Q&A: Nigella Lawson | April 15, 2013

Nigella Lawson is a British food writer (Nigella Kitchen) and television personality (Nigella Bites; The Taste) whose warm, personal writing style and obvious delight in the pleasures of the table have made her an international star. Her ninth book, Nigellissima, is a celebration of Italian food and flavors.

In your introduction to Nigellissima, you mention having a “whole wall full of Italian cookbooks.” What do you think characterizes standout titles in this extremely popular genre? What does Nigellissima offer readers or libraries with their own large collections? (And, since I know the librarians will be wondering, do you weed your collection or just add more shelving to accommodate new purchases?)

For me, a stand-out title is primarily about the writing. This is not to say that the recipes matter less, but that the books I return to again and again are those which I enjoy reading as well as cooking from. However, I feel immediately anxious that this statement undermines an extremely important genre, namely Italian books (that’s to say, those written in Italian) that are simply compilations of a particular region or community’s recipes. As long as I have enough of these, then I find them intrinsically interesting, as I compare one particular way of cooking any given recipe to another’s. But having said that, I can do similar work by going onto google.it (the Italian Google search engine) and finding recipes that way. Where books have the edge is that they are for readers rather than just researchers; there is, however, joy in both fields.

As for Nigellissima: while it doesn’t feel comfortable for me to extol its virtues—and nor do I propose to do so—I should say that it is an entirely personal account of the influence Italy and Italian food have had on the way I cook, and therefore offers something necessarily different than any other writer might produce. Of course, as with all my books, I try and combine readability with recipe-reliability. The words are as important to me as the ingredients; indeed, they are themselves ingredients, vital ingredients for a book.

I wish I could say I weeded, but last time I outgrew my books, luckily I moved house and built a bigger bookcase. Right now, I have blocked off extra space after each section with some non-food books that can be shifted (and  a lot of non-food books do have to be given away, either to charities or hospitals) to make space for new food books. Quite what will happen when there are no more books to shift, I hate to think!

You’re well known for being very engaged with your fans online, responding to all tweets yourself, for example. To what degree do those interactions influence your writing and recipe development?

Well, I have actually amended a recipe on a second printing once because one of my readers told me of a variation in cooking method she’d tried out, and in Nigellissima I do have a recipe that one of my Italian Twitter followers told me about. But although I enjoy the feedback and feel very at home on Twitter (and I’m glad you recognize that I do all my tweeting myself—I’d never let anyone write anything in my name) I write what feels right to me, and the idea of doing anything that would be a marketing exercise to work out what is wanted, say, is abhorrent to me. I feel Twitter is a conversation, not an online focus group.

When it comes to adapting recipes for an American audience, is it mostly a matter of swapping metric and U.S. measurements or are there other issues to keep in mind?

I think it is very important that any recipe is given in numbers that make sense in the given measuring system. For example, I might specify 250g tomatoes in my UK metric edition, but even though that is more accurately 9 oz., I would always specify 8oz tomatoes for a U.S. edition as that makes sense within that scheme. In other words, it’s never a question of looking up in a chart and swapping measurements (though I have known that to be done!) but rewriting a whole recipe so the balance is kept—and cooking is, after all, about ratios—and makes sense to the reader.

As much as possible, I like to “translate” into cups, as I know this is the system that is used most in homes in the States, and I regard myself as more or less “bilingual” these days. Other considerations are those of availability and nomenclature. For example, I need help from those on the ground to tell me what size packets, say, frozen spinach comes in. If a packet comes in a 12 oz. size in the UK, I might specify that for the recipe in my original UK edition, but if in the U.S., the packet is 10 oz., I would amend the recipe accordingly rather than make someone buy two packets and use a mere 2 oz. from the second one. That deals with availability; nomenclature is part of that. That’s to say, we have double cream, you have heavy cream; I use the terms interchangeably, but actually the fat content of double cream is higher and thus it whips slightly differently, but not enough to cause concern.

Nigellissima is beautiful as an object in its own right. How much input do you have over the photography and design of the physical book? Were any of the recipes especially challenging to style?

I govern all areas, though not as a dictator. I have worked with the same designer since my very first book in 1998 (Caz Hildebrand, whose Geometry of Pasta, coauthored by Jacob Kennedy, is a work of art) and I feel we have a very creative collaboration: I decided that I wanted Nigellissima to be a wider measure than my other books; that I wanted to change the font slightly; that I wanted that font to be charcoal not grey; that I wanted the props used to be only whites, blacks, and greys so that the only colour would be the food. But it is Caz who took those ideas and turned them into the beautiful object I have in front of me now, along with the wonderful photography of Petrina Tinsley, whom we chose together. I do rather wish the U.S. edition had the white marble boards that I asked for the UK edition to have (in other words, a picture of white marble printed onto the boards) but I also respect that each art director must make the choice that feels right to him or herself.

The only challenge I ever face is that I am garrulous (should you need that pointed out) and I wanted each recipe to fit onto one page or one spread, which means I often had to cut my copy. This, however, is a good thing: writing, like recipes, is improved by editing; what you leave out matters as much as what you leave in.—Stephanie Klose, Library Journal

Stephanie Klose About Stephanie Klose

Stephanie Klose (sklose@mediasourceinc.com, @sklose on Twitter) is Media Editor, Library Journal.