Cookbook author Nigella Lawson has that elusive strong voice writers covet, the one fans recognize anywhere.
I heard it when I went to hear her speak to promote her new book, Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food. She’s brilliant (an Oxford graduate in medieval studies), funny and intimate.
She wrote interviews and film reviews at first, eventually turning to food. “When I write about food I’m still very aware of the language I’m using,” she said. “The challenge is how to use language to conjure the world and the senses. There is a journalistic element and a writing element. I’m not writing the great novel of the 21st Century but I’m very engaged by what I do.”
Her recipe headnotes reflect her knowledge and interests, which she wants to share with readers. “I always say my readers aren’t stupid,” she said. Her editors were “quite happy with a reference to Macbeth in my beet pickle recipe. What they couldn’t get their heads around was rap.” She also wrote the sentence, “The round radicchio, in all its plump Episcopal splendor, is not to be disparaged.”
Lawson defended her right to both entertain and inform readers about the world and relationships. “The story behind a recipe is essential,” she told the crowd. “As human beings we’re interested in many different things. We’re alive, we’re in the world.”
Even when she writes about entertaining, a common cookbook topic, her strong voice is there. Here’s an example from a recipe for Cauliflower and Cashew Nut Curry:
“You know I am never knowingly undercatered, and therefore are probably not surprised that I am suggesting turning a whole cauliflower into a curry for just 2 people. In my defense, I should say that I once made this for 4 people, and nearly hyperventilated as I saw the first 2 fill up their plates, and featured how meager the portions would be for the 2 of us remaining. Besides, you cannot in all seriousness suggest that a quarter of a cauliflower is really enough for one person’s supper: this is not a vegetable accompaniment; it is the main event. Yes, I know that it would be enough from a nutritional point of view, but blame my atavistic refugee mentality: I just can’t do it. I feel part of the security I derive from cooking is knowing that there will be leftovers for later.”
How does that strong voice come out?
- Her tone. You feel like she’s on the phone, entertaining you. She writes as though you know her.
- She tells a story first, about not providing enough food for dinner. We’ve all been there, and in doing so she becomes relatable. “I have the same worries as my readers and I voice them when I write.”
- She thinks you’re smart enough to understand an “atavistic refugee mentality.” It’s flattering.
- She closes by being relatable again, by admitting she needs to cook enough for leftovers.
“I like to feel that I’m being held by a particular intelligence when I read a book, ” Lawson said.
Would your readers like the same? Do your outside interests belong in a recipe?
* * *
You might also like: