In the world of the celebrity chef, where books are churned out every year along with the television show and the newly endorsed kitchen products, it can be easy to forget that at some point there was a reason why these people became famous in the first place. Nigella Lawson is a case in point – the same flirtatious looks to the television camera, the coquettishness of her manner, and the double entendre laden words. The constant mining of a new angle – quick food, summer food, baking, this fashion, that trend – a battle to keep the personality fresh and the profits flowing.
Lawson started her career in food as a columnist, and the quality of her work led to her writing a book. How To Eat was first published in 1998 and it became a bestseller. The two keys to its success were the high quality of Lawson’s writing and the common sense she offers about cooking. The first sign of a practical mind is the way she arranged this book. Chapters devoted to cooking for one or two, weekend lunches, and feeding babies and small children, shows someone who understands modern life. The recipes she provides use ingredients that are easy to find and use reasonably straightforward techniques. Ten years down the track and How To Eat is as joyful a read as ever. I suspect that in fifty years’ time, people will still be reading it.
Structure of the book
The book begins with a preface by Lawson where she outlines a few thoughts about her views on food and about the book. There are then a few pages of charts and conversions. She does write two paragraphs about cooking fish, and this seems out of place until you realise there’s a roasting chart for other meats on the opposite page. Next are eight chapters on cooking: Basics, Cooking in Advance, One and Two, Fast Food, Weekend Lunch, Dinner, Low Fat, and Feeding Babies and Small Children. The final four chapters are Gazetteer (suppliers), Bibliography, Acknowledgments, and the Index. She begins each chapter with an essay of observations, anecdotes, and advice. The recipes follow, with the title in colour, followed by a brief discussion of the dish. The ingredients are then listed in colour, and finally the method.
About the author
Nigella Lawson is an English journalist, television presenter, and author. After establishing a career as a food writer, she wrote the award winning How To Eat. A television career followed, and she has since released seven more cookbooks.
How is this book interesting/special/new/useful?
There is a danger in How To Eat that, in reading her recipe introductions, you will continue reading and forget to cook. Lawson’s writing is full of charm, humour, and coquettishness, and it’s easy to imagine her telling you her stories over a weekend lunch. She understands the difference between what people can cook at home and what some television chefs think people should do, and the result is a very practical book. Her ability to tell a story brings context to the recipes. Heston Blumenthal wrote about the importance of memory as a reference point to the food we enjoy eating, and Lawson’s anecdotes are an exercise in this point. Most people will relate to her stories about picnics and children’s parties, the stresses of cooking dinner and the lazy afternoons lingering over lunch.
It’s her awareness of modern life that has driven the structure of the book. A reader could almost live by a couple of chapters as they go through the various stages of life. The Basics and Fast Food chapters would be a good grounding for students and beginners. As you start to settle down with someone, the “Cooking in Advance” and “One and Two” sections stand out. The couple mature and start having dinner parties and lunches, so the two chapters devoted to these activities will get used a lot. Finally, the children come along and they suddenly become very health conscious, so “Low Fat” and “Feeding Babies and Small Children” become the new focus.
Lawson is something of a bowerbird in the way she collects recipes. Restaurant chefs, friends, relatives, and even the reality television show Masterchef have been sources of the recipes in her book. The time-challenged will find a recipe like escalopes of salmon with warm balsamic vinaigrette to be a satisfying quick dinner. Those with ambitions for dinner parties will be pleased with the menus she presents, such as her summer dinner which presents a grilled pepper salad, a marinated butterflied leg of lamb, a watercress and mushroom salad with garlic potato, and poached pears with Sauternes custard. My partner and I followed her advice about what foods should be prepared for children’s parties, and that saved us a lot of aggravation and heartache.
Lawson, like other writers such as Simon Hopkinson, Richard Corrigan, and Elizabeth David, doesn’t appear to be a slave to whatever is fashionable and, like these other writers, she presents her views well. For example, contrary to modern trends, she champions the use of dried herbs arguing that it’s not an issue of what’s better, but what the actual dried herb offers. But like these other writers, Lawson shows that she is not a perfect cook every time. Fergus Henderson is often quoted about how food can misbehave if it detects fear, and Lawson makes the same observation about her experiences in making mayonnaise.
Perhaps the final words should be from Lawson. In her preface, she writes, “I am not a chef. I am not even a trained or professional cook. My qualification is as an eater. I cook what I want to eat – within limits. I have a job – another job, that is, as an ordinary working journalist – and two children, one of whom was born during the writing of this book [...] I wanted food that can be made and eaten in real life, not in perfect, isolated laboratory conditions”.
What problems/flaws are there?
How to Eat is a very good book for those learning how to cook. However, people who are beginners will often want the comfort of pictures, and this book contains very few – and the ones that are there are more for decoration than explanation. The recipe instructions are presented in a conversational manner, so someone preparing dishes may lose their way if they are not properly organised.
Who might enjoy/use this book most?
This book will find an appreciative audience in those who want a good, solid repertoire of recipes and those who want to read some very engaging commentary on food. Lawson’s encouraging words also make this book a good choice for people who are learning to cook.
|: 5. Highly recommended
: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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