Nigella Lawson's debut still a foodie's delight two decades after hitting kitchens
When Nigella Lawson's How To Eat appeared on shelves 20 years ago it changed the cookery writing scene and launched the chef herself to stardom. Ella Walker pores over the now re-issued classic as it celebrates its anniversary
I was 10 years old when Nigella's groundbreaking bestseller, How To Eat: The Pleasures And Principles Of Good Food, hit the shelves in 1998. At the time, my palate was very much concerned with fish fingers, penny sweets and pizza day at school (every Wednesday - we got chips, too), while Nigella's cookery book career was about to whoosh into serious, decade-defining action.
She'd already made a name for herself as a freelance journalist, restaurant critic at The Spectator and recipe columnist at Vogue, but the success of How To Eat, followed swiftly by How To Be A Domestic Goddess, was set to send her spinning onto television and into practically every kitchen in the country.
It wasn't until my early 20s that I became properly aware of her.
Watching her make a 'chips kebab' on telly - which involved nipping out for hot and salty, vinegar-drenched chip-shop chips to fold into a ready-bought wrap, liberally coated in hummus - all I could think was: 'Wow, who does that and calls it a recipe?' It was obvious: How could you not need this woman in your culinary life?
How To Eat is now a bona fide modern classic and is being re-released in honour of its 20th anniversary.
Nigella is also set to go on tour to discuss it with a slew of celebrated writers (Diana Henry and Felicity Cloake among them).
But if, like me, you don't have a much-adored, much-battered, much-spilled-upon copy, with dog-ears and a torn cover that nods to 20 years of consulting the queen of home cooking, this is just a snippet of what we've been missing...
It's more prose than cookbook
Divided into sections like, 'Fast Food', 'Weekend Lunch' and 'Feeding Babies & Small Children', you'd expect a recipe collection that is eminently practical - and How To Eat is just that, but it's also knitted together with reflections, anecdotes and memories.
The recipes are stories as much as they are instructions (hence why I've read the bulk of it in bed, rather than beside the stove), and while there are ingredients lists, the words run-on like a particularly well-ordered stream of consciousness, devoted entirely to getting you to a bowl of something good.
And all the while, Nigella folds you into her life - she makes mayonnaise like her mother, and now you do too; she appears beside you eating a 'Laughing Cow and plastic bread sandwich' and you will now, forever more, unreservedly worship at the alter of the roast chicken.
Nigella loves Marsala and frozen peas
You cannot cook remotely like Nigella if you have neither peas in your freezer or a bottle of Marsala on your kitchen counter.
Considering the latter goes so well with both custard and calves' liver, it turns out you can't possibly be without it.
If the writing's good enough, you can survive without pictures
If there's no accompanying picture to a recipe, how do you know what you're aiming for? How crisped up should the aubergine be exactly?
Were you meant to leave the cauliflower leaves on? Does it really need coriander leaves sprinkled on top? We eat with our eyes too, don't we?
And yet, despite not a single page of How To Eat containing a vaguely instructive illustration or photograph, somehow you don't miss them.
My imagined twirls of linguine studded with clams (Nigella's favourite solo meal), or the sheen on her demerara dredged Barbados Cream, may not fit anyone else's version - Nigella's included - but that somehow seems reasonable, sensible in fact. Her musings and thoughts are there to guide, not provide an absolute to strive for. Perfection is of no interest, and it's a relief.
You are worth cooking for, even when eating alone
Taking the trouble to cook for yourself, she says, is about "enjoying life on purpose, rather than by default", which is really quite lovely, and thoroughly encouraging.
She is firm, but never makes you feel bad
Whether it's not baking your own bread ("Making it is hardly a fundamental activity for most of us") or not cooking at all ("If you hate cooking, don't do it. You can certainly eat well enough just by learning how to shop"), her opinions are sturdy, without being damning of your culinary inclinations.
For instance, you shall never overstock your freezer again, but also, you'll not race home to eat everything in it out of guilt.
The exception is chickpeas. They may be stratospherically more tasty if soaked from dry for 24 hours, as Nigella insists, but I can't see a world in which we don't just buy them pre-cooked in a can.
Eating well is not about being a whizz in the kitchen
She makes everything seem achievable, from pastry (which she conspiratorially admits she's had her own difficulties with) to Christmas ("Every cook's nightmare") and even an "extravagant but still elegant dinner for eight" (her recipes have the best titles).
Gadgets and culinary-school techniques are pretty much obsolete, it's more about picking the right ingredients for the right moment, and not burying yourself in expectation and pressure.
There is hope here, and hungers satisfied. Nigella makes greediness and giddiness over food a wonderful, valuable attribute - a kindness almost, to ourselves and those we feed. She's quite magnificent, no matter what decade you're in.
How To Eat: The Pleasures And Principles Of Good Food by Nigella Lawson is published by Vintage Classics, £14.99. The An Evening with Nigella Lawson tour runs from October 14-November 13 - see faneproductions.com/nigella for more information