When I moved to London from a small Midlands town five years ago, I thought I was a good cook. I had spent the last two years teaching myself to cook and writing a blog where I’d share recipes and get hundreds of people telling me how delicious they were. I cooked a different meal every night of the week and I had expanded my culinary horizons so far that I could barely see where I’d come from.
Then I moved to London and realised I knew nothing. I’d never tried guacamole or pesto before, and I lost my mind when someone introduced me to halloumi. I vividly remember going to my friend Ashley’s house for the first time, being given toasted pitta and houmous as a snack, and thinking that I was the fanciest woman in all of the land. I just didn’t eat like this. No one I knew ate like this. I loved food and cooking, but it was like a door to another world had opened for me, a world I hadn’t even known existed.
This memory is what came to mind when I saw the Daily Mail headline “Running out of ideas, Nigella?”. Her new book, At My Table, a food memoir of sorts, contains things like toasted sandwiches she’s enjoyed or how to whip feta with cumin and lemon juice before spreading it on toast, and the Daily Mail is using the simplicity of these recipes to declare that, after 11 hugely successful books, Nigella can’t come up with anything new. The suggestion is that this new book is too simple and too boring to bother with.
The idea of mixing feta with lemon juice and spreading it on good-quality bread was so alien to me that it might as well have been a suggestion to pick up some plasma fruit from Jupiter
For a lot of people, I imagine these recipes are too simple. But then again, these are probably the people who’d automatically think to whip some feta and spread it on toast, rather than grab a microwave pizza from the freezer. I’m sure there are lots of people in the UK who grew up instinctively knowing that you can put parmesan in your mashed potatoes to make them delicious, something the Mail attacks Nigella for writing about, and that’s great. Genuinely, good for them.
But you know what? I wasn’t one of them and neither are so many others. My parents worked ridiculously long hours all through my childhood and were too exhausted to cook from scratch when they came home, so we relied on a lot of frozen stuff for our dinners. Cooking to me was taking oven chips and serving them with boiled frozen vegetables and some kind of pre-prepared meat – or, failing that, getting a takeaway. The idea of mixing feta with lemon juice and spreading it on good-quality bread was so alien to me that it might as well have been a suggestion to pick up some plasma fruit from Jupiter and serve it sprinkled with salted moon rocks.
I’ve seen a load of headlines in the Daily Mail about how processed food and takeaways are the reason for the obesity crisis in the UK and how we should all be cooking from scratch because it’s healthier. Books like Nigella’s – books full of simple, accessible recipes and ideas with ingredients that can be picked up in a cornershop and made in 15 minutes at the end of the day – are what will help that happen for people who don’t have the energy to teach themselves how to cook something complicated that takes 45 minutes and needs you to wash six pots at the end of an 11-hour day. Society can’t attack people for relying on convenience food in one breath and then make fun of simple cookbooks in another – it’s not fair and it’s not solving anything.
There are huge swathes of people, myself included, who first discovered cooking after trying basic recipes in cookbooks like At My Table
And you know, it’s strange. I swear I’ve seen recipes for toasted sandwiches in lots of Nigel Slater’s books, and Jamie Oliver’s utterly brilliant new book is completely filled with basic recipes that only use five ingredients. There was a noticeable lack of sneery Daily Mail columns about them. I wonder why that might be….
You might not want a recipe book that explains how to turn a loaf of decent bread into knee-tremblingly good garlic bread, and that’s fine – there are literally thousands of other cookbooks on the market that will cater for your more advanced needs. But there are huge swathes of people, myself included, who first discovered cooking after trying basic recipes in cookbooks like At My Table. If you really want to encourage more people to cook, then stop being so snobby about food, and stop writing snide articles that could dissuade people who aren’t natural cooks from buying the book and learning to fall in love with food.