Twenty years ago, Nigella Lawson, the internationally acclaimed and devotedly followed British cookbook author and televised food personality, was a 38-year-old journalist who sat down to write a collection of pontifications about food and ended up with a practical, opinionated manifesto on cooking and eating, complete with recipes. How to Eat, sold 300,000 copies in its first year alone and solidified what would become her career. What she was trying to do was “to own up to the fact that we can all feel stressed and overwhelmed by cooking at times,” she said. “In a way, I know it sounds absolutely ludicrous, but saying something like, ‘You don’t have to make broth from scratch all the time’ was quite a big thing.”
Two decades later, thanks to social media, there’s just as much pressure to give the unrealistic appearance of having cooked something impressive and to make it look perfect. And today, ingredients Lawson unapologetically endorsed, like kale and avocado — which were considered outré in 1998 — are unavoidably popular.
Last Thursday, an anniversary edition of How to Eat was released in the U.K. The next day, Lawson took a moment to reflect on the now and then of her career-changing debut.
I’ve never known how you ended up writing How to Eat. You were a freelance journalist, and before that, you’d been on staff at the Sunday Times. What compelled you to write a cookbook in the first place?
Well, I don’t know either. It wasn’t really like that. When I was 28, which they thought mad at the time, I traded in my staff job for a [freelance] writing contract and carried on, and it led to slightly different things. I was an op-ed columnist for a long time — that was at the Times and the Observer, and the Standard, I think. And I had, at that time, thought I was going to write the great novel of the 20th Century — rapidly, or, it was going to have to be the great novel of the 21st Century.
And John [Diamond], my husband said to me, “You’re always so definite on your likes and dislikes and what you think about food, and most people don’t have that confidence. And you should explain how you get to those views. You should call it, ‘How to Eat.’” And I said that, “I am not writing a book about food, John. Absolutely not.” And then I was having lunch with my agent, the late, great Ed Victor, and I told him about that, and I said, “I don’t know, Ed”. And we were talking about it, and I got quite enthusiastic. And he said, “You’ve gotta do it.” I said, “No, Ed, I don’t want to. This isn’t what I feel I want to be doing.”
What was the resistance or hang-up about a food book in particular?
I think, at the time, I felt I would be looked down on. I was frightened of it belonging to — you know, being — the little woman. And it hadn’t occurred to me that I would do that, because I didn’t have any particular expertise in any way. But Ed said, “All the great composers do chords before they write their symphonies.” I went, “Ack.” And he said, “Look, everything that we’ve discussed today, you do sound enthusiastic. There is a book there.”
He said, “Go home now. Everything you’ve said to me is a book. You’re not allowed to take your coat off. You’ve got to go straight home and write this up, and fax it to me,” (we’re talking about the past you see) “and then fax it straight away. Because, if you even take your coat off, you won’t do it.” And so I did what I was told. I wrote the book. I thought, “Oh, I found my voice. I don’t want to write a novel now.” I felt I could express my thoughts about life through writing about food.
I’m not sure people realize what the culinary landscape looked like in 1998 when that book came out. It was such a strong statement against a lot of things. For one, which you’ve talked about, chefs had started to take over, as the face of cooking, in the media and beyond. How to Eat was a response to that. What else were you responding to?
I think what it was, too, particularly for us in the U.K., it was meant to be the age of our great culinary renaissance, the ’90s. But it was very much taking place in restaurants. So, people started thinking they had to cook like that at home. And so really, in every single magazine article was really how to cook like a chef. It was very much the idea that people would come, and you would, as much as possible, try to copy the great restaurants, and do menus like that. And it was very unworkable. Television was very much about virtuoso chopping, and doing things that people would clap at the end of.
So, for me, I just thought, “This is ridiculous.” And what had propelled me was going to a dinner party at a friend’s house. We sat in her sitting room, at her table, and she was in the kitchen cooking quite elaborate food. And we could all hear her crying loudly in the kitchen. Everyone was getting quite awkward. It was not an easy evening. And I thought, “No food is worth that. Better to call in a pizza.” I thought, “Something’s going wrong here, that people think they have to perform.”
Did you have a reader in mind? Who was your intended audience?
And I feel that it does no one a service, male or female, to feel ill at ease in the kitchen. I don’t think it’s a moral good to cook, and I don’t think it matters whether you can cook or not. But, from my point of view, I feel it’s very much part of my independence, and it’s important for me not to think that I have to depend on anyone else for my subsistence in a way, and my survival, which food is. So, it was about encouraging people who are frightened of cooking, by showing how straightforward it can be.
I’ve always seen How to Eat as a feminist statement, and maybe an unexpected one. Because, there’s that presumed paradox — and this goes back to your being hesitant to write a food book in the first place — that encouraging women to cook or to write about cooking food, is somehow at odds with feminist thinking. But, I always thought it was very subversively and powerfully feminist, not just because you were empowering women to do it. But, you were empowering them to do it from a place of pleasure, and to start with this idea of, “What do you want to eat? What do you want to cook?”
I think that’s very important. I also was writing it very much from a point of view of saying to women — I mean obviously I wasn’t just writing for women — but was saying to women: “You are entitled to eat.” And I think that it’s so important, because women had been trained to be the providers of food but not the consumers of food. And that to me is a terrible thing.
See, when I wrote How to Be a Domestic Goddess , in a title ironic, and I was criticized for that. I really did feel that, if I’d been an op-ed columnist, I would’ve criticized me too, so I understood. But I always felt it is essentially anti-feminist to disparage anything that has traditionally belonged to the female realm. Of course if it is expected of you and it’s drudgery, that is not a comfortable thing. But I certainly feel that, in a way, perhaps, it’s a space that we had to reclaim. And I think what made this easier for me as well is that my generation of friends, more men cooked than women. And so, I didn’t think I was being retrograde in some sense. And as I say, I didn’t feel it was my duty to cook. I’ve never implied that my ideal eater is a man.
In the chapter titled “Fast Food,” you observed that your male friends who cooked, they were the ones who seemed to be finding it more fun than the women. And I wonder if you think that’s changed.
Well, I think I was meaning that slightly sarcastically when I said it, because, you see, I think it was easier for men to say they felt that it was more relaxing. Because on the whole, it was a slight novelty, and men would somehow seek to be admired more through this work. As far as I’m concerned, cooking is the easiest part. The clearing up is hard to get an awful lot of joy out of that.
Media-wise, some of the #MeToo movement has been focused on the food industry, and a lot of that’s been on chefs and restaurants. But I think it coincides with the larger conversation about women in the food world, and how, in general, men don’t just have top positions in professional kitchens, but they also have top positions in food media, in publishing, and beyond. And I wonder if it’s the same in the U.K., and what kind of pushback there has been there?
I feel there’s quite a strong network of women writers. We’ve got a strong tradition of female writers on food. But, I certainly think the way women are talked about rather than men — I mean, I wrote about this years ago in a way. It’s like a capitalist thing — because men worked in restaurants, initially — that somehow if you earn money from it, it makes what you do of more value. So therefore, those who cook in their home, it wasn’t as important.
And I think that in the end, men are talked about as these great creators, and women are talked about as cozy creatures, as if it’s a women’s job to provide a warm and twinkly domestic environment. And I don’t know that I think that’s true, but I think that men do command a different sort of respect from cooking generally.
Is it the same as it’s always been? Or do you see any kind of shift there? I’d like to think that’s changing. It’s so difficult, because that’s not a view I have, and I can’t say I spend much time with people who think like that. I sometimes will read something or hear something, and I just think, “What nonsense.” The divide between men and women and how people view us differently, what nonsense it is. That is not the group of people I mix with anymore than you do.
I don’t regard myself as being in the industry, and I think everything is harder if you’re a professional. Because, in a way, I feel I’m predominantly a food writer, and in that, I think women do have more of a voice anyway.
How do you as a food writer then convey that feminist message or use food writing as a way to get that message out?
I don’t know that I do it overtly. Every now and then I write something, or I try and answer honestly. But most of the time, I think feel that sharing experience is always an important thing. And I think just speaking to others, being in the kitchen, talking about how food plays a part in life, is a conversation that’s important.
I can’t say that it has a particular — that it’s loaded as a feminist argument. Because, in a way, I also feel very aware that one should not presume a cook female. So, it’s a difficult one to navigate.
Twenty years later, how much have your own perspectives on feminism changed?
I think they have changed, and I think they’ve developed. I think my life is very different from what it was then. And I think having children taught me an awful lot about feminism as well. I remember very much at the time thinking it’s so odd how things change when you have children. I don’t know, this is not everyone’s experience, but it is a majority of people’s experience: Your time belongs to the children, unless you contract it out, whereas the father’s time is his, unless he’s contracted in. And that was quite a revelation.
At the same time, I felt very strongly, I have a duty to bring up my children as feminists. And, also to do my bit for other women in the workplace, especially those who have children and work. I think that I would always try and be flexible and get maternity covered and so forth for people who’ve worked for me. And I think this is very, very important. I think you have to show your bona fides in actions, not just in noble sentiments.
This interview has been edited and condensed.