Twenty-two years after her first book, How to Eat, Nigella Lawson has produced what feels like its answer: Cook, Eat, Repeat. This new title explains literally how to eat. Without knowing the author, you might think it was an existential cry of despair from a harried working mother describing the 2,498 meals she has made since lockdown began.
However, knowing Lawson as we do, after 11 bestsellers and 15 television series, we know she never serves up despair, but its antidote. It is her chocolatey voice as hostage negotiator, urging us to put down the knife and pick up the buttered muffins — all we need to do is “cook, eat, repeat” ourselves out of this mess. It is the voice of someone who has felt the void, whether from the death of a loved one or the emptiness of a stomach, and chosen life in the form of brown butter colcannon.
This book also marks a change. Lawson has spent lockdown alone, her children grown; at 60, she is finally some distance from painful and public widowhood and divorce. It has also been three years since she had a show or a book, the longest time out of the limelight since her iconic debut. She has in that time returned to the roots of How to Eat, before her celebrity and, at its worst, paparazzi status kicked in.
The licking and the pouting and fake friends of her TV shows confused what was unique about her writing. She was not primarily interested in the pleasure of those she fed, or their praise; “never worry about what your guests will think of you” is her mantra, both aristocratic and Buddhist. For her, cooking is only sexual as an act of self-love. More it is therapy, for the cook alone, a way for them to keep on living, literally and emotionally. For Christmas 2020 that is promising to be both stressful and guest-free, Lawson offers a genuine mental-health strategy.
“I don’t mean that if we all gave up therapy and started baking sponges we’d be fine,” Diana Henry, the cookbook author who knows Lawson well, told me. “But she understands the way that cooking is enjoyable on a sensory level, that has its own rhythm, it can root you and calm you.”
Or, as Lawson wrote of her new book this year: “The cook can find shelter in the repeated practices that put food on the table. So often in the past it has been written about as a hobby, when it is the very thing that underpins life.”
Lawson has spent lockdown alone, her children grown; at 60, she is finally some distance from painful and public widowhood and divorce.
The long wait and this manifesto makes her new book a marquee event, in what is hotting up to be one of the most competitive cookbook seasons in recent history. Publishers are hoping these books will save their bacon, now restaurants are a corona-risk and huddling in our kitchens is one of the few unrestricted activities. We turn to them, never more so than now, for an extremely marketable brew of escapism, solace, and practical advice for your 2,499th meal of the year.
“When you look at the top of the bookseller nonfiction chart last week,” says the associate editor of The Bookseller, Caroline Sanderson, “and it’s a book by Mary Berry called Simple Comforts, that pretty much sums it up.”
It was assumed that cookbooks would be supplanted by Google searches, and in 2014 sales were plummeting. Delia Smith bowed out of the market, saying “there is not the need now to keep books”. Then something unexpected happened: cookbooks merged genres with self-help and Instagram. People didn’t like splattering their iPad screens. Last year a Pinch of Nom had sold 210,506 copies in three days, the most for a nonfiction title since sales were first tracked.
Post-corona there has been a further boom. The market was already piping hot: The Bookseller reports that in the food and drink category 8.1 million books were sold for $127 million in 2019, 16 per cent up in value year on year. Since bookshops reopened in June, cookbook sales are up 27 per cent in volume and 35 per cent in value against the same period last year — that’s 2.25 million books in three months, before the main season has even begun.
Autumn pits food heavyweights against each other. This year Jamie Oliver’s 7 Ways is up against Yotam Ottolenghi’s Flavour and Pinch of Nom’s Quick & Easy. It’s a bit rock’n’roll, like a battle of the bands or, in this case, pans, each book gunning to be the Christmas gift of 2020.
As with stadium tours, these household name books are not necessarily the most profitable for the publisher. They require vast entourages of glossy photographers, stylists and ghost-writers. Small “indie” writers such as the two women behind Pinch of Nom are where huge margins are possible.
For her, cooking is only sexual as an act of self-love. More it is therapy, for the cook alone, a way for them to keep on living, literally and emotionally.
In 2019 the Pinch of Nom book sold more than a million copies, double that of its closest rival, Oliver’s book of that year. Lawson’s last book in 2017 had over 150,000 sales in hardback that year, despite being published late in the pre-Christmas rush.
It’s when you look at those bestseller lists that you realize Lawson’s USP. Oliver now mostly focuses on quick family meals, the Great British Bake Off spin-offs mainly do “showstopper cakes” and the rest is largely focused on how not to eat, the Joe Wicks-style food plans.
Many have a rural or suburban feel to them whereas Lawson is purely urban, most famously in the unashamed shots in her TV series of her taking a black cab to pick up a few things from Waitrose. Although she lives and writes in London, her vibe is almost more Upper West Side, a kind of Nora-Ephron-in-Manhattan take on food that is sophisticated and wholeheartedly about home cooking.
When How to Eat came out, cookbooks were divided into the comforting bosom of Delia or the glamour of sexy young chefs such as Marco Pierre White. This was a divide that Ephron, writing about food authors, categorized as falling into two camps. The revolutionaries, whose agenda was time-saving and “less work for mother”, versus the purists, “whose virtue is taste”. Lawson found a way to be comforting and glamorous, revolutionary and tasteful.
When she first hit our screens she was a working parent, just as a generation of dual-income households came of age. She was shot in her middle-class home, her children sneaking bites from the kitchen counter. There was a cruel and ironic story unfolding in back of shot: her husband, the journalist John Diamond, was dying of throat cancer and unable to eat. One morning, Diamond hemorrhaged in the bathroom and it was his wife’s TV crew who gently cleaned it up.
Although she lives and writes in London, her vibe is almost more Upper West Side, a kind of Nora-Ephron-in-Manhattan take on food that is sophisticated and wholeheartedly about home cooking.
Then came her marriage to the multimillionaire art collector Charles Saatchi, at the dawn of a 21st century when we were becoming obsessed with the super-rich. This ten-year union ended in 2013 with paparazzi shots of Lawson being clutched by the throat. The TV shows were not shot at home any more; the “friends” at her table were her production crew and the pouting became a little camp. What seemed like a privileged life — daughter of a Conservative cabinet minister, making and marrying fortunes — was filled with one sadness after another.
She had to move schools nine times between the ages of 9 and 18; her sister died young of cancer, as did her mother, Vanessa, who was often depressed and had a complicated relationship with her daughter. Lawson memorialized her mother in one of her most famous dishes, “praised chicken”, as a serving of pure maternal solace.
When you read Lawson’s books you realize that the comfort in them feels very necessary. In 2012 she admitted that she sometimes said: “Please God, get me through the ordeal that is today.” She has described cooking as “a way of strengthening oneself”, in the sense that “being able to sustain oneself is the skill of the survivor”. In How to Eat she described how cooking food ahead of time feels like “the bolstering up of a life”.
It is this quality to her writing that connects with readers; her recipes are not just tried and tested in real ovens, but tried and tested on real pain. The big-boobs “stupenda of the blender” stuff doesn’t interest her mostly female customers, although Lawson’s self-proclaimed greediness is a one-woman corrective to the collectively disordered eating of 21st-century females.
It is more that these recipes are like torch songs. Cooking, Lawson once said, feels like “having nostalgia for a golden time that you did not really have”. They fetishize the cheeriness of children’s birthdays and Christmases — featuring cakes that I have depended on many times to get me through the stress of both — despite Lawson being repeatedly clear in her writing and programs that she is just as comfortable alone, another confidently counter-cultural stance.
In the past few years she has re-engaged with her fans, become playfully active on social media, tirelessly boosted young authors and championed new voices in food. “You can hear the sincerity,” Diana Henry says. “As she writes she talks to you, and I think that touches people, especially women.”
Niki Segnit, the author of the influential Flavour Thesaurus, agrees. “Consider the tall poppy syndrome that could have befallen her,” she says. “Daughter of a Conservative politician, rich, beautiful, but she gets away with it as she really, really means it. She has this utter belief in food, belief in cooking. She is quite happy on social media, she talks to people. Unlike some chefs, she still cooks and still loves it. She still has the appetite.”
This is a different Nigella, alone, yet more connected; suiting herself more. As she wrote of locking down solo, which seems to be a mantra that spans her writing career, “If you are isolating at home alone, make the most of only having yourself to please.”