From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
A Conversation with Nigella Lawson

A Conversation with Nigella Lawson

Talking to the cookbook author and TV show host about her upbringing, creativity, and being generous on social media.

I was, of course, nervous to talk to Nigella Lawson, but I shouldn’t have been. Lawson is hilarious, warm, and down-to-earth despite all the success she’s had between 1998’s How to Eat and 2020’s Cook, Eat, Repeat.

After this conversation, I would tell everyone: She is one of us! A writer, worried about coming up with new ideas like we all are. As I readied this transcript for publication, I was cracking up at some parts and feeling absolutely affirmed by others. Lawson is just wildly generous, and I was wildly lucky to get to talk to her about everything from her upbringing to how she’s cooking these days to how she continues to be creative. And I’m so happy I get to share it with everyone. Listen above, or read below.

This episode of From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy is brought to you by Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras from Workman Publishing. Tour each continent through the book’s encyclopedic entries on some of the world’s most interesting foods and places. Did you know that in Iowa there’s a Seed Savers Exchange where over 20,000 plant varieties that might otherwise be lost are stored on a 890-acre organic farm? Learn about this and more in Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide, on sale now.

Alicia: Hi, Nigella. Thank you so much for being here. 

Nigella: Well, it's a real pleasure to be here. 

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Nigella: Well, I grew up in London, really central London. And obviously, it was a long time ago. I was born in 1960. I do remember the Kings Road in the ’60s, when it was all happening. 

Now, we were a very food-focused household. My mother was a wonderful cook. I mean, never from books. I think she had two books. Very instinctive, but—and really just doing things by what they tasted like, and as far as I was aware, not technique in any particular way. I get my sort of impatience, I think, from her. And sometimes that's useful in the kitchen, actually, but sometimes not at all. 

Now, she cooked slightly differently. When I was a child, a lot of my friends would—they'd be eating kind of, much more, I suppose, what people abroad would think of as English foods—quite plain. And if it was pasta, it was what we call spag bol. We don't even do it the proper way. In Italian spag bol, spaghetti bolognaise. In a way that would make an Italian weep.

My mother actually had learned, had—it's quite, rather interesting. When she was a child, they had an Italian—her mother, not terribly maternal; always had to get lots of people in between her and the children. Yeah, her grandmother got various people. And there was one, Antonia, who was an Italian au pair, as much as that existed in the time. So my mother was cooking spaghetti aglio e olio and things with real flavor. But what really made the difference was that it was considered among people who felt they were respectable—not that I don’t, I don't think my mother thought that about herself—but respectable. And it wasn't done to talk about food a lot now, so you didn't really mention it, whereas it was very much the subject about what we were eating and so forth. 

But the thing that is quite strange now is that I didn't really eat as a child. I really dreaded mealtimes. It was old-fashioned even when I was a child. But what would happen is I didn't eat, and if you didn't eat, it was like being—it was very Victorian. If you didn't eat, you had to sit at the table until you finished. And if you still didn't finish it, at the next meal, you would be given your cold plate. It's a miracle I love food so much. 

But of course, my parents who had been children in the war; they had grown up with rationing and really no food in the shops. So I can see why, for them, it was a waste. And I have inherited that thing about waste, as well. But I really didn't like it. I didn't like eating.

But my mother didn’t believe—she got us in the kitchen. Well, in a sexist way. My brother, who's older, never had to be in the kitchen, but—because that was how they were then. But I had a sister 16 months younger, and we really would help in a way that children don't help now, because it wasn't to amuse us. We would help cook when we—when I was six, and she was five, and we'd stand on a rickety chair. 

We had this thing called the New World Range, which was this big gas cooker. And we'd have to stir things. We'd make mayonnaise. So my mother, being very impatient, one of us would whisk egg yolks, the other one would be pouring the oil. And if you got the pouring job, it was terrifying. But it meant that I didn't know I had learned to cook, but I did. So she didn't give lessons or say why, but I saw what she did. And I've always cooked.

I don't like being forced. I didn't enjoy the state of childhood, at all. You have no autonomy, really, as a child. And you certainly didn't then. And so, once I was a bit older, and I could cook for myself and choose what I ate, then I really loved it. 

And I loved it with my grandmother. I'd go there every Friday in the morning. I mean, when there wasn’t school. Or after school, we’d go shopping together. We'd cook certain things. And it felt much more collaborative and that I had some say in what we were going to do. And I was an odd child. I adored brains and spinach. 

So we never had sweet things. My father didn't have a sweet tooth, so that was that. It was very old fashioned. We weren't actually allowed to eat with him in the evening, or anytime—until we were about eight. It was a bit ‘children should be seen and not heard, and preferably not either.’ But the weekends, we'd have lunch together. And it was always great tension, because I'm very clumsy. And that would drive my mother mad. I’d knock something over, or be like that. And that thing of, that tension of sort of fitting in with people wasn't really what I was good at. 

Alicia: Well, it's interesting, because you started your career then as a journalist. And you didn't move into, toward food until a bit late. What made you want to be a journalist? And how did that segue into food? How does journalism, that background, influence? 

Nigella: I wasn't a reporter. My first job was in publishing, because I loved reading. And then I realized, ‘Oh, this isn't about reading. This is a business.’ I mean, I know everything is. It wasn't really for me, and I started reviewing books for various periodicals and that sort of thing. And I liked it more. 

So when I started in journalism, it was in arts journalism. I was in the arts pages. I did something which they thought was ridiculous. I had a contract with The Sunday Times, which is pretty rare. And I was young. I think I was 23 when I went there. I mean, I know it was a different time and there were many more people on staff there. But nevertheless. I was deputy literary editor at The Sunday Times, and I was 26, which was great. But then by the time I was 27, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I'm being paid to worry, not to think.’ I didn't like that. And I just thought, ‘No.’ 

It was then I traded it in for a writing contract. So I wrote about books and arts, interviewing people. I wasn't good at that. But anyway. I mean, I found it difficult. I found it difficult. And then I became a columnist, an op-ed columnist, which, in a way, is a bit like cooking, isn't it? Because if you're reviewing a book—and I did review restaurants, too—if you're reviewing a book, you have a sort of something there to return to. Or a film. I've done about everything in journalism. Only pages I haven't written for are business pages. I’ve even written on sport. One piece only. 

The thing of when you're writing a column, you're weaving an idea. And all you have to go on is that paragraph will lead to the next one. But it's just your thoughts, and you're creating something. You're making something for someone to read and sort of either savor or disagree with. In this country, most columns are written for people to disagree with. 

I suppose what's happened is that when I had to write a column and think about what I was going to say, or indeed what subject I was going to choose, I would often make soup or something because I found chopping—I mean, I always cooked. My friends were journalists and editors. And then they kind of said, ‘Well, you should do this or you should write this.’ And I didn't really pay an awful lot of attention. 

My husband, my late husband, John Diamond, he said to me once, ‘You know, you're very confident about your views in food. If we go out to a restaurant, you will say things like, ‘That needed more salt,’ or ‘I wouldn't put that with that,’ or ‘This is great wine.’ You should write a book. And you should write a book about how you make your decisions, and call it ‘how to eat.’’ And I thought, ‘John, that is the stupidest idea I've ever heard.’ 

It's an awful thing to say, but it's almost like a wound. And then, because I had these sort of intellectual pretensions; I wanted to be something that people would respect me for. I never wanted fame; I knew well enough that that sort of thing isn't actually what it looks like. I thought, ‘I want to be respected by people I respect.’ That's all I ask in my work. 

But then after a while, I kind of played with the idea of my—I didn't actually know the book was going to have recipes. I hadn't thought through—that sort of came more as I started writing. And I felt I found my voice in a way, doing that. It was an accident. But I think so many things in life that are important are our accidents. I have to say I'm categorically not a planner.

Alicia: I also am not a planner at all. And I truly believe that accidents are the best way to learn things. [Laughs.]

I mean, it's interesting that you say that you didn't intentionally write about food because you wanted to be taken seriously as an intellectual. Do you feel that—

Nigella: I’m now slightly giving a rather shamefaced explanation. I didn't express it to myself like that back then. But I do remember when people said to me, writer friends of mine, because I worked on the books pages and I read all the time, a lot of my friends were novelists and writers. And I remember one of them, someone who'd won God knows how many prizes saying to me, ‘I see you've got a book out this autumn.’ And I was embarrassed. ‘Oh, no, no, it's just a food book.’ 

I'm now embarrassed that I felt embarrassment. And I think I felt as a woman, I didn't necessarily want to be, ‘Oh yeah, of course, she's writing about food.’ That felt sensitive for me. 

Alicia: Right.

Do you feel that food writing is still seen as some sort of lesser form of writing?

Nigella: Not generally. And those who do think it, I really don't—I wouldn't ever think about them. So I don't think that, no. I don't at all. And I don't think other people do, and I didn't at the time. 

I mean, of course it depends. There's various forms. But I also think when you write about food, you're not writing just about food. Now, you expressly or not often, but even when you're just touching on other subjects, it’s still very much not about it. I mean, I could never be interested in either reading a book or writing a book, especially never writing a book, that was just: the recipes, formula. Just that, to me, doesn't give me anything. Doesn't make me understand why someone wants me to cook that or why they cook it in their kitchen. 

Alicia: Right. And you—No, no, no. You go. 

Nigella: And I think I felt—Hmm? I told you I talk. I also interrupt myself, so don't take it badly I interrupt you. 

What I did feel at the time, is that cooking was entirely dominated by professional chefs. And that's sort of great, but I thought it was actually intimidating people often more than it encouraged. And I wanted to write about cooking from the perspective of someone who is not dexterous, who hasn't had any training, who doesn't have technique, but cooks and enjoys cooking and enjoys eating. So I did know, that was the only thing that made me feel, ‘Yes, maybe I should do this.’ 

I think people had the idea often at that time, not everyone and not everywhere, but very much predominantly. There was a man who would be on television or writing a book where they would—everyone would clap as they chopped a carrot with virtuoso speed, every slice the same, and every—and plating things in a particular way, as if the ideal was that you would cook like a restaurant or eat like a restaurant at home. 

And that seemed to me so wrong and so disrespectful of what I think cooking is. And I admire chefs enormously. I'm enormously grateful not to be one. I think having to do that sort of work, in the end, doesn't actually require sort of constant spontaneity and creativity. People think chefs are more creative than home cooks. But you're forced into being more creative as a home cook, because you have to make do with what you've got. And also because you don't have to be consistent. I think the consistency required of a professional is both admirable and soul-destroying.

Alicia: Right. [Laughs.]

How does being a writer compare to being on TV? I feel that when I've seen TV and food TV, and I've talked to friends about this, when we were growing up, it's—it was this comforting aspiration, maybe kind of a respite from more chaotic situations at home or in life. But it's so different. Your books and your TV are—not that they're so different, but it just feel a bit more—your writing is so different. 

Nigella: Yeah. 

Well, I think what it is is that my language is much the same. But there are so many other things that you're focusing on on TV. 

Wait. I don't know about the word aspirational. But I think there must be an aspect of that. But I think it's often used in a way to belittle people who want to watch something and see something being made that they might not cook at home. I mean, I think I like it. I tell people they can cook. I have a rule that there have to be a set number of recipes you don't even have to look up the recipes. You can go, ‘I'm going to do that.’

But I think what's interesting for me, and I don't know how much it sort of ties in with what you're saying, which is, when you write a book, you are really both in the past and in the future. I'm in the past, in a sense, because I'm remembering meals I've made. Now, I might talk about the present. You're drawing on memories, both from what, why you do that food, but the memories of having eaten it. And for the reader, it's possibly something in the future. 

And the thing about TV, which is you're just there in the present. And people can watch it and see it. And I think that actually is why a lot of people respond. The food is comforting for people. But I think like sport, which is often happening in the now, the seeing something that's happening now is perhaps something that makes people feel a bit alive at the same time rather than just kind of losing themself in some sort of dreamy kitchenscape. 

Now, the way my TV programs are shot, is more like a movie. We're very slow, for a start; I take a week for an episode. Minimum. One camera, and everything is lit. So in a way, it's a beautiful background. You don't have kitchen paper out. You don't have your washing-up gloves there. And in that sense, it is aspirational. But the food is there, and people can see how it's being cooked. 

There was an article today. I'd have to look it up. But someone's saying that she finds the programs helpful because even though she can't afford a lot of the ingredients that she sees people cook with, she gets an idea of what will go with what and how to build on that. People can see that. And I think people do feel confident when they've seen it. And perhaps it plays into this idea that everyone has, ‘Oh, I wish I had a granny who cooked and I sat in her kitchen watching her.’ And it is slightly that idea as well watching someone cook that is comforting. 

What you have more freedom to do in a book—you have freedom for a lot of things—is to make more connections and to go off on little ways that you can take that idea to another recipe or it—show all the different, talk about variations. It's too confusing on a program for that. People then lose their way in the recipe. So I like that.

And of course, I like both ways, which is when I write a book, it's just me really. Particularly the one I wrote during lockdown. And then the publishers do enter in when you hand it in and all goes; it's all less precious then. You're desperate to get it out there. But it's a bit of a loss as well. So it's one thing in your head. Then it's a disappointment, because what, what's on the screen isn't quite what was in your head. And then you like, ‘What's on the screen?’ But then it goes out. And I mean, it's important. It's incredibly important. 

Whereas TV is much more collaborative from the beginning. I am very controlling. I have an opinion about everything. So I wouldn't even let a bowl on set without my say so. In fact, I denuded my kitchen and sent everything in. We talk about the recipes. I've worked with the same director for 20 years or more. And crew. It's a very nice, small crew that we've grown up together. I was quite old when I started, but certainly, with our children. They were all babies. Now, they're grown up. 

And that actually, if you spend a lot of your time working alone, is actually lovely as well. I’m not sure I could do that all the time. And I don't do TV as much as many people in my position. I would never do it two years running, for a start.

Alicia: Right, right, right. 

No, it's interesting, because thinking about my own experience learning how to cook, I feel like I learned how to eat from my mom and my grandmother. But I never had so much of an interest in the kitchen. And then I learned how to cook from watching TV. [Laughs.]

Nigella: But then learning how to eat is the most important. That's why my first book is called, How to Eat.’ No, because your palate leads you. Doesn't it? So I think that is the easier way round. And if you're not really interested, you're never really gonna cook.

Alicia: Right. No, exactly. 

But it's funny, because I also watched all these shows growing up, learned the movements and that sort of thing from TV. And then I thought that I had to, if I really cared about food, I had to move into doing things in a more restaurant, chef, technical way, and started reading all of those cookbooks. And I think the combination of all of it ends up being something good, but it's addressing—Yes. [Laughs.]

Nigella: But there are things you take from chefs. Having all your ingredients ready before you start is helpful. The one thing I think is quite enviable is that when they train, they do everything so many times, it just becomes part of their bloodstream. And that’s what I feel that, in a way, I had lots of years of cooking without realizing I was cooking. And then I started writing about it. 

It's very hard because, as you know, cooking is, should be very fluid, and a recipe, to some extent, argues against the spontaneity and anarchy of cooking. Controlled anarchy. I try to give room to that. But obviously, people who haven't spent a long time, doesn't help just saying to do this. You've got to give more of a structure. So it's always that balance as it is in life, generally, how much structure to have and how much sort of just going with the flow you want. 

Alicia: Right, of course.

Well, you mentioned before reading about someone writing that she couldn't necessarily afford everything she sees on a TV food Network. But I think in all your work, you emphasize kind of where quality can be found or should be found, and maybe where to go to the specialty shop versus not go to the end. And that's something that I think in American cookbooks, because I do see—Nigel Slater does this as well. So I think I see it more maybe with British writers, but American food writers don't really talk about where to get things. [Laughs.]

Nigella: It is difficult. I think I did more of that, until fairly recently, right? There are so many people campaigning for, ‘This has to be this, has to be that.’ I'm very mindful that I'm in a very privileged position. If I get a chicken, right, I know where it's come from. I know that. But it costs 14 pounds. And most people can't afford that. 

And so, now I don't say, ‘Organic, and it has to be from this and that.’ Because I feel people know. And when you get incredibly good ingredients, you don't really need to do anything. I think I want to encourage people to think of it in terms of the ingredients and what tastes they're hoping to get out and out of it. And a good chicken, you can—you get more meals out of, for example, because you get soup or-

There are certain practices I don't want to—I don't like intensely reared meat. I don't want unsustainable fish. And I don't want vegetables where they’ve got no flavor, and they've just been bought to get a lot of water in them and people working in really wrong conditions. 

That's really all food. You'd never eat a caper again, right? But when you think about how capers are picked, and so forth. So, it is problematic. So I kind of want to encourage rather than admonish. I don't want to make people feel bad about not getting this and not getting that. And especially because, for people who are not terribly experienced or confident, and they're on a tighter budget than I am, if it doesn't work like that, they can't afford the waste. I mean, I use anything as I work, too. I don't believe in waste. 

So there really is a balance, I think, to be struck between—’cause some things really do make a difference. And also, I often feel I have to say, ‘Please don't always think the supermarket is the cheapest option,’ which people do think. And also if you’re feeding just yourself, it's much better to go to small shops there. Mind you, buy small quantity. And there's so much wasted food, because the supermarkets here sell in such much bigger packets. And they don't care if you're wasting it. They want you to buy food that's more than you need. 

And I value relationships very much in all my life. I work with the same people. The person I get my vegetables from, although I don't live near there anymore, I mean, we were both young when at the beginning. And I liked that. And I like to have a conversation about—I mean, I often don't go in my phone. And I like a conversation about how I'm gonna cook something, or what's good and what they think is good. 

I'm a Londoner, and I'm in central London, but I—we all need a bit of village life, even if that's just how you buy your carrots. But I don’t own a car, so I don't go shopping in the big wide world very often. But I know them and they do deliveries, or I'll say, ‘I'll give you some cake if you drop that round.’ I think it's important. But I also feel that sometimes you also want to say to people, ‘Look, buy this-’ 

So I have a rule, which I hope I haven't broken too often, which is I will never—I never will send someone to get an ingredient that's unfamiliar if I don't give them plenty of other recipes or ideas for how to use it. And the same often with some alcohol. In my first book, I was talking about marsala an awful lot. So I have many recipes for it. Because in a restaurant, you might use several bottles a night on one dish, but you don't do that in a home. 

So I think every ingredient has to earn its place. Both in terms of taste, no point to throw lots of things on it just for the sake of it. You can go shopping, even if it's something that costs very little. Shopping is often the hardest part of cooking. People are busy when they find time to go shopping. So you don't want to keep sending them out of the shops. 

Alicia: Right. Of course.

And I wanted to ask, too, about how—you do read so many younger and—but, just other writers. You're very generous to writers as well as just anyone on social media. I wanted to know what motivated you to be so available, and to—How do you kind of keep that up?

Nigella: Well, I'll talk about books a bit first. When I started writing about food for Vogue, British Vogue for a while in 1996, sort of. Maybe ’95. I don't know. At that stage, Nigel Slater was writing for Harper's Bazaar. We called that Harpers & Queen here then. So in other words, the sort of, you could say, rival publication. Although I knew from journalism, that's not how journalists see it—they're on the same side as other journalists. And Nigel wrote me the most wonderful letter after my first column. And it was so generous. And I really thought then, ‘God, he’s elegant and generous,’ and I don't want—that is so important. 

A lot of chefs, when I first went on TV, were very, ‘She shouldn't be here.’ And I just thought, ‘You're just making yourself look insecure.’ And there's room for everyone, providing they've got something to say and do—

I suppose I feel talent is always to be really valued and cherished; it's not everywhere. There are a lot of people doing things, but real talent, people—and people with a voice that maybe need to be encouraged. But whether it's old talent, I'm so happy to write about Anna Del Conte, who is 96, or Claudia Roden, who's in her 80s and just had a book out, ’cause they've done wonderful work. But new people I do like is—

Look, we're all going to be knocked off our perch at some stage. Nothing goes on forever. I would rather—you want talented people there. I think to be competitive is such an odd thing. Because I think if you're competitive, you must be doing something so generic that you think someone else can step up and do it. You have a voice. You do what you do. And of course, people might get tired of listening to it. But it's fine. That seems entirely fair. I don't mind that. 

But I think really, reading a good book or tasting something wonderful, it's transporting. And you want other people to have the experience, that you want to tell them about it. When I write about a book, I'm not trying to be nice to the writer. I mean, obviously, I know it will help. But I think there can be other people there who might not have known about this will now read it or do something. It's nice for them. Your duty is always to readers. So that's important. 

I got much more active on Twitter during lockdown, because there wasn’t so much going on. I was writing books. I desperately needed to get away from it often. Before that I would only sort of reply about my recipes. And then I thought, ‘Well, people want to know.’ And I always feel not qualified to talk generally about it, because it—but then I thought, ‘Well, people want to know, if they want to know or need you things on how to do it.’ I just said, ‘Well, this is what I would do.’

I began to like the feeling of a community, I suppose. And people can be funny. It kind of lifts your mood. And I often find that as I'm writing, ‘Oh, that looks lovely or that looks wonderful,’ I have a smile on my face as I do it. I'm actually having a conversation in my head. And because I'm having a smile on my face, it's good for me, too. 

Relationships have to be reciprocal, actually in life where—however they are. I mean, I need to feel I'm being addressed as a person. I can't be addressed as if I'm a trick pony or because I'm on telly. It doesn't interest me. As long as I'm a person and I can be a person and respond as a person, I enjoy it. 

I find it easier than real life goings-on over that, because one I'm not good at sound. I love the quietness. And also, I don't know, the requests on your time are more modest. I can feel very overwhelmed by the world, and I do feel overwhelmed by Twitter if I get too behind. But if I'm doing an hour—and I get up so early—so if I do an hour early and then a bit later, I actually do quite enjoy it. Then I'm in a quiet place, haven’t got anything going on and I like that. 

But I can find that thing of not—in real life, I sometimes find it hard to separate other people's needs from mine and my desire to give them what they want. Favors, requests, and also just in terms of doing things. And I'd rather just be in a quiet place. And I read the other day that introverts often do like that. But I don’t know whether I'm an introvert anymore.

Alicia: Well, how do you keep creative over so—over all this time, and all these books, and all these recipes, and all these shows, how do you remain creative and productive? Do you have practices in place? Or do you kind of—is it just, it's there?

Nigella: And after every book, I'm in a complete despair. Not with my first one, because I hatched the second one even though it was meant to be a one-off. I'm in complete despair. And I think that's it. Never again. Both because it's a pretty anxiety-provoking process. And also, because I feel completely cleaned out. And actually, I find it harder, the more books I've done, because every time I think, ‘Oh, that would be good.’ Then I realize I've done that recipe. And I don't ever want us to do recipes for the sake of it. So I never know. 

Now, there's so much promo. See, normally, there's TV. After that, takes a while. And then there's promo. I can only get ideas by cooking in real life. Cooking for people. And I haven't done a lot of that. Because even though things are supposedly back to normal, it's not. I don't want people inside. And I don't go out. I don’t go to restaurants unless it's outside, which is not very often. There’s about one I go to. And I haven't traveled.

The well is empty, and it's staying empty for a bit longer than normal. Because you need to taste other people's food, whether it's other people that you know, or whether it's other people you don't know in places that you don't know. 

I always get in a complete state, that I'll never have another idea. Because I don't think you have ideas by thinking; I think you have ideas by doing mostly. I get some ideas, and I'm always jotting down ideas, recipes in the middle of the night. But it's really by doing it. 

And I cook for myself a lot. So I have some ideas on that. But I, like everyone else, it's—they're nearly always made out of leftovers and everything. So it's quite hard to turn it into a recipe because it's using some oil that I fried some onions in because that—and I've got that bit leftover from something else, which would be complicated otherwise.

I think I’m greedy, and I do—I'm always thinking about what I'm going to eat. So, that helps. But I don't honestly know, actually. Who knows? It's always frightening. And I'm still in that phase. I've got a few things on the back burner. But I think it will take longer. But I'm thinking about ideas and I putter about doing a bit of cooking. That's always good, even if it's just every day. Two things, two-ingredient foods.

Alicia: Right.

Well, I was read—this isn't related to cooking, but I was reading—you had a conversation in The Guardian with the filmmaker Mark Cousins about kind of visual things which seem to, that would seem different from your work, but I know everything is connected. You said that when you don't like having your photograph taken—and now you were saying you're an introvert. So now I understand. And I wanted to know how being a public person has changed for you over the years if it has. How have you dealt with that?

Nigella: Yeah.

I mean, when I was talking to Mark, we had to—we were there for hours doing that. So, it was quite a lot. When I said about me feeling an object when I had my photograph taken, it's—it was also in this sense that without thought, you're just a lump of meat. And you're aware of being looked at. But because I'm not scripted when I do my TV, what's going on in my head is, ‘How do I describe that? How do I explain that?’ So I kind of lose self-consciousness in a way. Not always. 

It was much easier when I started, because there was no social media. And I think that does make life hard on people. It can get ugly out there, I think, which is why I value my little nice patch of it where people aren't trying to make other people look stupid, and if they do, if anyone's rude to anyone else, you know, I just block them generally. 

Look. I think what was made very much is I was 40 when I made my first food series, which is a lot easier than being in your 20s. I was going through a really difficult time in my life. My husband was terminally ill. And actually, how people reacted to me and all that, so wasn't on my radar particularly. I was surprised by their take on me, but I couldn't sort of dwell on it. It's always hard, but you have an innocence at the beginning because you don't see yours—you haven't had anyone's reaction.

Being scrutinized is difficult, right? But also I'm a very nosy person, so if I'm outside a restaurant, so much—I stare at everyone else. I stare at people walking past. So I'm not really in a position to mind. And I don't mind. 

I find this thing of everyone imputing a motive to someone else, it seems to me these days, it's always a malign motive, that the idea that someone makes a mistake, or also that you're just doing something, because you said it, that it isn't because you think this about yourself, or you think that. But TV does make a difference to how people look at you. 

When I started—so I did journalism and radio, and I wouldn't do TV. I wouldn't do TV, I thought, I want to exist in my words, not in my image. And I resisted it for quite a long time. But I felt sufficiently sort of interested to explain what I thought about food and to cook it, and I didn't really have that emotion. Now I'd say, I've gone back to being fairly relaxed about it in the sense that it seems such a waste of energy to be worrying about it. 

But having said that—I don't like having my photograph taken. Sometimes going out does feel very challenging for me. I mean, I always feel like I am—television glamorizes you. You got a makeup artist removing all your flaws; you've got lighting there to make you look better. And in real life, I’m messy. I still have my makeup on. And I’m the age I am. You just feel like people gotta go, ‘Yeah, what does she look like?’ But when I took my kids to school I’d think, it's nice for everyone to think, ‘Oh, no, she doesn't look as good in real life.’ So, that’s all right.

I don’t want to feel a bit nervous. But then as long as you concentrate on how other people are feeling, you don't on yourself. My mother, who used to say, ‘I don't know why you're so shy. No one's interested in you anyway.’ Which, when I was 15, felt a bit brutal. But actually, now I know that yes, 15-year-olds are so self-absorbed and think that everyone's looking at them and talking about them. And no one is. Everyone's self-obsessed. They're thinking about themselves. They're not thinking about you. 

So you learn that as you get older. She used to say, ‘It's more important to charm than to be charmed, then reach out.’ In other words, no, it's more important to let people be charmed and let them charm, rather than you don't have to be the show. 

But listen, and I like people. I don't like conversations in which people respond to me as if I’m something from the television and not a person. That doesn't happen that often. I think that's very isolating. And so, I do like people, I say, I was very introverted as a child. And I then thought I had a complete change of character. And I do find people for a while, that I found it stimulating and energy-giving. And now I find it often quite tiring after a while, but think it's hard, but not as hard as if it happened when I was young. 

I think being young when you're forming your relationship with yourself and who you are is so changeable. I know it can change at any stage, but I think it's probably much easier to feel you have to be a certain way because you're not entirely sure what you feel or what you think. And so, I think you've got to go back into sort of who you are and in the same way as keep that with you when you're with others and sort of let them be themselves. I think that is actually quite important. Not always possible, because sometimes it is all just too much. 

And we have a very—what do you say—boisterous tabloid press who really just want to list your many flaws and what's wrong, and particularly with women and what they look like. ‘You're too thin, you're too fat. You got lines when you frown. Oh, you haven't got lines when you frown.’ So you sort of never read. I thought I would be very oversensitive. But I find it so easy not to read things. Or not to bother really. It's an odd thing. 

Alicia: Yeah. 

Well, what are you cooking lately for yourself? 

Nigella: Oh, what have I been cooking? I feel very aware that you're vegan, so I feel bad. 

Alicia: No, no, no, I'm not. Vegetarian. 

Nigella: I cook quite a bit of fish. I find it beautiful. And when I'm by myself, I quite like cooking fish in—and neither my children eat fish, so I do it when I'm by myself. And I enjoy that. But really what I like is sort of cooking, when I’m cooking from leftovers. Rummaging about and seeing what I've got.

I suppose in the summer I do, I eat salads a lot. I mean, I think you call it red chicory nonstop. I get through a lot of that. And there are so many different ways of eating it, adding to it. And often that thing of just mixing, sort of mixing things together. 

Otherwise, I'm trying to think. When you're asked, it's so difficult. Very hard to answer. I was trying to remember what I ate last night, but I think I was so exhausted I just had a Campari soda and some salt and vinegar potato chips. But I'd had a proper lunch. I had smoked mackerel for lunch, and I—with a cucumber salad and some red chicory, horseradish, that kind of thing. And so, I didn't need anything that much. It was a busy day. And I cut my head because I'm so clumsy, I somehow managed to get a saucepan lid landing sideways on the top of my head. So I just thought, ‘I'm going to bed now.’

But chickpeas, I cook a lot. I'm a great chickpea person because, again, whether you're making pasta, or soup, or a salad or mushing them up and turning them into a sort of something stodgy on eat with a spoon and fork. I like that. I get in slight phases with things, I feel. But I don't feel I've—’cause I don't go out. And I don't see something suddenly in a shop or something, which I will. I don't know, I've become a bit—I don't get inspired that way. 

But so, I'm trying to think. Yeah, that's basically—I've been practicing with a few different recipes, some cake things, which I sometimes quite like. And they're always takers for that. I can give it to anyone.

Alicia: No, and that's the good thing about testing baking recipes. [Laughs.] You can get rid of it. 

Well, for you is cooking a political act?

Nigella: Well, everything is to an extent. For me, it's political in a sense of belonging in the world, first and foremost. And as an urban person, I feel it's a way of feeling grounded. And you're connected. There are people who've planted those potatoes and other people who then have picked them and then the person you get them from and it's—there's a kind of a chain. And then the person you feed them to. And I think it's quite important to think in those terms of things being continual and we need everyone. And there’s a lot that goes into making our food, cooking the least of it.

When I started this thing of women meant not meant to have a particular appetite and always meant to be on a diet. And I think I thought that was quite important, that women were always saying, ‘I shouldn't be eating this’ and that sort of thing. My mother had an eating disorder. I knew a bit about that, and how pernicious it can be. So I think I feel that that's important, not to make apologies for eating. 

And also, I feel very strongly that, I know as I get older, I get more and more woo-woo. I do feel that it's important to be grateful if you have food, and I think that that whole guilt thing is also so you don't enjoy it, and that seems a terrible waste of possible pleasure, but also, that we’re lucky to have it. So I think it's quite important in that, in those senses.

I'm aware that my cooking, probably, is reprehensible in many ways from the perspective of deeper concerns. Now, I suppose that's why I don't like waste, apart from that's how I was brought up. But I mean, the amount of things I have in the smallest—it used to drive me mad when my mother did that. It was like Russian dolls. Every day, they go into the smaller bowl, the same leftovers. And I now look at, and I have quarter cups of things and everything is in there. But I think, yeah, that is important. That is important to me. But also, it's so much more satisfying as a cook. 

Alicia: Right, right. Absolutely.

Well, thank you so much for taking the time today to chat. 

Nigella: Oh, I feel I’ve been hopeless. I've just been hopeless. 

Alicia: No, you've been wonderful. You've been wonderful. I feel that way after every interview. I'm like, ‘This was awful and terrible and useless.’ And then when I go back, I'm like, ‘Oh, actually, it was not so bad.’ [Laughs.]

Nigella: I know. It’s very hard doing anything, isn't it?

Alicia: It's hard. [Laughter.]

Nigella: That's why live things can be tremendously liberating. Because it’s done, it’s gone out there. You'll never see it. All that anxiety we pile on ourselves. Some of it is helpful. A lot of it isn't. 

Alicia: Well, thank you. Thank you again. 

Nigella: Thank you.

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From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
Conversations on food and culture, hosted by writer Alicia Kennedy, with guests such as Nigella Lawson, Bryant Terry, Melissa Clark, and many others. Read Alicia's newsletter on similar topics, which has over 17.5K subscribers and has been mentioned by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, GQ, and many other publications.