Nigella Lawson's New Cookbook Leans Into the Pleasure of Home Food

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Photo of author with her chin resting on her hand against a pink backdrop. Next to her is an image of the cover of the cookbook 'Cook, Eat, Repeat.'
Nigella Lawson wrote most of her new cookbook, "Cook, Eat, Repeat," during the early months of the pandemic. (Images courtesy of Ecco/HarperCollins)

Sure, America might have a whole gamut of food celebrities: David Chang with his hard-edged braggadocio, Alton Brown’s affable nerdiness, Ina Garten and her aspirational East Hampton aesthetic. But we don’t have anyone quite like Nigella Lawson — or, simply, “Nigella,” as the London-born-and-raised cookbook author and television chef is known in the U.K., where her iconic status is hard to overstate.

In the 20-plus years since she wrote her debut cookbook How to Eat (1998), Lawson has built up a dedicated fanbase by being an outspoken proponent of the sensory pleasures that can be found in cooking and eating. She is “Lady Bountiful, a sensualist celebrator of appetite,” as a recent Guardian profile put it. A journalist by training, Lawson speaks and writes about food with a poet’s ear for language in even the most seemingly tossed-off of comments. Who can forget the time when, as a guest judge on Top Chef, she described a panna cotta as having the “quiver of a 17th century courtesan’s inner thigh”?

Cook, Eat, Repeat, Lawson’s latest collection of essays and recipes, is packed with similarly lovely, discursive writing. It’s organized around a handful of wide-ranging themes and ingredients that interest her. Instead of having, say, a section for breakfast recipes and another for dessert, there’s a chapter on why she hates the term “guilty pleasure” — and an accompanying set of recipes that instead lean into the pleasure. There’s an entire chapter’s worth of anchovy recipes. And yet another on rhubarb.

Written mostly during the early months of the pandemic, the book — and Lawson’s BBC cooking show of the same name — talks about cooking not as some big performance that you put on for the sake of others, but rather a set of small, repeated tasks that you weave into the course of your day. Something modest that’s worth celebrating.

The book was first released in the U.S. in April of last year — right when the Delta variant surge made it unsafe to launch an overseas publicity blitz. So, now, Lawson’s making up for lost time with an extended book tour that arrives at San Francisco’s Sydney Goldstein Theater on Monday, Nov. 14.


Ahead of that appearance, I chatted with Lawson via Zoom about her love of “ugly” brown foods, the craft of recipe writing and her favorite Bay Area food discoveries.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

LUKE TSAI: I love that the book opens with this meditation on the literary possibilities of recipe writing, starting with your admiration of Aldoux Huxley’s description of champagne tasting like “an apple peeled with a steel knife.” That’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about you, that you have this literary sensibility. Given that much of food writing today can be somewhat rote and formulaic, how do you approach writing your recipes? Are you trying  to speak to the reader in a more personal or more literary kind of way?

NIGELLA LAWSON: I think writing is writing, and writing about food can be difficult. This is what attracted me in the first place. I was a journalist, and I thought about the challenge of using language, which is abstract, to conjure up the realm of the senses — the taste, texture and smell of food. How can I get that over to a reader? In a way, my style is my style because it’s my spoken voice as well. So what I am trying to do is bring the reader with me into the kitchen so that it’s not just about the steps — somehow the food has to alight in someone’s imagination.

I write as someone who is very much a home cook. I haven’t learned the techniques — which is pretty evident if you see me cooking. I need to reassure myself and the reader, so I might say suddenly, “Look, don’t worry, the sauce is very runny at this point; it will thicken as it cooks.” Or I might say, “I know you won’t believe me when I say that you’ll be able to get all the batter in the tin, but you really will.”

I’m trying to troubleshoot and at the same time I’m trying to convey enthusiasm, and those two aims are sometimes hard to get into balance. I really think I see the conveying of enthusiasm as my first task, but I also need to know that I tested the recipe so often that it won’t go wrong.

I love that you have a chapter in the book that’s a “defense of brown food,” which is a topic that I’ve thought about a lot, especially as someone who grew up as an immigrant kid. All of those slow-cooked stews and braises in so many Asian or West African or Latin American cuisines — these are the foods that speak to my soul. And yet as an editor at various food publications, I was constantly told that I couldn’t feature those kinds of dishes too prominently because they were brown and ugly and didn’t photograph well. Can you talk about why you feel so strongly about this topic?

It is partly that I feel that the pressure for picture-book prettiness has gathered momentum in this Instagram age. I had noticed that every now and then I would post a picture of a stew, and people would go, “Ugh, it looks horrible,” or “Ugh, it’s brown.” Now if I put the picture up, I’ll say, “Yes, it’s brown. It’s a stew; it’s meant to be brown.” And I think it’s not just the color. People don’t complain about a photograph of a bar of chocolate. It’s also this strange thing, which probably goes very deep, about food that sloshes out and is uncontained. It’s messy.

The thing is, food is beautiful regardless. There are different foods that speak so deeply to us. And those slow-cooked foods that belong predominantly in the home and maybe even from childhood — these can be from very, very different cultures. I was writing about the sort of stews in a more European culture because I suppose I was returning to recipes from my past.

I think people are anxious when they cook. A lot of people buy cookbooks for some notion of when they’re going to entertain. But I always feel, don’t make everything about what you might do occasionally. Everything is about what you do every day: You meet in the kitchen with your family or your friends or for yourself. These slow-cooked foods do not have the bright beauty or vivid color of a lot of other dishes, but that vividness all goes into flavor.

I did a slight detour into the beige foods as well. There’s a dish I do called a soupy rice with celeriac and chestnuts, which is a bit mushy, and it is beige. There’s something, I feel, about certain sorts of recipes that are modest. They’re not requiring you to stand to attention. But the rewards they give are so rich and varied. There’s a quietness about some of those recipes that we need in our lives as well. Everything’s top volume; everything has to make a statement these days. But sometimes you don’t want to make a statement, and you don’t want your food to make a statement either.

One thing I’ve noticed on social media is that you’ve really started championing several younger food writers who have taken it upon themselves to make food writing a little bit more diverse and less elitist — folks like Jonathan Nunn in the U.K. and Mayukh Sen in the US. Why is it important to you to do that?

Look, everyone is knocked off their perch at some stage. I don’t jealously guard my position. If people want to read my recipes, I’m thrilled — and if they don’t, they don’t. But I do feel that talent should always be encouraged. It brings me such joy when I’m sent a book early, and I just marvel at what someone is doing.

It’s very difficult sometimes in the modern world to get attention when you’re not on television. It can be hard. Sometimes I give advice privately on how not to get taken advantage of, or just to protect the people who I think need to be cherished and nurtured. It’s very important for them to hold firm and not let their voice get taken away. Because there can be a tendency to make everything a bit more homogenous.

Something I love about your books is that sense of enthusiasm you spoke of earlier, which especially comes across when you discover something that’s new to you. What is a food that you had during one of your past visits to the Bay Area where you felt that spark of excitement?

The last time I was in the area, I went back to Berkeley, not to the restaurant but to the cafe at Chez Panisse. And I had their persimmon pudding, which was completely new to me. The texture was familiar because it was almost like the steamed puddings that we have [in the U.K.]. In other words, it’s a cake that’s eaten warm with a spoon and fork, and so it has a squidgier element than most cakes. It was wonderful, and the persimmon brings that particular aromatic sharpness that works well with this almost gingerbread-like warm cake.

This must be hundreds of years ago, but the first time I came to San Francisco, I went to Judy Rodgers’ restaurant [Zuni Cafe] and had that famous roast chicken with the bread salad. It seemed to me so extraordinarily wonderful and confident. You have to wait for it. It’s, in a way, home food done but just done impeccably. And you share. And especially when you’re away from home, that just becomes such a particular treat — that food that feels cozy as well as exciting.

I’ve always been slightly obsessed with food in Northern California. You know, we were talking earlier about voice — how you shouldn’t alter someone’s voice when they cook. And I think the voice that informs the cooking in Northern California is bright, it’s uncluttered and yet it also takes a fresh look at all sorts of ingredients. I’m always sort of astounded at the mixture between the cozy and the elegant. It’s what I try to do an awful lot, and Californians do it particularly well. There’s a reverential attitude toward the ingredients, but a lack of reverence toward what you’re putting with what. It’s imagination tempered by a sort of relaxed modesty.


Nigella Lawson will speak at the Sydney Goldstein Theater (275 Hayes St., San Francisco) on Monday, Nov. 14. Tickets are available online. She'll also appear on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa.