Ever wondered what it’s like putting together a food book that’s about more than just recipes? Who better to ask than the Domestic Goddess herself?
Hot on the heels of a smash hit night at Brighton Dome to discuss her latest book, Cook, Eat, Repeat, we’re thrilled to have this interview with Nigella Lawson all about her creative process. She talks about writing the book in lockdown, what we can expect from the tour, and answering cooking questions on Twitter.
Cook, Eat, Repeat was released on the same day lockdown 2.0 began. How was lockdown for you and how has the experience impacted on your life?
I am so aware that I am incredibly fortunate. Yes, of course this has been an anxiety-provoking time for everyone, but I had a roof over my head, a bit of outdoor space, food on my table, and work that I could do safely at home. (Indeed, I wrote Cook, Eat, Repeat during the first, long lockdown). I’m also very lucky that I enjoy solitude – so even though I spent several months alone, I didn’t ever feel lonely. Of course, it was hard not to be able to hug my children, but so many people really suffered, either with their health, facing their own illness and death, or that of those they love, and struggled to make ends meet, or had to risk their well-being by going to work, so I am just inordinately grateful.
How long did it take to put Cook, Eat, Repeat together? Is it possible to describe the process?
It’s hard to say exactly how long it took, because an essential part of writing a book (for me) is spent not writing it! I’d chosen the themes of my chapters, and I did most of the recipe testing and retesting (I am an obsessive tester and retester!) in 2019, but by the beginning of 2020, most of the recipes were still scribbles in my kitchen notebook, and needed to be typed up, which is not a straightforward process, as I often find I’ve left something crucial out of my notes, and so need to start testing all over again!
My concentration was rather shot at the beginning of lockdown, so even though days upon days with nothing in the diary is helpful if you’re trying to write a book, it took some time for me to find my way. But then I wrote in shortish bursts – I am someone who needs to pace about as I write, and lie on the sofa with a mug of tea at regular intervals – from about 4.30 am (with an hour off for exercise!) to 5.30pm every day.
There’s a lot of editing!
In the course of writing, I had to rejig the book quite a bit. I dumped a chapter on entertaining, which was called (dizzyingly inappropriately in the new world we found ourselves in) ‘How To Invite Friends to Supper Without Hating Yourself (or Them)!’, replacing it with ‘Much Depends on Dinner’, about family suppers, and I also added more recipes for one, and supplied directions for making some of the serves-4 recipes suit those cooking just for themselves.
I think the period of really solid writing took about 4 months. I had plenty more to say, but had written so many pages that I had to stop before getting all the planned themes/chapters in! But writing necessarily means having to jettison ideas or recipes for reasons of space, or because the shape the actual book takes turns out to be rather different to the one in my head before I’ve written it.
How did you choose which recipes to include?
I wish I could tell you that there is any process at play here, but I just go on instinct. Of course, because of the title of the book, a lot of the decision-making was obvious: I chose recipes that, in one form or another, I return to often. But within that, I feel I just know in my heart which recipes clamour the most to be included.
And as I started to realise that not everything would fit in, I have – and this is a bit of a regular step in all my books – what I call a ‘Choose It or Lose It’ session. I select the recipes I can’t live without, and make sure they have the right home within the book’s structure, and then I see whether the recipes that remain on the list actually still belong in the book, and where they would go in it. If I can’t find the right place, it’s bye-bye (for now).
Lyrical, poetic, full of life, full of love… is Cook, Eat, Repeat a recipe book or a memoir?
Well, as I have said before, for me, the recipe form is a highly-charged autobiographical form, so I don’t feel that there is a distinction to be made between memoir and recipe book. And I certainly feel that Cook, Eat, Repeat blends the two forms from the get-go.
Connected to the previous question: might you ever consider writing a novel?
When I was young, I certainly did want to write novels, but I know now that I’m not a novelist, and I feel that in writing about food does, in fact, take in so much of life. I feel I have found my métier and I have no ambition whatsoever to write a novel.
Do ever-changing food trends/fads have any impact on your recipes?
I’d like to say no, but I think it’s probably impossible to be entirely innocent of fashion and fads, even if I am not conscious of them as I write. And so many of the recipes in this book are ones that for me have stood the test of time, or are actually at odds with current trends. But we are all children of our time, and so it’s inevitable that one will be influenced to some degree or other by the flavours, cuisines, and ingredients that are part of the culinary landscape as one writes.
At what point in your life did you realise that your love for food was going to become your career?
I think I was probably on to my fourth book before I realised this was going to be my career! I thought, when I embarked on it, that my first book was going to be a one-off, but other ideas then bubbled up with each following book, and I just went with it! It still can seem a bit odd to me – in a wonderful way – that this has turned out to be what I do. But I love it, and feel anyway that most of the important things in life aren’t planned.
If you hadn’t followed a culinary path, what career path might you have chosen?
Well, I was 38 when my first book came out, and had been working as a journalist since I was 23, so the foodwriting path was already the “other path”! It’s not that I never wrote about food during that time, but I was predominantly a non-food journalist. I was the deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times when I was 26, then went freelance, writing about the Arts and doing book reviews, and I then became a columnist for the Evening Standard, then an Op Ed columnist for The Observer and then The Times, and did freelance pieces on all sort of subjects. And indeed, I carried on being a journalist for quite a few years after I began writing food books.
How does it feel to have often been described as a role model for (and by) many, many people?
I have to say the concept of a role model is an alien one to me. I just don’t operate like that. On the whole, I feel that comparing oneself to others is not a healthy habit. And as for seeing myself as any kind of role model – well, I feel it’s even more inexplicable! I know it is meant kindly, and as a compliment, so I don’t wish in any way to be ungrateful – kindness is something I always appreciate – but the idea slightly flusters me!
You maintain a very down-to-earth, approachable social media profile, often replying personally to followers who contact you. Why did you decide to start doing this and what do you enjoy the most about interacting with your followers? Is it very time consuming?
I always answered questions about my recipes on Twitter, but once we went into lockdown, I really felt that more was needed, and so began answering general questions about food and ingredients – what could be made with whatever the person had to hand, or how to substitute ingredients someone couldn’t get hold of for a particular recipe. In a way, you could say it’s time-consuming, but 1) there’s nothing like writing a book for making one keen to do other things! And 2) I really valued the connection, and I still do. And reading people’s posts, seeing the food they’ve cooked, brings me so much pleasure. I know a lot of social media is shouty and aggressive but my little patch of it is such a supportive and friendly community, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Anyway, I’m not interested in monologues: it’s conversation I relish!
What are the ingredients that you couldn’t live without?
I’m afraid the idea of any restriction on what I eat fills me with panicked horror, so this is a game I just can’t play! Having said that, I know that I couldn’t be happy in a kitchen without anchovies. Or a world without rhubarb. Or without lemons, Maldon salt, smoked paprika, thyme, olive oil, butter, bread, cheese…. Well, I could go on and on. The true list would be just about endless!
…and are there any ingredients that you’d happily live without, forever?
Well, I’m not mad on green bell peppers, but even so I wouldn’t like to rule them out forever. Who knows? I might suddenly fall madly in love with them!
What are your three top tips for hosting a successful dinner party at home?
Wear flat shoes (or none at all!), don’t do starters, and make sure there is enough on the menu that can be prepared in advance so that the evening isn’t made stressful by having to get everything ready as people arrive. And if I may add a fourth; remember that not everything has to be piping hot and ready at the same time.
What can we expect from your live tour?
This tour is really about the part food – and certain recipes – have played in my life, and that’s as much about the emotional resonance of food as flavour. I will also cover the to me very important theme of cooking for oneself. And I will certainly be talking about why I hate the term guilty pleasures!
What’s your favourite thing about being on tour/back on the road/meeting fans?
I always love meeting readers, and talking to them, but now it has a particular significance since the pandemic has made this impossible to do for too long. I think there is a very intimate relationship between a book and its readers, which I cherish. A book tour really celebrates that, and questions from readers and the chats and exchanges that flow from them during the event give me a sense of connection which is a source of much joy and inspiration for me.