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BooksFebruary 7, 2018

Orange-infused mince pies, and other pleasures: Paula Morris on Nigella Lawson

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Author Paula Morris, who hosts Nigella Lawson live onstage at the Aotea Centre tonight, shares her own cooking journey.

When I moved to England in 1985, to study at the University of York, I couldn’t cook. Not a single thing. I hadn’t learned much at home because my mother disliked cooking and couldn’t stand anyone in the kitchen getting in her way while she tore open bags of frozen mixed vegetables and stirred everything with a knife. Whenever she was away, my father fed us on bacon-and-egg pies, and Frying Saucers.

But I’m both a very greedy and very social person, so perhaps I was always destined to learn how to cook. There was nowhere to buy takeaways within walking distance of York’s campus in those days , and the college dining halls only served a steady diet of stodgy lasagne and chips. For three years I lived in a cottage with rotating casts of other hopeless young women, and acquired the basics from a paperback published in the 50s, written for young brides of the pre-convenience era. From this book I learned how to boil eggs and make a roux. My specialities for my flatmates and our squadrons of friends were pasta with tuna in a cheese sauce, and pasta with broccoli and tinned salmon in a white sauce.

My sister in New Zealand sent me Alison Holst and the Edmonds Cookbook, and I collected More magazine recipes by Julie Biuso (some of which I’m still cooking). From Delia Smith I learned how to make Christmas dinner and put together a lime-and-coriander tartare sauce. For a while, living in London in the early 90s, everything I fed other people or they fed me originated in a Delia Smith book or a Sainsbury’s recipe card written by Delia. My reputation as a good cook only rumbled into life after I moved to New York, where nobody had heard of Delia Smith and couldn’t cook a single thing.

I had other books: Jamie Oliver, River Café, Keith Floyd, Madhur Jaffrey. I made one or two things from each book then grew disheartened. Recipes were too fussy or complicated, involving elaborate spice preparation, the disembowelling of artichokes, or shopping trips to Italy. Every item was an event for a special occasion, not an approach to daily cooking and normal life. Too many chefs wrote books that demanded a tablespoon of grated ginger or a cup of chopped onions, when these things were bought in the real world as lumpy un-chopped entities. Even no-nonsense Delia, the sensible aunt of the cooking world, lived a life quite alien from mine: she baked sausage rolls from scratch every Christmas Eve, while listening to a carol service on the radio; her trifle recipe took me three hours.

From one legend to another

And then along came Nigella.

Here, at last, was someone who understood that people need to know how to roast a chicken and bake a chocolate cake. She understood that we all have hungry friends who demand second helpings. In How To Eat (1998) she talked about cutting recipes out of newspapers and using leftovers. She was a stylish, opinionated and funny writer who advised readers to chuck things in a pot and bung things in the oven. She admitted to buying ready-ground this and vacuum-packed that; some recipes, she confided, were “a doddle to make”. She urged us not to stockpile and waste food. She admitted to disliking green peppers. And nothing “is as good,” she declared, “as a bacon sandwich made with white bread.”

Over the years I’ve relied on Nigella’s books for some of our most delicious dinners and greediest feasts. I’ve fed countless people hot chocolate puddings, Hasselback potatoes, and chocolate pavlova topped with raspberries. At parties I’ve served vats of her creamy macaroni cheese along with her aromatic ham, boiled in a giant pot and then basted with cranberry jelly and studded with cloves before crisping in the oven. For Christmas parties I make her orange-infused mince pies, and two of her Bûche de Noëls because everyone devours them. (When we lived in New Orleans, a queue would form as I carried out the tray.) Some years ago I betrayed Delia by switching, irrevocably, to Nigella’s Christmas countdown, including brining the turkey in the bath.

I suppose Nigella’s books remind me of my roots as a cook – of learning to cook in order to feed other people, often in large numbers, and of the sociable pleasures of gathering at a table to talk, drink and eat.

Paula Morris interviews Nigella Lawson in Nigella: In Conversation, presented by the Auckland Writers Festival, at the Aotea Centre tonight. The books of both authors are available at Unity Books.

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