February 22, 2018 | Narrative
bring on the butter
The night before second semester began, I dropped my suitcase in my room, grabbed my empty backpack, and trekked through the rain to Eastside Marketplace. I was back on campus early, one of the few on my floor and the first of my friends, and I was hungry. I could have rustled up some plain pasta and upped the nutrition quotient with the few peas from the bottom of the bag I’d left in my freezer over break, provided I could hack apart the icy lump that encased them. It might have worked, brightened up with a little bit of pepper nicked from the open container in the communal kitchen, but I was in a cooking mood. I was in a Nigella mood, actually. According to Nigella, I was about to make one of her “proudest creations,” and I needed linguine, thyme, garlic, mushrooms, and a lemon. So to the supermarket I went.
Nigella Lawson is arguably the paragon of home cooking, especially in an era when all Food Network seems to show is high-octane competitions involving wicker baskets filled with rooster feet and ostrich eggs and far too much puree. Nigella is different. Though she is the daughter of a British lord and was educated at Oxford, she shuns pretension in the kitchen, preferring a primarily English-Italian hybrid style of cooking that is rooted in the revamping of domestic bliss. She leaped onto the culinary scene in 1998, the year I was born, with the publication of her first book, How to Eat. She is unfussy, decadent, comforting, and unabashedly joyful. Nigella delights in the “ritual disemboweling of the lemon” in an episode of her early 2000s cooking show, Nigella Bites. The second season of this show is compiled, in full, on YouTube in a video that clocks in at just over four hours and 47 minutes. I fell in love with this video, along with the pirated versions of her later series, alone in my dorm room freshman year, when I didn’t have access to a kitchen. Watching Nigella exclaim over the smell of nutmeg, “which in large quantities is a hallucinogen, but in small quantities induces a wonderful feeling of…well-being,” I, too, felt well—like I could handle the uncertainty of young adulthood if only my breakfast were properly spiced. So spice I did (with cinnamon, as I soon discovered the smell of nutmeg induces in me a feeling of queasiness, not well-being).
One of the first episodes in the second season of Nigella Bites begins with a recipe for mashed potatoes. First thing in the pan: a healthy splash of cream—milk is acceptable, Nigella concedes, as long as you do not even CONSIDER anything less than full-fat. Then go in boiled potatoes, butter, and salt.
Nigella begins to mash. As she mashes the potatoes, Nigella looks lovingly at the golden rectangle of butter shimmering in the silver packet next to her bowl, considers for a moment, and slices off another generous pat. She explains, looking at the camera, that extra butter is essential, “as what I’m doing here is seeking protection from life, solely through potato, butter, and cream.” These kinds of maxims permeate each episode and really Nigella’s ethos as a whole. Food is a glorious, nourishing thing, able to ease heartbreak, boost confidence, and make even the most mundane of Mondays magnificent. Whether eaten in the company of friends and family or on the couch in front of the television, cooking is the ultimate act of caring—for others, but also for oneself.
“Roast Leg of Lamb, For One” is one of her most famous recipes. If Nigella says so, we all deserve to eat something prepared well and seasoned with love. And we all deserve to delight in watching her smother the hock of meat with red wine and rosemary. I am starting to believe it for myself.
Despite the extravagance of a roast leg of lamb, particularly for someone on a student budget, what makes Nigella so near and dear to me is her avowed informality. In an episode called “Trashy,” which comes about midway through the master YouTube compilation, she prepares a peanut-butter-and-banana “Elvis sandwich.” It is easy, something one probably doesn’t even need a recipe for, but it is fun and comforting to watch this woman, a cook far more experienced than I am, stick a knife into a jar of peanut butter and slick it across two pieces of white bread to create a sandwich like the kind so many of us brought to kindergarten lunch. As she unwraps the bread, she makes it clear that this is not a gourmet dish, insisting that it must be made with “fat stodges of white plastic bread, please”—no small-batch sourdough here. Nigella often works with fresh ingredients. (Indeed, some of the majesty of watching her cook is seeing how she combines piles of vibrant vegetables into one heaping, colorful dish.) Even so, she also embraces processed food, the kind some of her contemporaries would look down upon. (Though she’s an American icon, and one I also adore, Ina Garten’s dejected “store-bought is fine” comes to mind when really, everyone watching knows it isn’t, not really.) Nigella sings the praises of simplicity, of ease, even if that means cutting the occasional corner. For her, any cooking is better than no cooking, and that message rings true throughout, whether she’s making a sandwich or a souffle. Her style instills confidence in even the most timid cook. For example, when whipping up a flourless chocolate cake she remarks, “It’s better not to be scared of egg whites—if you’re too scared it does somehow permeate its way into the cooking. You just have to relax,” flicking her wrist as the camera pans to foam swirling together with chocolate, chaos with calm.
By the time I settled my bounty on the gritty countertop of the Perkins third-floor kitchen and rolled up my sweater sleeves, the rain had stopped, and cool air filtered in through the open window. Taking a deep breath, I began chopping mushrooms, tossing them with thyme, lemon juice, tiny minces of garlic, and glug after glug of golden olive oil. I boiled my pasta, fishing out long strands every couple of minutes to check for doneness and also, to relish in the process, the chemical transformation from hard stalk to chewy noodle. As I assembled my dish, saving half for leftovers, I remembered another Nigella quotable: “All pasta is good, that’s the universal rule.” Indeed, I thought, with pasta, anything is possible. And then I took a bite.