have a tendency to write annoyed scribbles in the margins of cookbooks when the author tells me to do something illogical, or forgets an ingredient, but in the whole of How to Eat I only ever wrote one mild complaint when Nigella says to get the butter for a raspberry bakewell tart very soft, only for it then to be melted. No matter. My annoyance evaporated the moment we tasted the tart, which was more fragrant and buttery than any bakewell tart Id ever known, rich with almonds and squidgily soft from the dark red raspberries.

Now almost every British cookery writer channels a bit of that atmosphere of liberated and unashamed greed. I can see her spirit in all the best young food writers, such as Thomasina Miers, Rachel Roddy, Thom Eagle, Gill Meller and Felicity Cloake. I can hear echoes in the writing of vegetarian chef Anna Jones, when she writes, in late summer, of trying to wring out every last drop of the season. Theres something of Nigella, too, in the brilliant descriptive writing of Meera Sodha, who notes that folding spinach into a pan is like pushing a duvet into a magical handbag. And she is surely there when Ruby Tandoh urges us to ditch the guilt of fad diets and eat what you love.

The new British addiction to baking, which is still one of the biggest trends in food publishing, was arguably sparked by Nigella and her cupcakes, although in this first book, she was still calling them fairy cakes. In the 20 years since How to Eat, there has been a new spirit of informality in much British cookery writing, from Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour to the joyous recipes of Diana Henry, who took Nigellas obsession with roast chicken as the perfect meal and turned it into a whole book, A Bird in the Hand.

I dont suggest that any of these writers are directly copying Nigella her influence goes deeper than that. In How to Eat she mentions From Annas Kitchen by Anna Thomas, and that she often cooks if not exactly from it, then inspired by it (which is more telling). I would say that the same is true of Nigellas utterly pervasive influence on British cookery writing. No one had ever described food in quite her diction before: the desirably crunchy carapace of a roast duck, the Blakean yellow of a saffron-tinted fish pie. She introduced us to a whole new set of compound adjectives for food. Take this sentence, describing a dish of sage and onion puy lentils topped with cod wrapped in Parma ham: This looks wonderful the pebbly, oil-wet khaki-blackness of the lentils like a cobbled street underneath the cats-tongue-pink slabs of ham-wrapped fish.

With every sentence, Nigella was asserting a right to speak about food from the truth of her own senses rather than out of a cordon bleu rulebook: In cooking as in eating, you just have to let your real likes and dislikes guide you. Many of her tastes for roast grouse, for white truffles, for sole with chanterelle mushrooms are undeniably posh, but she doesnt see any point in pretending to be something that she is not. She makes no attempt to soften her food prejudices she despises green peppers and cannot abide fruit bowls that contain more than one variety of fruit. For years, I would manically separate the apples and pears in our fruit bowl any time my husband accidentally allowed them to co-mingle before I realised that this particular bugbear was Nigellas, and not mine.

Marco Pierre White (left) with assistant or second chef Gordon Ramsay (right) at Harveys restaurant in London, 1989. Photograph: Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images

How to Eat marked the end of the reign of the chefs and the start of a new era. The most influential of the cheffy books of the 90s was White Heat by Marco Pierre White (1990), which was full of smouldering black and white photographs of chefs in the kitchen wielding cleavers, like rock stars-turned-pirates. The message was clear: we civilians might master Whites incredible lemon tart or his seabass with essence of red peppers, but we would still always be inferior to these kitchen gods. (Not every chefs book was quite so arrogant. Back then, I loved Keep It Simple by Alastair Little and The Sugar Club Cookbook by Peter Gordon, both of which were full of the fusion flavours that seemed so exciting at the time and were written with more concessions to the reality of cooking at home.)

To Nigella, however, good food was good food, whatever the origin. Unlike so many other cookery writers, who seem to fear revealing their lack of originality, she was punctilious in naming her sources. Her recipes were openly borrowed from some of the great British food writers who came before her: from Arabella Boxer and Anna del Conte, from Nigel Slater and Simon Hopkinson. But her version always added something new, because of the tone of honesty and warmth in which she talked us through the method.

I was trying to recapture what was wrong with so much recipe writing before How to Eat when my eye fell on Passion for Flavour by Gordon Ramsay, first published in 1996. This was the book I cooked from the most after I got married and before I had children, when I had time on my hands for making such things as langoustine stock and coconut tuiles. We ate well that year, thanks to Ramsays recipes, which included a rich dark chocolate tart and a vibrant green broccoli soup with goats cheese ravioli. But returning to his writing I was reminded of the daft assumptions that so many cookbooks used to make. Ramsays book is full of trickles of this and drizzles of lightly infused that, along with boastful declarations of how excited people will be when you present the great mans masterpieces to them, in a spirit of triumph. The assumption is that we, the readers, should feel blessed that Gordon has chosen to grace us with his secret pepper mix and healthy respect for vegetables.

At one point, Ramsay announces a recipe as another sublimely simple dish. This turns out to be a starter of oysters poached in their own juices served with a watercress veloute and tagliatelle. Before you can even embark on the veloute, he expects you to make a fish stock, preferably using one and a half kilos of turbot bones. You then convert this fish stock into fish veloute using shallots, two kinds of cream and a cup each of dry white wine and vermouth, reduced down to a syrup. Only then are you in a position even to start making the watercress veloute, which requires no fewer than six bunches of watercress and 10 tiny sprigs of chervil. Oh, and he meanwhile expects us to rustle up some homemade tagliatelle, to go with the poached oysters. Curl a little of the prepared tagliatelle into each cleaned oyster shell. Keep warm. Sublimely simple?

In a way, it is unfair of me to complain, because the elaboration of Ramsays cookery was simply what was required in a Michelin-starred restaurant at the time. But as a normal person, to read such a recipe presented in a cookbook was to feel like a failure multiple times over. How to Eat was one of the first books to make the case that home food should not apologise for not being restaurant food, because it could be something different and often better. Chefs did not have a monopoly on deliciousness. Beyond the tyranny of the recipe, cooking is best learned at your own stove, Nigella insists. I couldnt help noticing, she writes, that some chefs have no authentic language of their own. She offers the then-fashionable phrase pan-fried as an example, which as she rightly points out, usually means nothing more than fried. Unlike Ramsay and so many other chef authors she does not presume that we have an endless array of kitchen equipment at our disposal. My love for How to Eat was cemented when I followed her recipe for chickpea and pasta soup, which includes three sprigs of rosemary tied in muslin. She knows the muslin sounds pernickety but warns us that when she ignored the advice she found the sharp rosemary needles an unpleasant intrusion. Her wonderfully pragmatic solution is that if we are intimidated by muslin, we can use a pop-sock or stocking and tie a knot at the open end. How to Eat was one of the first books since Cooking in Ten Minutes by Edouard de Pomiane that fully appreciated what it felt like to be a working person cooking under the modern pulse of time pressure.

Two decades on, the task of trusting our own palates to tell us what to eat has become more complicated than ever. We are assailed on all sides by forces trying to twist our palates and make us mistrust our own senses. On the one hand, there is the aggressive marketing of the food industry that pushes sugary foods in dishonest packaging at us. There is also a growing wellness industry that preaches terror of basic everyday ingredients, from grains to cheese. There has never been a better time to return to the sanity of this book and its call to come to our senses in the kitchen.

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