A conversation with Nigella Lawson
Many recognize Nigella Lawson from her appearances in television series on the Food Network, and most recently for her work on "The Taste," on which Lawson, along with celebrity compadres Anthony Bourdain, Ludo Lefebvre and Brian Malarkey, coach a team of four competing pro and amateur cooks as they vie to create the best tasting dish.
Lawson began her adult career as a British journalist. After graduating from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, Lawson started work as a book reviewer and restaurant critic. After working as the deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times in 1986, she began freelancing, writing columns for "Vogue," "The Times Magazine," "Gourmet" and "Bon Appetit." But, it wasn't until her late husband, John Diamond, suggested she write a book about food that she found her calling in food and writing cookbooks.
Today, Lawson is the author of eight bestselling books, which have collectively sold more than 6 million copies worldwide. Her ninth cookbook, "Nigellissima: Easy Italian-Inspired Recipes" ($35, Clarkson Potter), is a love letter to the pleasures of cooking – and eating – the way Italians do.
I caught up with Lawson in the lobby of The Pfister Hotel, where she was staying during a stop in Milwaukee to promote her new book. We talked about Milwaukee, cookbooks, her experiences in publishing and some of her culinary crushes.
OnMilwaukee.com: You've been to Milwaukee on a number of occasions. What's your overall impression of the city?
Nigella Lawson: As a person who likes eating, I think it's a very good food city. So, I like that. I think it's got just the right mixture between a certain amount of laid-backness, but also vivacity and a lot going on. I also, unlike most other people, will not complain about the climate because I'm sun-phobic, and actually I find it very beautiful. Every time I've been to Milwaukee it's been cold and bright. And cold and bright I find very uplifting. And I like cheese. So, all in all, I'm not going to get sunburn and I'm going to get to eat cheese, so I'm happy.
I'd like to spend more time in the market. Because my time here is always so fleeting, my eating opportunities are cruelly curtailed.
One day – I talk about this with the kids – we're going to get some sort of Winnebago or something and do a huge tour of America, eating our way through it. Wouldn't that be great? I might have to get a treadmill installed in the Winnebago.
OMC: Before we talk about your new book, "Nigellissima," I wanted to talk about your first book, "How To Eat," from 1998. As a food writer myself, I can't help but be enamored of it.
NL: Thank you. I put my heart and soul into everything, but this is absolutely everything I believe. This is my first-born and it has a special place in my heart – also because, in a way, it was an odd book for me to write, having not hitherto been a food writer.
And also because how strange that I was allowed to write this. It's not exactly a cookbook, not exactly a piece of food writing, but something in-between. I tried to talk about food in my life personally, and where I feel it fits in generally.
I find that most people who like reading, and who like food, respond to it. If I'm at a book signing, and people come back and bring that to me, I immediately feel there's a very strong connection and rapport, because it's kind of soul to soul.
OMC: Well, I feel it was very personal and that it was a bit like I got to know you just by reading it.
NL: Absolutely. Absolutely. Completely, without any doubt.
OMC: I've read that you once thought you might become a novelist. But yet, you found your voice through food. How did that happen?
NL: At the time, when I was 26, I was made deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times. I reviewed books and I read, and because my degree was in Languages and Literature, I always had this idea I would write the great 20th century novel. And then I thought maybe the great 21st century novel. And now I know I'm not a novelist at all, and I have no great aspirations there, or potential.
My first, late husband said to me, "You should really write a book about food, because you're very confident about your likes and dislikes, and what you think of food. And because of that, you think other people have the same certitude. But, they don't. So, you should write a book, not of rules, but explaining why you think what you think, to give people the tools to make their own decisions."
And then I saw my agent – who was more a friend than an agent at that time, since obviously I hadn't yet written a book – and I said to him, "I don't know Ed. I was going to write a novel, and I had this idea … and then John said this."
And Ed said to me, "You know, even the great composers practice a few chords before they play a concerto. So, this is a good idea." And we discussed how it would be.
Then he said to me, "Go home now. But, the minute you get home, do not take your coat off. Go to your computer and write down what you've said today at lunch and email it to me, and I'm going to show it to a couple of publishers. OK? If you don't do that now, you'll never do it. So, don't take your coat off. Just do it."
So, I did. And there was interest. And it was a surprise to me that two publishers actually fought for it. So, I did it. Well, actually I put it off.
When I signed the contract, I found out I was pregnant with my second child. And I get so sick when I'm pregnant, so the idea of writing ... I couldn't do it. And then I had a small child so I couldn't write. And then, very sadly, when my son was 7 months old, my husband was diagnosed with cancer, and so obviously everything was shelved. And also because I was a journalist still, and money had to be earned.
So, it wasn't until a bit later, when I had a bit of breathing space and John went into remission for a while, that I wrote the book. And it just poured out of me.
And I think a lot of it was because my family is very food obsessed. I spent my life cooking and eating with my mother and sister. And they died very young. So, I found myself thinking, "I need to write about what I've learned being in my mother's kitchen." It was very important to me to memorialize them – not by writing a biography, but by writing about their food, and our family food. And it grew into what it is.
OMC: What did you learn while writing it?
NL: I realized I'd been raised to think that there were cooks and there were bakers and never the twain shall meet. And I'd been taught to look down a bit on people who baked because cooking was creative. Baking was formulaic.
And, in the course of writing, it made me feel quite incompetent – the fact that I always edged away from baking. So, I decided I was going to try baking. I discovered that it wasn't easy, but it was deeply pleasurable. I find baking to be therapeutic.
At the time I was also writing a column in Vogue. And I wrote a piece, a bit funny, called "How to Feel Like a Domestic Goddess." The title was meant to be slightly ironic.
And the responses I got from women – business women, very non-domestic women, not women who spent their lives baking – they said it made such a difference for them. And it inspired my next book.
I feel like my generation had been so frightened of being trapped in the kitchen that we became ill at ease in the kitchen. Now baking is huge in England, but at the time, they told me there was no way I could write a book about baking. It's for grannies.
But, then I did it. And I got such a good response. Well, I was told I was sending feminism back, and I understand that. I was a journalist, and I would have thought the same thing from the title alone. But, I thought it was also a very interesting response … because I think there's something essentially very anti-feminist about saying that any skill that has been traditionally associated with women is down-graded, and not worthy of respect.
Why is it demeaning to bake, but not demeaning to put up a shelf? Women are very fluid in their interests. I feel that I can be baking a cake and at the same time discussing the repeal of marriage laws. They do not conflict. It's very liberating.
Anyway, I love baking. And I really do not believe that every time I put a cake in the oven it knocks points off of my IQ.
Then I thought that would be my last book, and then it just carried on.
OMC: And now you've created "Nigellissima," a collection of Italian-inspired recipes. Talk to me about your connection to Italian food.
NL: Well, as you know, I've written about Italy in all of my books. I went to live in Italy during my gap year, the year off between high school and university.
I read foreign languages. I wanted to learn Italian. I wanted to be Italian. I learned to speak Italian. I also learned to shop like an Italian, and then to cook like an Italian.
Now, the food in this book is not traditional or necessarily Italian-Italian food. It's my take on Italian food, not in the least because I have written every single traditional Italian recipe I know in all my other books. Some of them are very traditional, but others are my twists on Italian food.
It's more trying to think about what is it about Italian food that everyone loves? I mean, you'll find Italian food in every country in the world.
And this is where it chimes with my own particular feelings about food. Whereas French food is all about the great chefs and the restaurants, for Italians, even Italian chefs, the truth of Italian cooking is in the home kitchen. And on the home cook.
OMC: It's with the Nonna.
NL: It really is. And it's not about fancy techniques. It's about respecting the ingredients for what they are. And, as a person with no fancy techniques, obviously I warm to that.
OMC: You've more or less covered the authenticity bit of the cookbook. That's a sort of buzzword, and people think you can compartmentalize cuisine.
NL: No you can't – any more than you can compartmentalize language. And look where that's gotten the French. The French have rigid rules about cooking and rigid rules about language. It's not been that helpful to them.
I mean, look, I think tradition should be respected. But, you can respect tradition – not mess with it – but at the same time let food and cooking evolve just like language does.
The Italians are cooking muffins nonstop now. You know, the modern world exists. They've got internet and cable TV. It doesn't mean to say they will ever mess with one of their traditional recipes, but they've incorporated Anglo-American baking. They all make a crumble, muffins. They're absolutely crazy for cheesecake.
It's not a question of blotting out the past, but it's about owning up to living in the present. And I feel that when people say "authentic," what they really mean is "theme park."
If I were to pretend to be Italian, much as I'd like to, I'd be being fake. I can only be authentic by saying that I'm an English woman who loves Italian food, who lived in Italy for a while and goes back every year. And yet I have to be true to my cultural roots, as well.
OMC: What's your favorite part of pulling together a new book?
NL: I love all of it. I love when I'm puttering about in the kitchen. I love writing, but I hate the period just before writing. As a journalist, you'll have some sympathy with that. You know, I think the pleasure of writing is a pleasure pain thing – like pouring candle wax onto the palm of your hand.
What I really adore – and I didn't really know this because writing is quite solitary – I like the making of a book. We photograph it at home. It encourages me to use skills I didn't know I had. And I'm incredibly involved.
I always work with the same designer, and I said to her, "let's go charcoal on the typeface. And let's make it so the only color is the food, so the color of the food really shows … grey and white and black props." I wanted it to have the Italian chic with the black and grey, but also the Italian warmth they manage to combine with it in terms of the food. It's always a joke. I use my dresses as tablecloths when we're shooting at home. It's all personal.
OMC: Do you refine and write all the recipes yourself?
NL: Yes, I do everything. I cook the recipes. There's no food stylist. And I test everything three times. I send anything baking out to an extra person as well, as I have a gas-fired oven and I like to try it out on an electric oven as well to be fair. I write everything. And I really adore that.
I was someone who hated school projects, but the making of the book for me, is a real joy.
OMC: Speaking of books, you've mentioned you have a collection of 5,000 cookbooks.
NL: Yes, just about. Around 5,000.
OMC: What are some of your favorites?
NL: There's an Australian book which I feel should be available here. I looked it up and it's only available second-hand for a ludicrous amount of money. "The Cook's Companion" by Stephanie Alexander. The difficulty is, it isn't illustrated; I don't think booksellers like to sell cooking books without pictures anymore. But, if you like food and you like reading, you can get the idea of the recipe. I love that.
I like Mario Batali's book – "Simple Italian Food: Recipes From My Two Villages." It's exactly … Italian food and American food and how they're fused. And that is authentic. So, I love that.
I like Ottolenghi's books. Have you seen his new book "Jerusalem"?
OMC: No, I haven't had a chance to look through it yet. But, I've heard great things.
It's beautiful, and very interesting about culture because he's talking about the food from Palestinians, Jews, Arabs, Christians...
I like books with funny titles. I've got the Liberace cookbook, which I'm very very fond of. I've got a book called "Can You Feel the Heat," which is from the World Wrestling Federation. And I like going on to America and getting those spiral bound cookbooks, parish cookbooks. I like seeing what people really cook, not just what chefs cook in restaurants.
OMC: You've mentioned that you occasionally develop "culinary crushes"? Do you have any going on at the moment?
NL: Well, it's very hard to resist either Tony Bordain or Ludo Lefebvre. But, in terms of most of my culinary crushes, I'm afraid today they are not on people but on food.
So, Marsala always. Marsala is permanent. Pomegranate seeds. Chopped pistachios. Dill is a very very under-used herb. The world has separated those who hate and who love that and need that flavor. I'm a licorice lover, whereas for some people that's their idea of a taste of hell.
Are you pro-licorice? Or anti?
OMC: I am pro-licorice.
NL: Well, you must indeed make the licorice pudding from "Nigellissima." It'll take you about two seconds.
OMC: OK, I will. That sounds good.
NL: I have to stop myself from putting coffee in everything. I love coffee. Although I like chocolate … a bar of chocolate. But, when I'm in a restaurant, the desserts that always grab me have either coffee or lemon in them. I think I like bitterness, and when you balance it with sweetness. That's what food is all about.
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