Nigella Lawson on the Glory of Cooking at Home

Star writer and TV chef talks about inspiration for new book "Nigella Christmas"

December 15, 2009, 5:37 PM

Dec. 16, 2009 — -- To be a successful chef today means to publish books. Cookbooks, mostly, but lifestyle guides and memoirs, too. Authorship is now the logical next step to making it big on the restaurant scene.

Nigella Lawson has done things backwards -- as much as someone with such a hot career can be said to have done things backwards. First she made her name as a writer. Then she made her name as a foodie.

"I was still a journalist, a proper op-ed columnist, when my first book came out, and I don't really know why I did [it]," Lawson said. "I just found myself writing this book, 'How To Eat.' And I suppose it was a sort of manifesto, it wasn't really a recipe book in the way they've become. It wasn't illustrated, it was largely narrative. It was really an attempt to talk about the role that food played in my life and in life generally."

In advance of the holidays, Lawson took a moment to talk about her discovery of food writing, the pleasures of home cooking and her new book of recipes and entertaining tips, "Nigella Christmas."

For a sampling of Nigella Lawson's favorite recipes, click HERE.

"I don't know how I quite tumbled into being food writer," Lawson said. "I'm not a chef or anything ... I'm not even a trained cook. But I really feel that much as I admire chefs, real cooking is home cooking. So I feel that I'm bearing the banner for the home cook, just family food, the food that you eat with your friends, that sort of thing."

Before the runaway success of "How to Eat," Lawson, a Londoner, was a versatile editorialist and deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times. After "How to Eat," Lawson published a string of cooking best-sellers, including "How to Be a Domestic Goddess" and "Nigella Express: Good Food Fast." Her TV credits include "Nigella Feasts" and "Nigella Express" on the Food Network, "Forever Summer with Nigella" on the Style Network and "Nigella Bites" on E! Entertainment Television.

'A Clatter of Pans Around Me'

Lawson traced her earliest memories of food to Sundays spent helping her mother out with family feasts.

"My mother was a great believer in child labor," said Lawson. "So when we were terribly young she'd make us help cook like Sunday lunch. We'd have scissors and top and tail beans, and she'd make us stir things, and I suppose I feel like I've made a bechamel since I've been about six. I mean I didn't know that's what it's called. We just called it white sauce.

"I've always cooked, I suppose. I've always cooked and I've always felt a clatter of pans around me as a very comfortable noise. But I feel really my default mode is a roast chicken. If I were to wake up after some enormous long sleep, I really think I would just get up and find myself getting a chicken out of the fridge, rubbing it with butter, squeezing a lemon over it and putting it in the oven, and I would do that before I was even conscious or knew what my name was."

The menu of her childhood strayed from the traditional English mainstays, Lawson said, on account of her mother's early embrace of Mediterranean cuisine.

"I often feel I was brought up in a sort of different England than a lot of other people were, because whereas a lot of other people ate traditional English food, my mother'd be very inspired by a lot of Mediterranean cooking, when it wasn't enormously fashionable," said Lawson.

"So we had things like spaghetti with garlic and chili and olive oil, even though when I was young you had to go to a drug store to buy olive oil -- they didn't sell it in the food market. ... The funny thing is now I find traditional English recipes incredibly exotic. I'm not bored with them. And I think that actually because England suffered for a lot of time, and had rationing, that food became somehow meager, whereas I'm very happy to let it find its voice again.

"And I think few things aren't better when they've got a bit of butter in them."

A feeling of grounded domesticity became a goal of her own cooking, Lawson said.

"I suppose I want to show people that it's actually quite simple to cook. That really the sort of food that we think of as real cooking, like sort of the cheffy miracles, they're fantastic, but they're what you go to a restaurant for. And actually most people really relish something like roast chicken and mashed potatoes or meatballs and pasta or a pork chop. That sort of cooking makes people feel welcomed.

"And I suppose to some extent, I've got more and more evangelical about that sort of food. I love home baking. I love anything that makes a home feel like a home, and I think that we live in a society where we spend more time in an office than we do at home, so the time you are at home, it's quite important to feel grounded there and that it gives you comfort."

'I Don't Have Any Particular Gifts'

The sense of home that cooking can create is just one of many rewards Lawson said she finds in the kitchen.

"I feel that I have a sort of a historical interest, I think it's social history," she said. "I think that there's something so beautiful about food, so I get an aesthetic pleasure.

If she had to choose between never again dining out and never again cooking at home, Lawson said, she'd skip the dining out.

"[I] love the fact that in a way cooking is manual labor, the physical elements of stirring and chopping really sort of release something in me. For me, there's so many elements to food, that I feel if I didn't cook I would feel impoverished. ... I couldn't cope in life if I couldn't putter about in my kitchen."

Countless readers and television viewers have turned to Lawson for tips on preparing and pulling off grand domestic feasts. Yet she says she never considered herself to be an exceptionally talented chef.

"It sounds like I'm being disingenuous or, I don't know, falsely modest, but to be honest, I am not really ... good at cooking," Lawson said. "And I cook things which I think taste good to me, but I don't have any particular gifts ... so I just wouldn't want to make it seem like I thought I have some fantastic expertise, which I know I don't. But I trust my instincts. I trust my taste.

"I think that's actually a very important lesson to the home cook, that really it's about preparing something that you want to eat. It's not a crisis if things aren't great. The worst that happens is that supper's not fantastic, but that's OK. So I think the place that I come from is probably the same place my readers or my viewers come from."

'A Sense of Welcome in the House'

For "Nigella Christmas," Lawson said, she revisited her own family Christmas traditions -- including the tense bits.

"I come from a big family, I come from a very big family," she said. "My mother would cry every Christmas Eve, because she'd taken on too much and everything was on top of her, and it was very high-stress. And I suppose I know how stressful it can be, so I want to try to make a less stressful holiday season.

"Christmas is sort of a Thanksgiving and a celebration of the mid-winter. I'm a great believer in the pagan elements, of it's so dark and we can suddenly fill everything with twinkling light and little candles flickering and the air should be really thick with cinnamon and clove and feel spicy and warming and welcoming, and I think that's really what it is for me. It really is about having people around that you can feed and a sense of -- I suppose there's a sense of welcome in the house, and I don't know how to express that except through food."

Lawson remembers the small traditions of her childhood Christmases with fondness, even if her children aren't as enamored."When I was a child -- and I constantly bore my children with this -- we didn't have huge presents like people get now," she said.

"If we were lucky, we'd get a Christmas stocking and it would be mostly filled with satsumas, as far as I remember, and a few paper dolls that you dress by putting little tags on, and foil-covered chocolate coins. But we used to get a pomegranate, and I remember we could spend the morning, we were allowed to cut open the pomegranate and we'd be winkling out the little sort of ruby seeds with a hairgrip and eating it all morning.

"And there's something that sounds so disgusting to non-Brits, which is bread sauce. It's really delicious, I promise you. But really it's like a savory bread pudding. And you cook stale bread in milk that's been scented, you know, just sort of out-of-shell nutmeg and a clove and bay leaf and an onion, and just that smell to me, that sort of milky clove and bay leaf, is the smell of Christmas to me. And I remember that just from probably before I could speak."

Food as nostalgia; food as comfort; food as a link to the past. For Lawson, food is all three, and one thing more: pleasure.

"My food philosophy, I suppose, is just, you know, take pleasure in it," she said. "I mean, I'm nearly always asked, 'What's your guilty pleasure,' and I always say, 'Look, the one thing you should never feel guilty about is pleasure. You should feel guilty if you fail to take pleasure, because it's important to you.'

"You know, life is hard, and life is full of ups and downs, so to try and look for something bad in what's good seems to me not a good path to take, because there are going to be enough things that are going to be worrying. But apart from that, I've never had any goals, I don't aim for things. I'm very focused, I'm a driven person, but I'm quite focused on what I'm doing at any time. ... So I'm very lucky, and I don't want to question it too much because then I start thinking the wheels might start coming off, and then and then I'd have to find something serious to do!"

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