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In Dining

We caught up with Nigella Lawson while she was in Milwaukee to promote her new book "Nigellissima." (PHOTO: Hugo Burnand)

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. 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. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)

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