A Reminder of Possibilities

How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food (Nigella Collection) BY Nigella Lawson. Chatto & Windus. Hardcover. .

The cover of How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food (Nigella Collection)

Twenty years ago, Nigella Lawson, at the time a freelance op-ed columnist and sometime book reviewer, sat down for a revelatory working lunch. Her husband had suggested that Lawson, a former London restaurant critic, write a food book, but even as she discussed her enthusiasm for the subject with her agent, she expressed vehement opposition to putting it between covers. She felt she would be “looked down on” and seen as “the little woman,” as she recently put it in an interview. Whereupon her agent, as great agents have been known to do, pronounced his certainty about this marriage of author and topic and refused to take no for an answer: “He said, ‘Go home now. Everything you’ve said to me is a book. You’re not allowed to take your coat off. You’ve got to go straight home and write this up, and fax it to me . . . fax it straight away. Because, if you even take your coat off, you won’t do it.’”

Based on the details of this story alone, the ensuing book, apparently written in just six weeks, would qualify for reissue in Penguin UK’s Vintage Classics series. After all, a fax machine as the au courant technology for disseminating genius is nothing if not vintage. But How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food (Vintage Classics, $19) is both vintage and classic for many other reasons, not all having to do with the recipes (though a number of them have been in heavy rotation at my house for years in various interpretations, some born of creativity and others of desperation—a pair of motivators I’m certain Nigella would support equally). As the novelist Jeanette Winterson writes in her introduction to this new edition, “The classic cookbook is practical, for sure, but it’s more than a how-to. Nigella calls her recipes, ‘a reminder of possibilities.’ And that’s what a classic does—doesn’t matter when it was written, doesn’t matter how styles have changed. Doesn’t matter if the writer is dead or alive. Why not? Because the language is alive.”

This is heady stuff—if not for Winterson, then certainly for a cookbook introduction. On the other hand, before she began writing cookbooks, of which there are now a dozen, Nigella was a literary editor at the Sunday Times. And before that, as her author note still includes all these years later, she “read Medieval and Modern Languages at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.” Indeed, How to Eat—which is full of bookish references amid the ingredient lists (“The great Modernist dictum, Make It New, is not a helpful precept in the kitchen”), dedicates a recipe for béarnaise sauce to someone as if it were a poem, and includes directions for making Proust’s madeleines—is taking its place alongside some of the world’s greatest literature. The Vintage Classics series’ uniform red spines and spare, blocky cover type announcing “Vintage Milton,” “Vintage Woolf,” “Vintage Cheever,” “Vintage Wharton,” “Vintage Freud,” and “Vintage Hemingway,” to name just a very few, make them highly covetable for aesthetic as well as literary reasons. Among my own collection, assembled over the course of many trips to the UK, are volumes of Vintage Greene (The Quiet American, The End of the Affair, Our Man in Havana), Vintage Yates (Young Hearts Crying, Cold Spring Harbor), Vintage Smith (I Capture the Castle), Vintage Carter (Wise Children), and Vintage Calvino (Invisible Cities, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller). Last names are the convention here, regardless of gender; it’s Vintage Murdoch, never Vintage Iris.

Nigella Lawson, London, 2012.
Nigella Lawson, London, 2012.

Into this esteemed, surnamed company has come Vintage Nigella, who, like Julia and Ina and Marcella and all the other female home cooks (not chefs) who’ve long been our kitchen companions, needs no last name. (By contrast, think of a few of their male counterparts, who tend to have restaurants and almost universally go by either their full or last names, men like Yotam Ottolenghi, James Beard, Jamie Oliver, Craig Claiborne, Gordon Ramsay, or Tom Colicchio.) One exception to this rule is M. F. K. Fisher, perhaps because even when they contain recipes her books have always been presented as literature and memoir rather than cookbooks. One suspects they’d be Vintage Fisher if Penguin ever decided to take them up, rather than Vintage Mary Frances.

But though its style and intent are quite different from a volume of Fisher, How to Eat is, ultimately, also a study in character development told through passages of memoir and experience. As Winterson writes, “When I read Nigella, I’m there for the story.” That’s no doubt why Penguin has reissued it as a “reader’s edition,” trimmed to the size and heft of a novel and designed, clearly, to be read as such and in many other places than at the kitchen counter.

The person who emerges in these pages reveals every aspect of herself—maternal, harried, sultry, witty, gluttonous, and privileged—unlike some of the other cookbook authors I’ve just mentioned, who have essentially one-dimensional personas designed to reassure us through various combinations of authority tempered with warmth. Nigella, on the other hand, isn’t hiding anything, whether it’s the trials of raising children or why she diets. “Let’s be frank,” she writes of the latter. “The issue here is vanity, not health; whether your jeans will do up, not what your oxygen uptake is. No one likes to own up to such a narcissistic preoccupation as mere appearance.” But here she is, doing it. She is also, in these pages, distinctly upper-crust, as betrayed not only by her cadence and diction but by some of her meal plans. She suggests that “duck breasts are always worth bearing in mind when you have to get something together quickly,” a true enough—though expensive—idea. The section on “basics” includes tiger prawns and a deeply not-basic story about eating them once in Los Angeles in the form of “the most wonderful starter of mashed potatoes and truffles with warm Santa Barbara shrimp on top.” Nevertheless, that other Nigella, the one who wasn’t even sure she wanted to write a cookbook, is also here. The first instruction for one of her desserts, Gooey Chocolate Puddings, seems to owe a debt to that long-ago discussion with the agent about the exigencies of beginning the task at hand still wrapped in your outerwear: “Before you’ve even taken your coat off, put the chocolate and butter in a bowl and suspend over a pan of simmering water.” As the recipes roll out, she’s by turns cozy, sensuous, arch, and dry, filling in the complete, sometimes messy, portrait of herself on the page. That she does it entirely without the aid of illustrations or photos of any kind only makes it more compelling. In a recipe for Elderflower Cream, a panna cotta–type dish, she describes how she can never get it to come out right in a large mold and then—almost accidentally, it seems—evokes a scene of cluttered charm as familiar as home: “Anyway, I use a mixture of teacups, sticky-toffee-pudding moulds and ramekins, feeling that pleasurable lack of uniformity makes up for any potential dinkiness.” Elsewhere, the nurturer is subsumed by yet another Nigella describing a meal of Squid with Chilli and Clams followed by Ricotta with Honey and Toasted Pine Nuts. The recipe headnote captures the contradictions of modern womanhood with a self-knowledge and drollness not usually found in descriptions of seafood and sweets: “This is the sort of dinner I cook when I’ve got girlfriends coming over, chapter meetings of the martyred sisterhood,” she writes (emphasis mine as, I confess, I wish I had written that last phrase myself). “Even though quantities are enough for four, for some reason there are always only three of us, and I don’t reduce amounts of ingredients correspondingly.” Whatever kind of guidance or camaraderie you’re looking for, it can be found.

On a recent Tuesday night, trying to figure out what to make for dinner, I turned to Nigella. I had Carbonara in mind, but when I opened to its page I discovered, just above it, an even better non-recipe: Linguine with Lardons. It’s only a paragraph, without even a separate ingredient list, and its opening lines are hard to beat: “If you’ve got some lardons, make yourself a particularly good, particularly low-effort supper. Get in from work. Run your bath. Preheat the oven.” The details are scant but sufficient: Throw some lardons on a baking tray with chopped garlic, which you can leave “whole if you haven’t the energy for even rough chopping.” Then put the pasta water on and run to that bath you so wisely turned on, perhaps even before you took your coat off, with a timer in hand. When it dings, “rush down in your towel, taste the pasta and, when it’s ready, drain it, reserving a coffeecupful of water.” We’re in the land of what we’d now call “self-care” but which back in 1998 read more like a very welcome admission that yes, people do run around their houses unclothed, trying to cook and unwind all at the same time, not to mention use a coffee cup as a measuring vessel. The only remaining directions are to add the contents of the tray to the pasta, “decant into a bowl and, if you like, take it back up to the bath with you.” I would very much have liked to follow that last step, but alas, there were other mouths to feed and the table seemed the appropriate place to eat. The pasta was delicious, the minor addition of roasted garlic making a difference of an order I hadn’t predicted. Nigella’s recipes as a “reminder of possibilities,” as Winterson put it, seemed more than apt. I might not get to eat my pasta while bathing anytime soon, but the idea is there now. Until then, I’m heading to the tub with How to Eat as a placeholder.

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).