Nigella Lawson: "Cook for yourself. No one else is going to judge you."

We chat with Domestic Goddess and "Cook, Eat, Repeat" author about pleasure, pandemics and the case for brown food

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
May 1, 2021 3:32PM (UTC)
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Nigella Lawson (Getty Images)

She gained fame in the era of restaurant-trained, bad-boy celebrity chefs, but Nigella Lawson was never going to be the person yelling at hapless cooks on TV or swaggering on about how exotic and adventurous her appetites are. Nor, however, was she ever the picture of submissive feminine perfection — the "Domestic Goddess" thing was meant to be cheeky.

For those who've actually read her bestselling cookbooks and watched her numerous TV series, Lawson has endured because she is that ally you want in your kitchen — the person who sincerely is curious about food and loves it, who doesn't want to pick a fight over how you cut an onion or what you like on your pizza.

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Lawson's first book, "How to Eat," was inspired in part out of the sound of the sobs of a dinner party host weeping in the other room and her empathetic sense that there's no use crying over unset creme caramel. Lawson's new book, "Cook, Eat, Repeat," is in many ways a throwback to her star-making early books, a collection of recipes, yes, but also a meditation on the connective act of cooking and the alchemy inherent within a recipe. It's also very much the story of this moment in time, a reflection on what it means to put food on the table and who we bring with us, if only in memory.

Salon spoke to Lawson recently for a "Salon Talks" about pleasure, pandemics and the case for brown food. To learn more, read or watch our conversation below.

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This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You have been cited in The Guardian as the only English celebrity we can describe just by her first name and know who she is.  Nigella, welcome.

Thank you so much. I have to say though, I didn't need to use a surname when I was at nursery school or daycare because it's an odd name, so I don't think, I'm afraid, it's any testament to great fame. It's just the ludicrousness of my name, but I've got used to it now.

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You're being modest, but if you had been named Jennifer, maybe it would be just a little bit different.

Exactly. 

This book is a unique for you after all of these years. Tell me about what you wanted to say in this one, because it does feel very different.

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Well, without absolutely having made the decision, it is a slight return or it draws on the style more of my very first book. There is a lot of writing in it, but it seems to me that one of the great pleasures in food is reflecting on all the ways it enhances our life or speaks about things that are outside the domain of food. Connections and attitudes towards food can be very much inculcated in us from childhood onwards, and then as you get older, you clarify your own thoughts and responses. In a way I feel that cooking and the food you like is so related to personality, to temperament, to experiences we've had. I wanted to write about that, but initially I had two thoughts.

One was to want to write about ingredients that meant a lot to me and how they could be used in cooking in a very versatile way. So, not just giving recipes but also suggestions and thoughts on why these particular flavors seem to be powerful.

I also wanted to write a bit about what cooking is about and to me. It's a very dynamic marriage between the endless, repeated tasks — chopping and stirring — that really form the framework of nearly every dish we make and because of those familiar patterns, the things that you can be spontaneous about. What spice am I going to add? Do I want this to have a bit more zing? Am I going to add lime juice to it or am I happy with orange juice?

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I wanted to talk a bit about the way things are in relation to one another. People feel the drudgery, if you want to call it that, but it can feel like that sometimes, the drudgery of cooking. They think it often so diametrically opposed to that free-flowing creativity. But to me, they depend upon one another, and that means in a way you've always got your hand held when you're cooking, because so much of what you're doing is essentially you've done before.

Of course it's not the same if I were trying to be cooking the tradition of some pioneering French restaurant chef, but I wouldn't be able to do that and it wouldn't suit the sort of life I have. So, those moments of creativity are important, but I wanted to talk about the lure of cooking. Many things are just the same — chopping or stirring — there's not really much else you're doing apart from those two things in cooking. But also while you cook, your intelligence has to leave your brain to some extent. You have to stop thinking and you make decisions because of the smell of something, how it tastes the feel of it in your hands. That's tremendously relaxing when we've all been so trapped by that fidgety brain because it's been a very worrying time.

Now, I was writing about this before it happened. Believe it or not, "Cook, Eat, Repeat" is a pre-pandemic project and title, but I certainly feel that when everyone was feeling so threatened by what was going on outside, that potting about in the kitchen and having control over your environment, really reminds you of how important cooking is. It isn't just about the eating — that's important — but days have been very baggy and amorphous. And yet somehow you're given structure, you're given sustenance, and cooking provides moments of such uplifting beauty.

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I often think, just the beautiful colors of orange peel as your preparing something, the leeks as you cook them and their green suddenly goes slightly more intense before it fades again, all these things, these snatches of beauty, they make such a lot of difference. Now particularly because we're not traveling, we're seeing the same sky all the time and somehow if you can find joy in those small things that you need to do every day, your life is going to improve. It has to, and it is those small things that make all the difference in life.

It feels to me, reading this book, that there is a continuation of your origin story in some ways — the anecdote of a dinner host  crying in the kitchen over a pudding and that sense of, "It shouldn't be this hard. It shouldn't be this scary. It shouldn't be this stressful." It's 23 years later and many of us still have this anxiety, walking into that kitchen, facing that food again and feeling it has to be perfect, it has to be beautiful. 

And that it has to be more like restaurant food, which it doesn't. Home cooking is the sort of food that tells a story, either of the families we come from or conversely, the person we are in contradistinction to the families we come from, and that food is not about technique and it's not about  tap dancing your way into applause. It's a way of finding ease and creating ease for other people. Of course this year, it's been particularly important because so many people, myself included, just had ourselves to feed. What changed in the book for me perhaps is, there are more recipes for one or notes as to how to change a recipe to be for one. There's a huge treat you give yourself just by cooking for yourself and by concentrating on what would give you pleasure. You actually make ourselves more alive to pleasures generally.

I have a chapter here called "Pleasures," which stems from my irritation at all times, about it being presumed that so much of what we eat constitutes a guilty pleasure. For me, pleasure in eating, as in so many other things, is not about guilt. It's about gratitude. To feel hammered by guilt is in a way an act of ingratitude, and I think this is important. It's so important. It's about saying, "I deserve pleasure and I deserve to keep myself alive and in happy and good condition." And that's a huge thing. If it's always reduced to what you should be eating or what you shouldn't be eating, whether it's for reasons of body image or reasons of status, I disapprove of that. You like the food you like. I think truthfully, you can't lie about what food you like eating and nor should you ever have to.

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And of course the concept of guilty pleasures is not just about food. We see it in everything. You can't watch a movie or read a book without that.

Yes, or you're embarrassed.The guilty pleasure is an awkward distancing approach to say, "I know I shouldn't like this but I do." Maybe it's ironic or maybe it's for another reason. It's almost like saying, "I don't have permission," and you can't wait for other people to give you permission. I mean, I'm very gladly a bestower of permission but that's immaterial. Everyone has to give themselves permission to enjoy what they enjoy and not apologize for it and not worry about the judgment of others, because it's so pointless.

The two things that are very difficult to have a debate about are whether there's a flavor you like or don't like, or whether you find a joke funny or not. These things come from right inside us. You can learn to taste differently and be adventurous if you want to be but even then, that only works if you give yourself permission not to like something if you try it. It's very tiresome to say to people, "No, try it, try it, try it. You will like it this time." Maybe you won't. Not everyone can like the same thing. The practice of allowing yourself to take pleasure is the same process, however different the flavors might be, or indeed whether it's cooking or reading or watching films.

And that demand for austerity is felt more deeply by women.

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Well, women are policed more than men are, so often women also are worried that people are thinking, "Oh, she shouldn't be eating that." You sort of mock yourself before you feel someone else is going to do it. That's a very harmful way to live, and self-consciousness is so inhibiting. One of the wonderful things about cooking I've found is that we grow up often because of our families or how we fit in or it could be an experience at school that you feel, I'm not the sort of person who can do that because everyone's always said, "Oh you're clumsy," or "Don't, you'll knock that over," or "This isn't what you're good at." But left alone, you are good at it.

That's why I always say to people, "Cook for yourself. No one else is going to judge you. Your shoulders will lower, you'll learn what you like and what you don't like away from that feeling of judgment." I do feel everything translates to something else so that once you get yourself out of that little tight tunnel of, "I have to be this person or I'm not that person. I was always told I couldn't do that," you think, "Well, what can I translate it to?" Because fear is so self perpetuating, sometimes you just have to think, "I know I'm frightened of that but I'm going to do it." But you don't want to do it with an audience.

In your first book you talk about the fact that you can be a great eater and not a very skilled cook, but it is very difficult, if not impossible, to be a good cook and not love food. That concept of pleasure is connected with our ability to cook and our ability to go for it with the kinds of flavors we want, to really just feel uninhibited with the way we want to cook. 

I was brought up in a very food focused family and my mother was an instinctive and very good cook, but she didn't eat properly herself. It was a trap I didn't want to fall into, and it seemed such a tremendous pity. She died young without much time to know beforehand. Two weeks before, she said, "This is the first time I've been able to eat without worrying about it or feeling guilty." I just thought, "You cannot wait until you're terminally ill before you can take pleasure from food, this is so wrong." Even if I don't consciously think it all the time, that can't help but inform everything I do to feel that it's a way of curtailing your life before it even is curtailed. That's no way to go.

We live in such a polarized world. Everyone thinks that means I'm saying, "Eat everything nonstop. Get a jug of cream. And I'm not. I'm saying if you stop policing yourself, your body balances. It tells you what it wants to eat, it knows, and that's important. You have to have a relationship with your body and your appetites.

You also make a case in this book about what it means to be aesthetically pleasing. I love that you make an argument for brown food, because this is a moment where everything has to be so beautifully styled, and, "Why would you make something if you're not going to photograph it?" Yet sometimes the most delicious things in the world are the most humble and not the most photogenic.

No, they're not the most photogenic. There are times when you just want food that has got the sort of uncontained texture that just goes all over the place. And the texture is what people don't like the look of, but actually when it's in your bowl, you're not expecting it to look picture postcard pretty but it has a beauty of its own. It's just not perhaps sort of, "Oh, grab me, look at me now,"

Also, I wanted a chapter to talk about the sort of food that while deeply delicious, is not high-octane, because everything now is supposed to draw attention to itself. But actually, some food doesn't need to draw attention to itself. It just has to be there, and there are certain moods when you just want something that tastes good but it doesn't demand something of you. You don't have to be equal to it. It's there to sooth and to comfort and to bolster.

There's a story that you have been telling all along, which is to not be afraid in the kitchen. But I wonder, having been at this a long time, do you feel that we as cooks are actually changing and have that perspective of confidence? I look around and I'm not sure. I feel in some ways we've regressed in terms of our ability to get in the kitchen and feel like, "I know what I'm doing," because there are so many voices telling us, "No, you don't. Do it my way."

Because we live in an era of clickbait there's this proliferation of articles that say, "You've been cooking scrambled eggs wrong all your life," as if there's ever one way to cook anything, or one way to eat scrambled eggs. If one person wants them as dry curds and the other person wants it more or less as a drink, fine.

I do feel people are also beginning to feel that they could be the judge of whether they want something that has more spice and fire in it or whether they don't. People do need to be reassured that they are allowed to make up their own mind because often that is undermined. I feel that there are so many home cooks out there who derive tremendous pleasure out of cooking and are ready to carry on playing in the kitchen and getting that feeling of quiet satisfaction, that's sustaining themselves. In the end, no one has to cook all the time. If you want to get takeout, no one's going to stop you but you do need to feel that you can keep yourself going, and I like that.

I find pleasure [in the] deliberation and then the pottering about and cooking and then knowing sometimes I've got leftovers in the fridge. If I'm reduced to a mere consumer — that happens a bit in the before times, if I were on tours, say — that can be fascinating, but to me it minimizes the pleasure.

But I'm not judgmental. Buying good cheese and enjoying it, having great tomatoes and making a salad, I don't think it's any lesser if you haven't created everything you're going to eat all the time because that's not realistic. 

It's ridiculous but I do think, "Ah, they look so beautiful in the bowl and now I'm going to put a bit of lemon zest on." That endless wanting to be part of it, it's that. I like being part of it. There are certain ways of cooking that I find alienating so I don't do them a lot, like pressure cooking. They're fantastic, pressure cookers and an Instant Pot, it's really great. But I feel locked out of the whole exercise. I will do it sometimes but most of all, I like it when I can lift a lid and have a bit of a stir and then go lie on the couch again and read a bit more of a book and then come back and taste it. I love that, I like it being part of my life.

In everything you're talking about, whether it's a recipe for a cheesecake or it's just about anchovies on toast, it's about having that time in your life to just sit with food and be part of it and your relationship with it.

And savoring the moment and the memories and the hopes for the future. So, it's rather wonderful. It exists in the continuum.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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