A book is often many years in the making and over the last year, I have read many authors reflecting on the strangeness of trying to write and release books during a global pandemic. Writing a cookbook, especially one that envisions family gatherings and entertaining around a table of food must have been particularly challenging. A couple of the essays in Nigella Lawson’s Cook, Eat, Repeat refer to the lockdown she is experiencing while writing. I’m glad she included those mentions because it adds a pathos to the book that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
I don’t necessarily but Nigella Lawson cookbooks for their recipes, though her recipes are very good. In fact, I get a recipe from Nigella Lawson every day via email. Her recipes are great. I buy Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks for her food writing. Her life, very different from mine, has afforded her the opportunity to travel and experience food in a way I have not and never will. There might be some tiny amount of jealousy, but mostly I love reading her thoughts on food and cooking.
In her first essay, “What is a Recipe,” Lawson dives into the nature of recipes, what they are and what they are not.
A recipe can be many things: a practical document; a piece of social history; an anthropological record; a family legacy; an autobiographical statement; even a literary exercise. You don’t have to take your pick: the glory of food is that, beyond sustenance, it comprises a little of everything—aesthetics and manual labour, thrown in.
Interestingly, she repeats a story I’ve heard from the many therapists I am related to, the story of the woman who cut the ends off her roasts. She’s asked why and doesn’t know, that’s just how she was taught. Further investigation reveals that her mother, or grandmother, had a too small roasting pan. For therapists it’s a story about rules are made and followed even when they are no longer necessary or beneficial. For Nigella Lawson it’s about turning the transitory process of cooking into a recipe written to be followed exactly. It’s both an explanation that she, the recipe creator, is working within the limitations of her kitchen and available ingredients, and tacit approval for us, the recipe user to adapt recipes as necessary. She does go on to state clearly that we the people cooking from her recipes can and should adapt them as we need, but we should do so with the understanding that we are making a new and different recipe from the one she wrote.
With this understanding of the relationship between recipe author and recipe user, I did make a few of the recipes and I did adapt them as I saw fit. When I made the No -Knead Black Bread, I left out the caraway and fennel seed and added additional nigella seeds because I like the oniony flavor of nigella better. I was very happy with the way it turned out. For the Tuscan Bean Soup, I used drained and rinsed canned cannellini beans because I don’t have easy access to borlotti beans. Neither tasted exactly as they would had they come from Nigella Lawson’s hands, but both were very good and I will definitely use both recipes again.
I received this as an advance reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.