Wellness

The One Piece of Nigella Lawson Advice I Live By

Reflecting on her first cookbook, which turns 20 this year.

by:
September 27, 2018

I spent a major chunk of my early twenties as an overworked PhD student, bent over a desk, reading books, grading undergraduate essays, and developing a crick in my neck. Cooped up in my 250-square-foot shoebox studio in Morningside Heights, I rarely left the apartment other than for the classes I was teaching. Inevitably, I skipped meals—time was money, and I barely had much of either. I eventually had to learn to cook for myself as a means to survive.

In what could’ve been an even more stressful and lonely point in my life, the sweet dulcet tones of Nigella Lawson’s instructional cookery programs, playing in the background as I worked, served as my ASMR during those years. Nigella Bites, in particular, relaxed me as I sat at that desk and whiled away the hours, retreating even further into myself.

I was initially drawn to Lawson as a television personality, but later learned what an effective writer she was and (especially important to me at the time) how much she, too, loved books. She'd quote Oscar Wilde or reference the Russian formalists while toasting walnuts, saying that doing so made the nuts nuttier in the way that the point of literature was to make the stones stonier. This attracted me immensely.

What some people may not realize is that she was a print journalist before starting a career in food. After studying languages at Oxford, she wrote book reviews and later worked as a restaurant critic; she was the deputy literary editor at The Sunday Times. Eventually she'd become a columnist at The New York Times and make a name for herself as one of the world's greatest proponents of home cooking. Which is another important point: She’s always called herself a home cook, never a chef.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“When I start eating more takeout or feel like I have to hurry through my cooking, that's usually a sign something is wrong and I'm not taking enough time to do things for my sanity. Thanks for the reminder!”
— Zozo
Comment

It’s this diverse set of experiences, and perhaps her literary background and interests, that have resulted in a narrative voice that oozes with clarity and style, one that threads historical context and culture in ways that make you feel that what you’re reading is actually useful. Which is more than I could say about the academic essays I was reading and writing at the time.

Photo by David Ellis

It helped, too, that Lawson made it easy to be alone without feeling alone. There she was, teaching me how to roast a chicken, telling me how her mother used to roast two: one for Sunday lunch and another to be picked at throughout the week. This tip was particularly useful for me, as I needed meal-planning tricks like this to get by on my busy school schedule. When I roasted my own bird for the first time, thumbing through the pages of How to Eat with one hand and attempting to truss the chicken with the other, I found solace in witty, artful lines like, “You could probably get through life without knowing how to roast a chicken, but the question is, would you want to?”

The Clementine Cake in the same chapter is also very good. It taught me that if I bake something sweet for myself on Monday, I could have it for dessert throughout the week—or, more likely, for much-needed tea breaks during marathon grading sessions. There’s something oddly satisfying about boiling clementines whole and blitzing them—skin, pith, all—into a batter that bakes up gorgeously every time. At that point in my life I didn't have control over much, but I did have control over this cake.

How to Eat taught me not only how to appreciate being alone in that tiny apartment all those years, but also how to carve out time for myself in the kitchen. In my favorite chapter of the book, “One and Two,” Lawson writes:

"I don’t deny that food, its preparation as much as its consumption, is about sharing, about connectedness. But that’s not all that it’s about. There seems to me to be something robustly affirmative about taking trouble to feed yourself—enjoying life on purpose rather than by default."

It seems almost silly now to say that the one piece of advice Nigella Lawson gave me was to feed myself. But maybe it’s even more elemental than that: I suppose it was that she taught me I was someone worth feeding at all. This realization was huge for me then, back when I was at the whim of an institution that treated its junior professors and graduate students as disposable labor instead of as people. Meanwhile, Dr. Lawson was there with me, saying pretty things like, "You don't have to belong to the drearily narcissistic learn-to-love-yourself school of thought to grasp that it might be a good thing to consider yourself worth cooking for."

Here was another bibliophile taking time out of her day, stepping away from her desk to make herself something delicious to eat, relishing in that careful pause of time and space.

I love the open-ended freedom of just puttering about in the kitchen, of opening the fridge door and deciding what to cook. But I like, too, the smaller special project, the sort of indulgent eating that has something almost ceremonial about it when done alone.
Nigella Lawson, How to Eat

As I started to put my meals first (or at least prioritize them more) like Lawson did, I realized how much pleasure cooking itself gave me. The mindless repetition of risotto stirring, the relaxed, unstructured quality of slow-cooked stews. "Taking trouble" to feed myself was paramount in my survival during those difficult years—which is, in turn, what made me want to start taking care of myself in general, mentally and physically.

Photo by Amazon

It’s been 20 years since the publication of that first cookbook, How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food. Vintage Classics UK is releasing an anniversary paperback edition on Oct. 4. Thinking back on the lifespan of this formative book, I can’t help but feel that it’s to the recipes in it, and of course to Lawson herself, that I owe much of my confidence in the kitchen today.

Once in a while I may still forget to eat lunch. The entire day can go by and before I know it, it’s 6 p.m. But on those days when I do remember to get up from my desk, stretch, and cook something for myself, I’d like to think that I do it with purpose.

"Love, Nigella." Photo by Me

What has Nigella Lawson taught you over the years? Share in the comments below.


Forever Nigella

33 Comments

Zozo October 1, 2018
I've started to realise that usually I'm at my peak mental health when I have the space in my life to cook for myself. When I start eating more takeout or feel like I have to hurry through my cooking, that's usually a sign something is wrong and I'm not taking enough time to do things for my sanity. Thanks for the reminder!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 1, 2018
Well said, Zozo. Agreed.
 
kayce October 5, 2018
This is true for me, too.
 
Jill T. September 30, 2018
What a very comforting article. Thank you for that. I too spent many years over study and now wonder how I did it! My cookbooks are such very good friends and so too the, are the authors.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 30, 2018
Thank you, Jill. Books are the very best friends.
 
Michele September 29, 2018
Nigella was never apologetic for loving to eat. I so appreciated that on her shows.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. October 1, 2018
Me too, Michele. Thanks for reading.
 
Monika September 28, 2018
How To Eat is my very favourite cookbook. If I were forced to get rid of my cookbook collection, and allowed to keep only one, this would be it. I love Nigella's voice, the way she writes, describes food; she puts food into its social and personal context. And every recipe I have ever made from this book has been wonderful -- it has gotten me many recipe requests, and has given us lovely afternoons and evenings with dear friends and family. And that is what food is all about -- nurturing not just the body, but the soul.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 28, 2018
Aw, I love this. Thanks for sharing, Monika.
 
Diana September 28, 2018
I absolutely love Nigella, have since her first book. I love the story she tells about her mom and grandmother cutting off the ends of a roast. Why? Mom says it’s bc that’s how he Mom taught her. Grand Mom says it’s bc she didn’t have a lan big enough. Best story for finding out why “we’ve always done it that way”.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 28, 2018
So true. My mom's answer is always, "Hm, never thought about why. This is just how you do it." (Koreans soak short ribs in water, for instance, before cooking them--though I'm sure there's a v real answer for that.)
 
Lazyretirementgirl September 30, 2018
And Kenji Lopez Alt will figure it out someday. 😉
 
fmclellan September 28, 2018
Terrific essay, worthy of the subject herself! Nigella is also a beautiful person. I had the privilege of meeting her once. Hooray for all bibliophile foodies and home cooks!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 28, 2018
Thank you :)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 28, 2018
Also, isn't she great in person?
 
Tahsina R. September 28, 2018
Absolutely loved this! Your writing is beautiful and heartfelt! In the last 2 years, I’ve learned how to not only cook for myself but to survive alone and enjoy it. You never know when something can really change your life!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 28, 2018
Self-reliance in the kitchen and out—so necessary in this day and age.
 
Monique September 27, 2018
BRILLIANT, Eric! How touching. Now I want that cookbook, too...
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 28, 2018
Thanks, Monique!
 
witloof September 27, 2018
I turned off the video because of the incredibly annoying background music. Who on earth thought it was a good idea?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 27, 2018
The '90s, I guess!
 
Teeah September 27, 2018
I first found How to Eat in a used bookstore. Now I have two copies. I treasured this book. Nigella has taught me that cooking shouldn't be tedious and mundane. She's a great teacher through of her books.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 27, 2018
The best teacher.
 
HalfPint September 27, 2018
"How to Eat" is Nigella's best work, in my opinion. I've had my copy for over 15 years. Her writing is fantastic and she has such a talent for knowing what tastes good. From her I've learned to enjoy food to the max but never to point of excess.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 27, 2018
It is very good. "Everything in moderation, including moderation." —Oscar Wilde
 
Darcey A. September 27, 2018
Wonderful article. I've been watching her on the CreateTV channel when she comes on during the night.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 27, 2018
Thanks for reading, Darcey.
 
Erin T. September 27, 2018
Great article, Eric. I had no idea about her literary background. Thank you for sharing. I'm loving her current series on PBS - it's so cozy to watch. From her earlier days on tv, I always remember that you don't have to be so perfect about your cooking - don't have a proper knife? Use kitchen shears instead. Get messy!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 27, 2018
Right! I hardly ever chop parsley with a knife anymore. Funny, funny.
 
Daniel L. September 27, 2018
Lovely to see another diehard fan of Nigella. Sadly I have yet to have her write her love in any of my books...one day, I hope!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 27, 2018
She is very kind.
 
Mayukh S. September 27, 2018
Gorgeous, Eric.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 27, 2018
Thank you, Mayukh.