When Nigella Lawson heard the first reports about the coronavirus pandemic, she immediately knew what had to be done. Just months away from the deadline for her new cookbook, she still had a lot of writing left to finish. So she did what any no-nonsense professional would – she threw herself into the solitary existence of lockdown.
But for Lawson, going into isolation was different than it would be for most people. After all, she has built her career on proselytising about the joys and even the importance of feeding other people.
Now, at 60 years of age, with both of her kids in their 20s and out on their own, quarantine found her a very empty-nester. So when Lawson says she went into solitary, she was really in solitary.
And she quickly found that this new existence was changing the way she was thinking about cooking.
“It was strange because it was the first time in my life that I hadn’t been cooking for other people,” Lawson says on a Zoom call from her London home. “I went into complete isolation well before we were supposed to because I knew I couldn’t get ill. I didn’t do any bubble. I was just in solitary. Get the book done and reduce every risk.”
This new experience is reflected in the just-published Cook, Eat, Repeat, which could rightly be called the first Covid cookbook. Written mostly during quarantine, it reflects the sorrows and joys of this new way of living, as well as some significant lessons learned. A television series, Lawson’s 11th, based on the book will air on BBC Two, starting in November.
I’ve never written a cookbook that has made me feel so connected to people while I was writing it
At times the book reads like an elegy to what we have lost: those vanished days when we could gather our friends around the table without a second thought. At other times there is a joyful sense of what we’ve discovered: the pleasure of setting out in the kitchen with only ourselves to please.
Though Lawson might come across as a little coy and kittenish on television, in person she is formidable, bristling with intelligence. She hasn’t become a one-name celebrity solely by dint of looking good while raiding the refrigerator in a dressing gown.
She declaims even off-the-cuff opinions in complete, well-constructed sentences that would make her old boarding school teachers proud. When stuck for a thought or phrase, she nervously rakes her fingers through her thick hair, as if they might be hiding there.
But for all of her friendliness and approachability, she definitely has a no-nonsense side that is not to be crossed. That’s particularly true when it comes to her privacy or the seriousness of her career.
Several years ago I was interviewing her on stage at a packed Hollywood theatre. I had requested questions from fans beforehand and several had asked about her skin care regimen (for the record, yes, it is as creamy-looking in real life as it seems on TV). When I relayed the question to her, she fixed me with a chilly stare.
“Oh, Russ, is this what your career – and mine – have come to?”
She said it with a laugh, but I still cringe remembering it and, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, can relive the moment any time I start to feel swell-headed.
Lawson’s strength is hard-earned. In addition to her good fortune (she has sold a remarkable three million cookbooks in the last 20 years), she has also suffered the early deaths of a beloved sister and her first husband, both from cancer, and then a very messy, very public divorce.
Through it all, it was cooking that carried her along. “Food is the first comfort we turn to,” she says.
And so it was during the pandemic. Lawson felt the same uneasy mixture of emotions as the rest of us. Locked down, stuck at home, the occasional trip to the grocery store counting as a big adventure . . . you don’t need to have spent much time on social media to know this was an almost universal experience.
“I’ve never written a cookbook that has made me feel so connected to people while I was writing it,” she says. “Looking at Twitter, everyone really was feeling that whatever they had for their evening meal was the most important subject of the day. That’s all I ever talk about anyway, so I felt it was just my normal life but cut in half because I was doing it alone.”
Rather than being a frivolity, the centrality of food to our lives is one of Lawson’s fundamental beliefs. And that is true whether you are cooking for a crowd, or just for yourself, something she thinks is particularly vital during these days of lockdowns and quarantines.
“I think sometimes cooking for yourself is seen as a kind of side act: ‘Is it really worth it?’” she says. “I don’t take that view. I think it’s so important for your own well-being.
“I think about it differently because of my experience with my first husband, John [Diamond], who couldn’t eat [because of the throat cancer that eventually ended his life]. I definitely felt at that time I couldn’t get a life where I didn’t cook. So I’m happy to cook for myself.”
Indeed, she says, there is a freedom that comes with cooking for an audience of one.
“I find that bashing about in the kitchen cooking for myself, I’m much more likely to leave my options open,” Lawson says. “It makes me feel like I can just freewheel it. I can do as I want.
“I feel very insecure if I don’t know what I’m going to eat that day or the next day. I need to have some sort of an idea. But on the other hand, I like to mix that with a sense of opening the fridge or the vegetable drawer and wondering what I’m going to do. That always seems to me to be the most creative part of cooking.”
Improvisation and adaptation are the hallmarks of good cooking, rather than strict adherence to a formula, she says. To get to that point, you need to learn to think for yourself rather than being bound by the tyranny of the recipe.
Cook, Eat, Repeat is chockablock with non-recipe suggestions for things to cook. In some cases these are merely suggested alterations and adjustments to full recipes, in others they are almost detailed enough to constitute recipes in themselves.
It’s a dance with the ingredients. Of course there are steps to the dance to be learned, but I think people should be allowed to trust themselves
“In reality, when you cook a recipe that you cook a lot, it’s pretty rare that you cook it the same way each time,” she says. “You might have other things to use up in the fridge or you might want to use a different herb or seasoning.
“I thought I might want to go into that a bit and talk about different ways you could approach a dish. At the same time as I am giving precise recipes, I want to try to show how flexible it all is.
“A written recipe is a faithful rendition of a particular way of approaching a dish. But at the same time, its very orderliness slightly betrays the qualities of paying attention and making changes while you’re cooking and I find that quite interesting to reflect on.”
Though Lawson freely confesses to obsessing over trying to answer every question a cook might have when she’s writing a recipe, she knows that ultimately it is an impossibility.
“A recipe on a page can’t answer every question, because often there isn’t a single right answer,” she says. “You know whenever I see one of those clicky things on the internet: ‘You’ve been making scones wrong all your life,’ I think, ‘This is madness.’ There’s not just one way to make anything and not everyone likes things the same way.
“All you really want to do is start the conversation and let people make decisions for themselves. The whole idea of ‘You’re doing things wrong’ or ‘This is the way you should be doing it’ is so antithetical to what cooking is.”
For Lawson, good cooking is a never-ending process of education. Every time you step into the kitchen, you should be paying attention and be open to learning, both from your triumphs and even – or maybe especially – from your mistakes.
“Sometimes you have to do things wrong to decide how you want to do them again,” Lawson says. “It’s a continuous process of adjustment and response. It’s not difficult but you do have to pay attention and taste all the time.
“It’s a dance with the ingredients. Of course there are steps to the dance to be learned, but I think people should be allowed to trust themselves.”
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