Diana Henry has over four-thousand cookbooks. Some line the staircase, some are by her bed, and most stare down at us from the shelf that stretches across her airy North London kitchen, where we talked with her about food, family, and her book collection.
The sun that comes through the floor-to-ceiling doors from the garden has left many of them faded in various shades of pastel. It’s hard to tell the new from the old; each one looks as worn and loved as the last.
Yet there is order in their chaos. Diana runs her hands over each shelf, taking us on a tour of the sections: Italian, Scandinavian, French, Middle Eastern, British, Preserving, Baking. There are a couple dedicated to American food writing, a genre that she says influenced her hugely. The latest in her collection is Renee Erikson’s A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus, which she adores.
“Americans are less inhibited when it comes to food,” she says, topping up our glasses with a potent elixir of Prosecco and Cointreau with raspberry coulis and vodka. “They are happy to make it personal and poetic. That doesn’t happen as much here.”
She glances at her watch. “Oh no! I forgot to put the chicken on! I’ve been talking too much!” Turns out that even the woman described as “the quiet star of British food writing” forgets to put lunch on until 3 P.M. (just like us). She returns to the other side of the island, where a bowl of bead-like lentils stand beside a sticky apricot cake garnished with a sprig of lavender.
When Diana Henry was in her late twenties, she quit her job in television to enroll at Leiths Cookery School. After her youngest son was born, she began writing about food full time. She published her first cookbook, the iconic Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, in 2002.
The title alone captured people’s imaginations: It spoke of a poetic, enchanting world of food that had for so long remained out of the spotlight in the U.K. The recipes themselves explored the heated flavors of North Africa and the Middle East and the bright dishes of the Mediterranean and Diana’s loose, sentimental writing was unique, too, with stories about her life bound up in each one. She wrote about food not just as fuel or flavor, but as an emotional, sensual experience. And this is what she looks for in the books that fill her house: “For me, a good cookbook has to be connected to the person.”
All eight of Diana Henry’s celebrated cookbooks are dotted around her kitchen, wedged in beside her favorite writers. The most recent, A Bird in the Hand—which she refers to as “the chicken book”—explores the endless possibilities of a meat we often shun as too simple, too plain. Diana makes simple, earthly dishes special, and makes everyone feel like they can cook.
“I admire chefs greatly. But I like home food. Often, chefs like technique, and they like to do complicated food. And I neither want to cook nor eat that stuff. More than anything, I like a cookbook to be honest; to be a real portrayal of the author. I think they can often be quite flat and not show the personality of the person. They shouldn’t be separated,” she thinks. “I’m a big believer in the beauty of the ordinary. We have to look for that in life.”
This month sees the release of Diana’s tenth book, Simple. Revisiting Cook Simple, which she released in 2007, it showcases bold, colorful flavors and effortless cooking. It is a book for the home cook, infusing magic into midweek meals. Each dish—inextricably linked to Diana’s personal world—romanticizes the possibilities of the everyday.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, Diana watched from the stairs as her parents entertained guests at dinner parties and used to borrow her mother’s Le Cordon Bleu books and stay up late into the night until her eyes were sore. “I could see that with food you created a world. You entertained, you created atmosphere.” Since then, Diana has never been far from her favorite cookbooks. They have accompanied her through life, informed her own writing, and inspired her recipes.
At fifteen, Diana made her first trip out of Northern Ireland, traveling to France to stay in a “rickety house in the Champagne area. [...] It was really basic. But the meals we produced from this kitchen were exquisite,” she remembers.
There, Diana learned the ways of “proper” vinaigrette and the simple beauty of beginning a meal with a bowl of herby lentils or a tomato salad with lemon. “They really thought about flavor and the small details. These were not ‘foodies’—they just loved food. Because food is part of life. I can’t tell you how unbelievably affecting this was.”
Moving to London after graduating from Oxford, Diana found herself submerged in world food: markets selling yams, tropical fruits, and spices; Turkish shops selling pails of olives; Italian delis stocked with Parma ham and ricotta. “I nearly lost my mind! I couldn’t believe this stuff was on my doorstep. You could have been in Palestine or Rome! [...] I just thought, “The whole world is here.””
It was during those first flourishes of life in London that Diana picked up two cookbooks that would reiterate something she already knew: that simple food can be the most decadent.
The first was Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food—“It was a whole world of exoticness”—and then Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. The recipes in these books didn’t just appeal to Diana: They moved her.
“In London at the time, it was all about nouvelle cuisine. And then here was Alice Waters, talking about goat’s cheese with roasted garlic and toasted sourdough. Or grilled pork with red peppers. Or fresh cherries with almond cookies. That food sent shivers down my spine. It was so different. It was simple in a very beautiful way. Both Claudia’s and [Alice's] food seemed to have a similar enchantment. I remember taking them back to my basement flat. It was really rainy outside and I lay on the sofa reading them both.”
Both of these books still lie at the top of the pile of Diana’s beloved collection. Beside them are a few other books that have shaped her life and work. “The best thing you can do is be immersed in other people’s good work,” she tells us as she walks us through her favourites. She picks up a copy of Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book. “Jane Grigson was the first food writer I properly read. Her books are a mixture of biography, travel, poetry, history. And the food has to do with everything.”
This interlocking of food and life appealed to Diana. “I’ve never thought it was just about the cooking. It was about everything else that surrounded the food.” She reaches for A Well-Seasoned Appetite by Molly O’Neill, who she admits is “probably my favorite food writer.”
We have lunch late in the afternoon. The long wooden table, where Diana writes most of her articles and books, was heaving with food: a cold, nutty lentil salad (“yesterday’s leftovers”); sweet, soft harissa-roasted tomatoes; silky spheres of burrata sharpened with anchovies, capers, flat-leaf parsley, fennel from the garden, and some excellent olive oil. Beside it, there is soft sourdough bread; a dish of salt, butter, and—of course—chicken, spatchcocked with chile and breadcrumbs.
“I thought, this is a Monday, we can’t be having anything too fancy.”