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.
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.
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.
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.
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.