Table for One

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.

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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?”

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Top Comment:
“Delightful piece and heartfelt celebration of HRH, Nigella Lawson, queen of my culinary heart! Thanks ever!”
— thatgirl
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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.

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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.


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Eric Kim is the Senior Editor and Table for One columnist at Food52. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

47 Comments

Stephanie D. July 25, 2019
December 2011: I, a broke and beleaguered graduate student, overwhelmed by the ~ 60 pages worth of final essays I had yet to write, made the logical decision to turn to YouTube and ignore all looming deadlines. There, I discovered Nigella's Christmas Kitchen, and suddenly it did not matter that rain was dripping from my ceiling or that all I had left in the pantry were sardines in mustard and a few stale Triscuits. Nigella's voice was like a hug that I did not know I needed. I watched her for hours, completely entranced by the marshmallow-fluffiness of her pavlova and her description of pomegranate arils as glowing jewels. Nigella got me through the darkness of that semester, and many others, until I decided to leave graduate school. I am forever grateful to her for reminding me that there's a world outside of the incestuous bubble of academia, and it is delicious.
 
MIKI L. May 18, 2019
Eric, thanks for this graceful appreciation of Nigella. Like you, I love her beautiful, thoughtful prose and her unapologetic embrace of home cookery. I also marvel at her resilience. Nigella has had so much tragedy in her family life: her mother dying young of cancer, her sister's untimely death from cancer as well, and then her first husband's death from the same awful disease, leaving her with a widow with two young children. Just thinking about living through these tragedies... I'm amazed and humbled by her ability to keep going in the face of so much loss, to get up every morning and feed herself & her family, to keep cooking, to keep writing. She is an inspiration.
 
Julie March 11, 2019
I love this column Eric. As a busy working mom, I was delighted when I ran across Nigella Express on tv. I had heard of her but I was captivated by how relaxed she seemed in the kitchen. I always felt stressed trying to get dinner on the table on a school night and felt I relied on prepared or processed foods way too much. I didn’t care for some of the other tv cooking shows, but Nigella was different. I bought the associated cookbook (which is my favorite of all the many I own) and began preparing weeknight meals that my family adored. Her Mustard Pork Chops with Gnocchi is our number one meal! And I have made so many variations of Minestrone in Minutes. Nigella taught me how to feed my family wholesome food, quickly, without a bunch of special ingredients or preparation. And not feel like I ran a marathon when we sit down!
 
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Eric K. March 11, 2019
Ohh, I love those pork chops. Used to make them all the time in my first flat.

Thank you, Julie. <3
 
David M. January 25, 2019
Another inspired essay by Eric Kim where every point strikes a chord with me and makes me smile.
 
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Eric K. February 11, 2019
Aw! I'm late in responding to this, but thank you so much, David.
 
thatgirl January 25, 2019
My Nigella love began in the late 90s, when I was married to a Brit whose culinary tastes were fairly restricted to a hunk of Neal’s Yard and a mediocre seeded loaf.

I’d swoon over what were clearly revolutionary production values for a cooking show. Every episode was different—one day she’d be waxing poetic over Sunday roast chicken, another saw her swish in from an evening out, looking to whip up a scrummy treacle tart to satisfy a sweet tooth—and then she’d unapologetically shovel a generous forkful into her mouth. There wasn’t a dish she couldn’t sell me with that super-sensual allure of hers. And amid so many emerging diet fads and utter paranoia, there was Nigella, advocating real, quality ingredients and simple preparation, assuring you that yes—you could do it, and yes—you alone were worth doing it for!

And amid so many preen-y televised “chefs,” Nigella remained that indulgent friend who taught you to keep extra butter and some decent chocolate around.

Delightful piece and heartfelt celebration of HRH, Nigella Lawson, queen of my culinary heart! Thanks ever!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 11, 2019
This sounds like a feast to me! "a hunk of Neal’s Yard and a mediocre seeded loaf." But I know exactly what you mean. :)
 
Elizabeth T. January 6, 2019
My dinner parties became much more festive and delicious as I celebrated each new conquest from the Domestic Goddess book. After discovering Nigella (i dont live in britain so had not seen her on the television)...my cooking changed forever. Now when in doubt i just add more chocolate! I get so many compliments its crazy! Other women ask for my recipes..i just tell them to buy the book! Apart from anything its fun to read. Wonderful to hear where recipes originate. Locatelli's book is also a must read.
 
Vanita D. January 6, 2019
She is well established in her own right and a very successful journalist before she ever ever got cooking on television she deserves the praise because she has earnt her place up there with the best of the world's renowned cooks and chefs!
 
Carl M. October 30, 2018
her dad Nigel Lawson the former Chancellor of the Exchequer under Thatcher conveyed more than breeding on his fair lass, given his girth, surely a love of food of all varieties.
 
alison P. October 29, 2018
i remember how revolutionary this book was when i first got it- i couldn't stop reading. it was like the best novel- i couldn't wait to see what was next. my copy is spattered, and pages are loose. all the signs of a well-loved, well-used, cookbook.
thanks for the love letter!
 
Rivanna October 28, 2018
What a delightful article, Eric. I found a used copy of How to Eat in a secondhand bookstore in London, where I was living. It was in pristine condition, and now isn't (which is the mark of a good cookbook). Nigella taught me how to roast a chicken, how to make a pavlova, and how to make the best lemon curd ever. I make her Guinness Chocolate Cake over and over (that's from Feast, but still), and love her "if it seems right, chuck it in" kind of attitude. I love her love of eating, and her outright pleasure in the taste of simple things (salted radishes for example). I think so many of us have forgotten the joy of eating, as well as the calm that cooking for ourselves and others brings to our lives - Nigella is a constant reminding force for these things, and for that, I love her too.
 
shirbert October 28, 2018
What a lovely article! I may just have to go out and get this book. One of my Facebook posts that I always remember (certainly there are many I don't remember) was "When in doubt, cook." When you are doubting yourself, this messed up world, or whatever it might be, cooking--as many people already know--is the answer. Thanks.
 
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!
 
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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.
 
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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.
 
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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.
 
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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”.
 
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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!
 
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Eric K. September 28, 2018
Thank you :)
 
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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!
 
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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...
 
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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?
 
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Eric K. September 27, 2018
The '90s, I guess!