Interview transcribed and edited by Sheila Gaffney
British author Nigella Lawson has written ten bestselling cookbooks, including How to Eat and How to Be a Domestic Goddess. Last week, she sat down with Prince Street's Howie Kahn in New York City, to discuss her newest, At My Table: A Celebration of Home Cooking.
The self-taught Lawson insists she is not a “chef,” but a home cook who writes about food. And she encourages others to be loud and proud about being home cooks, too. She writes in a recent essay for LennyLetter.com:
“All home cooks tend to have one major flaw. We don’t say ‘I’m a home cook.’ We say, ‘Oh, I’m just a home cook.’ I spend my time on the road urging people to lose the ‘just,’ to stop apologizing, desist from outlining the ways in which our talents, abilities, and output fall short.”
To Lawson, the self-sustaining act of cooking is an act of creativity and also of liberation and independence. With joyful pride the world-renowned chef… er… cook, tells Howie how she finally mastered poached eggs after decades of trying.
“I tried everything. You know that vortex—vortex is such a wonderful word I really wanted to write a recipe with the word “vortex” in it. But I’m not going to spend ages trying to make a poached egg like that!”
After studying writing at Oxford, Lawson started her career as a print journalist in London in the mid-eighties. Though known for her cooking, she is perhaps first and foremost, a wonderful writer.
Nigella puts the Book in Cookbook
HOWIE KHAN: I want to talk about writing a fair bit in this interview, because I think it’s a largely under-covered part of your public persona. Even though you’ve released eleven books, there’s a way in which people look at the recipes and they talk about the food and maybe not the words as much.
NIGELLA LAWSON: Well, readers do. Readers talk about the words. But you’re certainly right, that’s really much more about the relationship I have with readers than a public persona.
HOWIE: Writer-to-writer—what’s your anxiety level like when you’re trying to turn out new material? Is this a pursuit that makes you feel like, Can I do another one?—even though you’ve done ten before? Does everything feel brand new, like you’re starting over again?
NIGELLA: Yes. Everything does feel brand new. I never feel I can do another one. But then, I’ve never been a churning-out machine. I leave it two years between books, and if I need longer, I take longer. I don’t try and shoehorn recipes in, unless I really feel I want to. I have to feel quite excited about the recipe and also excited that I have a book I want to write.
I think it’s impossible to write without being anxious. I know some people would disagree. When you put yourself into something, then of course you’re going to get a bit anxious. I think that’s necessary.
As a counterweight to that there’s something enormously liberating about the playfulness that comes from the kitchen. So, I give myself entirely free rein, and I do what I want and as it comes up, and I don’t judge before I start cooking.
And then, from that —almost on reflection afterwards-- I can see connections which perhaps I couldn’t see when I was actually doing the cooking. And so that I enjoy. I don’t know how I feel about writing. I both feel most intensely myself when I write and, in a way, at ease. And yet also I feel terribly anxious. Until the moment when I’m lost in the writing.
HOWIE: Then it almost seems like somebody else is doing it.
NIGELLA: Well, I don’t so much feel someone else is doing it, but, you know, beforehand with writing I feel nervous. But then I feel, 'Yes, this is what I’m meant to be doing,' when I do it. I think perhaps when I was a full-time journalist, it’s easier, because you’re writing an awful lot, and you almost don’t have time to be nervous.
HOWIE: You were a newspaper journalist. We’re talking about frequent deadlines.
NIGELLA: I loved that. I adored that. I started off on a Sunday newspaper.
HOWIE: Which one?
NIGELLA: The Sunday Times. And then I just thought, “Do you know, I just want a bit more adrenaline.”
HOWIE: Do you remember what your first byline story was?
NIGELLA: Well, my first byline story was strangely for The Observer, which is the Sunday edition of The Guardian. I was very young, and I think it was something absurd on what used to be called the women’s pages, believe it or not. I’d seen an ad for it, and I thought it looked so ridiculous I thought I must do it-- it was a piece about a magazine called Prediction. It was a lot of boloney about people who could see the future. And they had a big fair in summer in London, and I just said, I’ve got to go to that and write about it. It was the early days of that sort of feature writing. Before then I reviewed books for The Financial Times a bit, and also the Times Literary Supplement and the Times Higher Educational Supplement. I just reviewed where I could. And then, after I did that, I actually did write about restaurants, as well. I started that pretty young.
HOWIE: You were a restaurant critic.
NIGELLA: I was. I started the restaurant column there at The Spectator. And then after that I became an op-ed columnist. But I still carried on doing a bit of restaurant reviewing.
HOWIE: What did it feel like being a critic at that time?
NIGELLA: It was a very exciting time. I started in 1985. Food was really changing in London. Enormously. And, you know, there were a lot of hideous mistakes. It was nouvelle cuisine time, and there were kiwi fruits on plates everywhere, and vinegar always had to be raspberry vinegar. It was really pretty much the invention of the food processor, so everything was turned into baby food. But it was interesting. It was very interesting.
It was also very interesting from a linguistic point of view. Because I felt that my job really was to evoke the experience of being in the restaurant, which included the taste and texture of the food. So I had to use language in a slightly different way, because if you’re reviewing a book, or writing an op-ed piece, you have a thought to hang it on. When you’re writing about the realm of sensation, it’s slightly harder, I think. There’s a train of thought which gets you through an op-ed piece. Or a book review. A book review is difficult, as well, because you can go at it in so many ways. But when you’re writing about food and taste and feeling, you’re having to harness abstract language to conjure up a very physical universe.
HOWIE: Yeah, food doesn’t talk back, right? When you’re writing about a book you have the words from the book to reference…
HOWIE: …when you’re writing an op-ed piece you have the latest news and the voices who are commenting on that.
NIGELLA: Well, or just your own thought. I mean, because you know, in a way we have no other ways of experiencing thought, except using language. I mean that’s how we know we’re thinking. Whereas when you eat, you can experience the food very intensely without any language being used at all, so you’re having to translate from the physical language of food—the language of sensation—to a logical language. And do it without losing some of the intensity of the experience. Or without going too much into purple passages. And I suspect I did slightly overwrite quite often. As you do when you’re young. And you need to learn.
HOWIE: When I was much younger, one of my first jobs was reviewing plays in capsule form for The New Yorker.
NIGELLA: Oh, what a nightmare.
HOWIE: Non-bylined pieces. And I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t believe they let me do this. And I kept thinking, 'What gives me the authority to possibly comment on other peoples’ art?' And you put in the work, and ultimately you understand what you’re talking about. But where did you feel like you were able to put in the work? Where did you feel like you were finally qualified to publicly comment on other peoples’ output?
NIGELLA: Oh, there are so many answers to that. And I think what it comes down to is we live in a strange universe when we think that you need to be qualified. If you’re a reader—a reader doesn’t need to be qualified. A writer doesn’t need to be qualified. You know, these days everyone goes on a creative writing course that’s often taught by people who’ve written for years, and who’ve never gone on a creative writing course. All the great writers, all the writers that we deem great, aren’t qualified.
I think that if you go to a restaurant, and they take money from people who aren’t chefs, they’re not in a position to say you need to be a chef in order to be qualified to have a view of this food.
I think what’s wrong is that people claim an expertise or a knowledge of something when they don’t have it. And I think that if you’re writing about a book as a reader, and you are honest about why you enjoy a certain book and what you see, that’s what’s important. I was quite an assiduous reviewer. I reviewed films for a while, too, when the film critic was away. I would always make sure I had seen everything of a particular director’s output. In reviewing a book, even when I did paperback roundups—which was slightly like your saying you were reviewing plays in capsule form—I did a lot of work beforehand. Even if none of that shows in the actual writing or goes in, it still is important in forming your own views.
And I actually always go into something hoping I’ll like something. I don’t want to hope I dislike it.
HOWIE: Me, too.
NIGELLA: In terms of writing about food, the expert is, I think, the most untrustworthy critic. Because then you move into this hideous thing which I kind of think of as “concept cuisine.” I don’t really mind how much something works on paper. Do I like the taste of it? And there’s an honesty in describing your reactions to food which is very, very important. And I think that honesty can be clouded if people have, you know, a dogma.
'I come from a food obsessed family'
HOWIE: You have a family history in food. Your grandfather owned a huge catering company, one of the first. I think there’s a plaque somewhere in London that says “Inventor of Catering.”
NIGELLA: Yes, the Lyons Tea House and all that. Yes, it’s slightly before my time. But it’s very much part of the family folklore.
HOWIE: It was declining when you were very young.
NIGELLA: Yeah. I didn’t really put it together at all. It was interesting, they revolutionized eating. Because restaurants really existed just for the rich. And they had these things called Lyons Corner Houses, which were meant to be affordable. So you could go there, you didn’t have to be rich to go in and get something to eat. Now, I daresay the food wasn’t very good.
HOWIE: Do you have memories of going to these places? You were very little.
NIGELLA: No, I don’t, but I’ve read about it, I’ve seen films. People would have poached eggs on toast and that sort of thing. But then they built a building in Piccadilly, the Trocadero, it was about five floors and it got more expensive the higher up you went.
HOWIE: That’s fascinating. I kind of like that concept. Ascending prices with ascending levels. Finally, you reach this top penthouse and only two people can afford it.
NIGELLA: Well, I come from a food-obsessed family. I think what you grow up with you consider normal. And when I was a child, it was considered, I think, vulgar to discuss food. Or mention it. Even to say it was good.
HOWIE: It was proper to just eat it. Eat it and shut up.
NIGELLA: But we always, we did speak about food.
'I'm trying to say, "stay here awhile."'
HOWIE: There’s a passage in your new book that I think casts you as a young girl standing at the counter making mayonnaise. I think it starts with the phrase “My mother believed in child labor.” You write really strong leads. You write really strong first sentences. How long does it take to figure out the way into a recipe?
NIGELLA: Sometimes it comes very, very quickly. I feel it's perhaps my most intense moment of communication with a reader, because I’m trying to say, 'Stay here a while.' And I think that’s where journalistic experience is important, because, you know—I’m talking about the old days when a newspaper was the big paper thing—there’s lots of pages you could turn and people are not going to sit on the subway, they’re not going to finish your piece, unless you can get them very early on.
I also feel it’s quite important that the instructions of a recipe be put in voice, too. I loathe having to say 'add this' and 'stir this.' I cannot bear when the words are clunking up against one another. But there are times I feel I have to choose the inelegant construction, because it makes it simpler for the reader. I’m struggling between wanting to write sentences that please me but also by keeping it simple. But I think at times you need to put that voice in, put a strong sentence into the instructions of a recipe. Or at the end as well.
HOWIE: In this new book, one recipe starts with “I was distracted by the amount of waffle-eating going on.” It’s a waffle recipe, and you’re watching an American television show and you lose sense of the plot, because you’re so heavily focused on the waffles.
HOWIE: What show are we talking about?
NIGELLA: Madame Secretary. There’s a lot of breakfast. They do a lot of activity around their breakfast area.
It’s very interesting how food is used in television. I remember an interesting interview with Anne Tyler, she said that describing the food people cook or eat is sometimes the quickest route to evoking their personality.
HOWIE: Elsewhere in the book, you describe beans as the color khaki. You describe orzo as a 'non-negotiable staple.' A curry is 'rambunctiously vibrant.' In an old recipe from the Times I found cinnamon squares are 'the wintry brother of tangy summer lemon bars.' Do you know when you have a good line? Do you high-five yourself?
NIGELLA: No. Sometimes I like the taste of it. And I like the feeling of it. And that’s good. Now when I read back on some of the things I wrote earlier—I think, “Oh, yes, that was a good sentence.” At the time, I might not have been aware. I make up words, as well. You know, the “verdiglorious.”
HOWIE: I like the word verdiglorius. And you hate the word, “tasty.”
NIGELLA: Yes, I do. And I feel as though I’ve failed if I say 'delicious.'
HOWIE: What else is on the 'no-fly' list of language with you?
NIGELLA: I’m not mad keen on 'moist,' but I think it does the job.
There’s something called 'synesthesia,' when you experience one feeling or sensation through another. I think that I experience words as tastes, slightly.
I remember saying to Martin Amis once, “I just love the taste of your sentences.” And I realize that reading a book of his it’s almost as if I’ve eaten something. It short circuits in my brain slightly.
HOWIE: It’s filling in a way.
NIGELLA: Yes. But I think that cooking and writing are analogous. And reading and eating. And that’s a constant in my life.
HOWIE: I have a very hard time reading and eating at the same time.
NIGELLA: Yes, me too.
HOWIE: I actually cannot do it. I’m so jealous and envious of people who can. I see them reading their books and eating their delicious meals.
NIGELLA: But I think they’re people who don’t care enough. They’re the sort of people that if you said to them at the end of the day, 'What did you eat today?,’ they could honestly say, 'I forgot to eat.' Or they’d get back from a dinner, and you’d say, 'What did you eat?' and they’d say 'I can’t remember.' Whereas I can remember everything I’ve ever eaten.
HOWIE: I would love to see a book—maybe your twelfth book—called Everything I've Ever Eaten. And it’s literally just a list!
NIGELLA: Well, actually, you know, when I did my first book I felt it was everything I had eaten. Because, you know, a first book comes from the whole of your life. Well, all books do, really. But it was everything I had ever eaten in my life up to that point.
HOWIE: One of the things that’s interesting to me about this book, and this is a thread that goes through all your books—but I found the food choices to be maybe even more geared towards comforting things than in the past. My read on that is the times that we live in are very strange and turbulent, and I spend a lot of my time eating the feelings.
HOWIE: The subtitle I’ve given this book is 'All my feelings I want to eat!' And that includes things like Chili Cheese Garlic Bread, Toasted Brie Parma Ham and Fig Sandwiches, and the genius that is Parmesan French Toast. Can we talk about savory French toast for a minute?
NIGELLA: Yes, we can! I think I started making savory French toast simply because my children don’t have an enormously sweet tooth. I would make it for them. And it’s a great creation, I think. I mean, I didn’t create it. No one creates anything. I think if it’s edible, it’s unlikely to be original.
HOWIE: Let’s go deeper into the recipe. Can you talk to me about how you came to the final formula? I would imagine there were trials with different cheeses and condiments and such.
NIGELLA: Well, the real difficulty is you’re making French toast and the bread needs to drink up the liquid. And a lot of cheese, if it’s too thick, it’s going to become a barrier.
HOWIE: This is one of those Nigella Lawson leads –'The bread must drink up the liquid.'
NIGELLA: I had to find a way of giving it a cheese flavor that was pronounced without in any way interfering with the texture. Because there needs to be a slight hint of pancake within the bread, doesn’t there? Otherwise it’s not French toast. And also, because I’m a practical cook and I can’t bear waste, the hardest thing is coming up with exactly the right measurements whereby you don’t get so much leftover. But you also know you don’t want to make people feel worried that it’s never going to coat. And so, in the end, I felt it was about the balancing, about the eggs and the cheese and the amounts, and I did do an awful lot. It was a very nice thing to be practicing. To use a bland word. It was enjoyable, because even the versions that didn’t work tasted good. If you see what I mean.
HOWIE: Would you just read Step One? I would just like to hear how you say it.
NIGELLA: I will. I will.
Turkish eggs are very important
NIGELLA: One of the things that I think taught me how to write was when I was at university. Oxford is taught in the tutorial system, so it’s one-to-one or two of you with a tutor. And when I wrote my first essay, I expected to hand it in and the tutor said, no, no, no you read it out. So, as I read it out I had to edit, because there were things I was too embarrassed to say out loud, because they were too pretentious. And from that, and then over the three years of reading my essays out loud, I learned to express myself in a way that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to say out loud. That’s quite important for a journalist. Because it needs to be accessible.
However, I studied a lot of German, so I like long sentences, and I use a lot of commas. I think that sometimes I run out of breath when I read aloud my own sentences, because the joy of reading inside your head is that you don’t run out of breath, and I like a long sentence.
HOWIE: Are there any other revelations in this book that you feel so strongly about that you need to tell about it just right now?
NIGELLA: I certainly feel I have to tell readers about the Turkish eggs. And this is something I feel I need to talk to people about, because it sounds so disgusting. I don’t mean that in any way to sound rude. Which is to say, if you say, Poached Egg with Chili Butter on Yogurt, you think it doesn’t sound great. But it’s very compelling. I do something which is not authentic, which is I put the yogurt into a bowl over a pan of simmering water, so that I can whisk it to get it to room temperature, which makes it more of a sauce.
And it changes the texture, but also, it’s slightly cooler than the egg, but nevertheless I wanted the egg in some sense to merge into the yogurt, not to somehow rub up against it. I taught myself how to poach eggs for the benefit of this recipe, it used to be something that frightened me. And for me it’s been such an extraordinary revelation how extraordinarily good the recipe is. It’s the first recipe in the book. I insisted on its being the first recipe in the book, too. To me it was so important. And it changed how I eat, actually. And it led me to other recipes that use certain methods that are similar. And that’s what I like about cooking. And from that the Fatteh which is a sort of refined Middle-Eastern nachos when yogurt is mixed with tahini and garlic and slightly warmed and whipped like that over a toasted pita bread and with spiced ground beef and eggplant. And it interests me how making one particular recipe can lead to another. And sometimes it’s with an ingredient. But sometimes it can just be a way of cooking. Or just opening your eyes to something.
HOWIE: You said the Turkish eggs recipe changed how you eat. How did it change how you eat?
NIGELLA: When I say it changed how I eat, it’s quite simply that those particular ingredients together was surprising. And it reminded me—and, of course I’ve done this before—of other ways I’ve cooked using yogurt as a sauce. And I think I’m never embarrassed to stir things together. You know, I have one recipe for Coconut Shrimp, and I make a sauce with coconut milk, yogurt and ground turmeric. Now, I’m not embarrassed to say it’s two ingredients. Stirred together.
HOWIE: I’m elated when I see cookbook recipes with two ingredients. Thank God for two ingredients!
NIGELLA: Yes. And the Turkish Eggs recipe changed the way I eat in the sense that it, well, I suppose when you change something that you eat for breakfast that’s your day changed.
'The Egg and I'
HOWIE: You also mentioned that at the family chain of restaurants one of the cornerstones was a poached egg on toast.
NIGELLA: Yes. And I couldn’t poach an egg.
HOWIE: And you’ve only now really learned.
NIGELLA: Yes, and it’s liberating! And funnily enough, when I wrote my second book, How to Be a Domestic Goddess, an ironic title, I’d always thought cooks and bakers were separate creatures. And I was very much a cook, not a baker. And then I realized how easy it was to bake. It is a scam that it’s difficult, actually. And it changed me. I think people talk about confidence a great deal. But I’ve always argued that competence is essential. It’s a very unglamorous word, but to feel competent is liberating. So that taught me how to bake. And the fact that I now am not frightened of poaching eggs really makes a difference to how I feel about myself in the world. And that sounds like an overstatement, but it isn’t.
HOWIE: What is the egg poaching technique you’ve arrived at after all these years?
NIGELLA: Well, ideally to make sure that an egg is as near to being perfect—though nothing is perfect, and I don’t expect them to look cookie-cutter identical—I crack an egg in a tea strainer over a cup. Do you call it a tea strainer?
HOWIE: Sure. Actually, we call it nothing, because we only drink seven cups of coffee a day.
NIGELLA: A little sieve. And you’ll see that the jellied part of the white will stay, it won’t go through the holes. The watery bit will fall out. That watery bit that falls out is the bit that turns to that demonic fluff in the pan. And then instead of putting vinegar in the water, which just makes for…
HOWIE: A vinegary egg.
NIGELLA: Exactly. What I do is I put the egg then in another cup—just so you’re giving yourself another cup to wash up—and I spritz lemon juice or good vinegar directly onto the white.
HOWIE: With a spray bottle?
NIGELLA: No, I squeeze it.
HOWIE: Just a squeeze.
NIGELLA: Like a teaspoon. And, you know, if a pit comes out, so be it. So, when it comes to poaching eggs, I tried everything. You know, that vortex, and I think vortex is such a wonderful word I think I really wanted to write a recipe with the word “vortex” in it, but I’m not going to spend ages trying to make a poached egg like that! And you can do only one egg at a time that way. And also, again, it can make the egg spiral a bit out of it. It’s too much heat and activity. You know, an egg needs to poach in untroubled waters.
So I keep the heat not quite bubbling. It maybe looks like there’s a first bubble beginning to emerge. And then as near to the surface of the water as possible I drop the egg into the water, and I leave it quite low for about four minutes or three minutes or five minutes, depending on what size the egg is and how many are in the pan.
And because I now make a poached egg every morning, and I can’t always be doing my sieving and straining, what I do is I leave it for a bit longer, the lemon or vinegar in the cup, on the white, and then when I tip it in it seems to help that very liquid bit separate out. And I then just make sure I leave the lemon or vinegar behind. I don’t pour everything from the cup. But I’ve had to do a warning in the recipe, which is a warning to turn off the pan. Because it’s so low, and the water’s not making any commotion, it’s very easy to forget you have the heat under it. I’ve left the pan on for so many hours. I thought, if I keep doing it, others will, too.
HOWIE: I did it yesterday!
NIGELLA: It’s very easy to do. So with the egg poaching, as I say, it’s so extraordinary. However it’s slightly taken the joy of hotel breakfast away from me, which for me was always wonderful, because I couldn’t poach eggs. Whenever I was having breakfast out, like when I’m on tour, I would have a poached egg. But now that I can do it myself, it’s made it less special!
HOWIE: You don’t even need those hotels anymore!
NIGELLA: I don’t! It’s made it less special! I’ll have to find a new breakfast.
HOWIE: I wanted to ask you about the title of your second book, and the 'Domestic Goddess' part, in particular. If you had to title that book now, would you use that title again? 'Domestic Goddess' has been attached to you for your entire career.
NIGELLA: Also 'self-styled domestic goddess,' which really makes me grip my jaw in dismay. But, you know, I feel entirely to blame. I probably wouldn’t do it now. I had written an article for Vogue on my discovery of baking. And I called it, 'How to feel like a domestic goddess.' I’m quite camp as a person. 'Campy' I think you say here. Anyway, I’m quite camp. And I wrote something like, 'Sometimes we don’t want to feel like this frenzied, exhausted, harried person in a rush. We want to feel like a domestic goddess trailing nutmeg-y fumes in our languorous wake.' And I think people thought I meant that seriously, but to me it was obviously quite camp. But I live with it.
In fact, my subtitles I feel are often quite telling. I think the subtitle to that one was Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. My feeling is comfort eating is often a bit of a misnomer. It’s really discomfort eating. Whereas comfort cooking is a thing. I believe.
HOWIE: I think the Domestic Goddess thing has attached itself to you in so many ways that maybe people misunderstand your intentions.
NIGELLA: I think they misunderstand. I also think people think if you bake you’re a nice person. I don’t know why. And they also think that you’re saying, 'May I sign up for traditional female servitude.' I’ve never suggested that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. In fact, in the book I discuss the fact that you can only think about baking as an act that makes you feel better if there is no sense of obligation. Or drudgery. In that sense, it was a luxury allowed not too many generations of women before me. So, I think that it does make people have certain assumptions about me. But the difficulty also is that once you move into television I think people project assumptions onto you anyway. And you have to think, “Well, that’s not any of my business.”
HOWIE: After eleven cookbooks and having read through a lot of them, I’ve noticed you drop bits about your personal life throughout all of them. In a way, the eleven books form a narrative. But I’ve always wondered if you’d be compelled at some point to actually write a straight-up memoir. No recipes, not about the food. Your life, your path, your evolution.
NIGELLA: I would certainly hope not.
HOWIE: I think it would be a runaway bestseller.
NIGELLA: I feel that there’s something about writing about food which already is memoir. But I definitely don’t remember enough. I remember more about what I’ve eaten than what I’ve done or what I’ve thought.
HOWIE: I think it would just come pouring out.
NIGELLA: Oh, I hope not. It’s bad enough having lived it the first time without having then to think about it.
HOWIE: Is that a bit of camp?
NIGELLA: Well, I do want to re-phrase that. It’s not that my life has been so awful. I’ve been very lucky in many senses. But I didn’t particularly enjoy childhood. But you know, who knows? I never intended to write about food and that happened. So I don’t know what I’ll do next. But I don’t see myself doing it. When I started off writing, I wanted to be a novelist, and I definitely know that’s not what I was put on earth to do.
HOWIE: I wouldn’t mind seeing that, either. I’d just like more writing. More writing from Nigella Lawson.
NIGELLA: I hope so. I do hope so. Thank you. Thank you for saying that.
HOWIE: Nigella, thank you so much for being here, we loved having you on Prince Street.
NIGELLA: I really loved it. I really, really adored my time. Thank you.
HOWIE: Thank you again.
At My Table: A Celebration of Home Cooking is available at Dean & DeLuca and bookstores everywhere.