“Most people can’t help finding something embarrassingly onanis-tic about taking pleasure in eating alone. Even those who claim to love food think that cooking just for yourself is either extravagantly self-indulgent or a plain waste of time and effort. But you don’t have to belong to the drearily narcissistic learn-to-love-yourself school of thought to grasp that it might be a good thing to consider yourself worth cooking for. And the sort of food you cook for yourself will be different from the food you might lay on for tablefuls of people: it will be better. I don’t say that for effect. You’ll feel less nervous about cooking it and that translates to the food itself. It’ll be simpler, more straightforward, the sort of food you want to eat.”
I was twenty, and ‘How To Eat‘ was already a decade old when I first fell across it in late 2008. With no frivolous, intimidating full colour photographs, How To Eat invited readers to take Lawson’s words to the corner chair, by the light of the evening, and devour them like a novel. An avaricious reader, but a novice cook, my appetite for this book was that of the desperate hunger of falling rapidly, and unexpectedly, in love.
It was not my copy, but I didn’t care; I folded down corner after corner until the edge groaned with the doubled-down voluminous promises of the new. I carefully underscored words with an absent-minded fingernail, barely stopped short of courting lovers just to have an excuse to thumb moules marinieres and feed one another rich, heady, heavy puddings. And more importantly, I learned to cook for myself. I heard, in those pages, a quiet and motherly assurance that I deserved to enjoy the good things contained therein. A former grammar-school anorexic with a phobia of food and a fear of pleasure, the paragraph at the start of this article did more for my mental and physical recovery than any stern doctor, school counsellor or exasperated friend in their wisdom could.
How To Eat reframed my relationship with food, cookery, burgeoning sexuality and pleasure; it awoke in me a hunger and a sensuality for culinary discovery that now intertwines within the very fibre of my being, so woven throughout the frail fragments of my hypersensory realities that it is impossible to remember myself any other way than this.
This baptism of burgeoning voracity was, of course, long before I found myself unemployed, hungry and stabbing at sloppy ready meals in the half-darkness of a freezing cold flat. With poverty came depression, loneliness, and crushingly low esteem. I forgot how to feed myself, forgot how to love myself, unlearned all of the dance steps to my kitchen salsa. Where once I travailed my spice shelves whispering them aloud in a language of love and longing, I had forgotten their names. The heart of my home had stopped beating, in its place yawned a silence, an emptiness.
And then. In 2012 I came across a copy of Kitchen, also by Nigella, and I tentatively taught myself to cook all over again. Using the change I had from my paltry (and often late, delayed, suspended) benefits, I swapped her ingredients for substitutes from tins, olive oil for sunflower, macaroni for Sainsbury’s Basics penne, and, like a flower turning towards the sun, I very slowly fell in love with cooking all over again.
For its twentieth anniversary, I find myself poring back through How To Eat – like hearing the words to an old familiar song all over again, softly humming the tune, knowing it won’t take long before I know them all by heart, again. I owe an unending debt of gratitude to this book, firstly for gently guiding me into the kitchen by the light of my own besotted grin, and for instilling in me the basics that lurked so far beneath the surface in my time of need, but there they were. For gentle confidence in both my own ability to create and to write about it, I look forward to our next twenty years, together.
For the ‘Bootlegged’ series I have taken the liberty of choosing two of my favourite recipes, and ‘bootstrapping’ them. I hope by doing this that I will encourage readers to explore and experiment on their own bookshelves, and learn to cook almost anything, by anyone they love, on a budget. From ‘How To Eat’ by Nigella Lawson, I have made ‘Petits Pois A La Francaise (French Peas)‘ and ‘Lentil And Chestnut Soup‘, in my own style, while paying tribute to the originals.
All text copyright Jack Monroe.
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