I openly admit to harbouring a great dislike for pictureless cookbooks. Without illustration, a recipe is reduced to a list of sterile ingredients and a set of prosaic instructions. Of course, this might not be true; the book’s narrative might be witty and compellingly informative, offering inspiring kitchen ideas to any receptive reader. Alas, not for me, for like Alice I can’t see the “use of a [cook] book ... without pictures or conversations”. And in the wonderland of cookbooks, if you dare to recommend one sans photography you might just as well hand me your shopping list. It is with some jubilance, then, I bring you Nigella Lawson’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home; a belly-buster (place it on your kitchen scales and watch the arrow wobble towards the 2kg mark) of a book filled with Nigella’s scintillating conversations and stunning, mouth-watering photography accompanying every single recipe.
A goddess in a red apron, tarnished cooking-pot in hand, Nigella grins coquettishly from the front cover urging her readers to get stuck in to a book which promises (and delivers) instant gratification thanks to photographer Lis Parsons. As mentioned, the photography is striking and complements Nigella’s sensitivity towards the language of food where colour, texture and mood are considered vital ingredients for producing outstanding dishes. Nigella’s favourite colour has got to be red: from the red-riding-hood colour of her apron on the front cover and on to the garishly red cake-stand displaying ‘Devil’s food cake’ on page 253, Nigella’s desire for red, it seems, borders on the obsessive. Indeed, so prolific is red throughout the book that if you chance upon a picture that lacks this colour an eye to brain message is transmitted, advising you subliminally, that something is amiss. Having commented thus, the use of red is far from gratuitous. Take for example the image accompanying her recipe for ‘Slut’s spaghetti’ on page 189; what better way to enjoy this dish than cushioned demurely on a tart-red leatherette chair wrapped in scarlet satin.
Kitchen, for me is not just a book to be taken into said room and used to coach your culinary skills. It’s a book for bedtime and particularly one to savour in after reading your fill of contemporary fiction. Forget Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, when a desire for metropolitan melancholia beckons, turn to page 336 and admire how Nigella conveys the beauty and gloom of a Venetian skyline as she tucks into a plateful of polenta-constructed lasagne:
I ease myself into this comforting pile-up of rich meat sauce and sweet,
grainy, cheese-thickened polenta, dreaming of the mournful and inky
winter evening light over the lagoon.
As with her male counterpart, Nigel Slater (in name as in food-flair) she remains top on my list of food-writers. Both are able to combine easy-to-follow, inspiring recipes with highly entertaining yet stimulating narrative. For example, it’s not just the simplicity of her recipe for ‘Mussels in cider’ (page 60) but the sensual rendering of the molluscs’ “naked sweetness against the rasp of cider” which would make me want to cook and eat it. There are occasions, however, where I can become a little cross with Nigella and this became apparent as I was scribbling down notes after replicating her ‘Butternut, rocket and pine nut salad’ (page 94), (the results to be posted on my blog very soon). After various crossings out, I realised it was fruitless to even attempt a description that could do justice to the humble pine nut anything like Nigella had, as she regaled the seductive charm of ‘Pappardelle with butternut and blue cheese’, on page 333:
...the waxy, scorched pine nuts give quiet crunch, a hint of nubbliness, to this
meltingly gorgeous concoction.
Nubbliness, now why hadn’t I thought of that?
Although highly informative, Nigella’s Kitchen is never officious or condescending. While she recognises the “obscene practices of factory farming” (page 220) she also acknowledges that hers is a privileged position, one in which she is able to choose an organic or free-range chicken in favour of a factory farmed bird. In addition, Nigella certainly doesn’t think she’s above using hitherto much maligned shortcuts like ready-grated parmesan (albeit from Italy) or even opening a jar of pour-over-sauce for pasta. It is this down-to-earth attitude in the kitchen that might appeal to many of us who, after a stressful day’s work, want nothing more complex than a poached egg atop a slice of buttered toast and a side of baked beans. Furthermore, there are signs here and there of an almost empathetic telepathy as she expresses how it feels to be a tired and hungry working-mother of teenage children where “going for too long without food can make [her] feel both suicidal and murderous”. I have felt this way, often.
Along with Nigella’s other books, Kitchen is accompanied by a BBC TV series. And yet for me, like the film version of a favourite novel, it does not seem to measure up to the pleasures of being lost in her book. On screen, there are too many obvious innuendos accompanied by too much head-tossing and boob-wobbling, guaranteeing that sooner or later she’ll become fodder for someone's Saturday night comedy show. And I’m sorry but however much I try and suspend my disbelief, I cannot tolerate the idea of her slipping downstairs at midnight, after munching her way through a multi-course dinner, and finishing off elephantine portions of chocolate cake. Voluptuous she may be but such gluttony must yield other, less desirable, repercussions. Okay, if not morbid obesity then at least a spare couple of chins.