Why Nigella Lawson loves anchovies and brown foods

Nigella Lawson will speak at JCCC/Courtesy image

Nigella Lawson’s new book, Cook, Eat, Repeat, opens with a rapturous love letter to anchovies.

“Few other ingredients arrive in the kitchen with such confrontational pungency and yet manage to imbue so many dishes with transformational subtlety,” Lawson writes. “The anchovy’s initial attack lies in its fierce and uncompromising saltiness, it’s true, but it packs a double punch: After that first hit of saline intensity comes richness and depth, that resounding, flavor-enhancing savouriness we have learned to call umami.”

Lawson’s praiseful prose concerning the divisive tinned fish continues on for two thousand words without ever dragging thanks to the English food writer’s luscious, sophisticated voice on the page. 

“I could probably have written twenty thousand [words on anchovies],” Lawson says by phone in advance of her November engagement at Midwest Trust Center, which will be hosted by local food writer Jenny Vergara. “It’s a pointless thing to try and bully people about ingredients they don’t like, but if you can somehow contaminate them with your enthusiasm so that they think ‘well, maybe I want to try,’ that’s better.” 

Lawson was thirty-eight years old when her breakthrough, How to be a Domestic Goddess, was published in 1998. She’s one of a very small handful of food writers of the era who are still writing cookbooks a quarter-century later. Cook, Eat, Repeat was written in 2019, before the pandemic, but if it feels of the era because Lawson spent four months writing it in seclusion. It was, Lawson says, a time to be reflective.

“Cooking is not something you do and then it’s finished with,” Lawson writes. “It is a thread woven through our lives, encompassing memory, desire and sustenance, both physical and emotional. It can never be an end in itself… It is precisely in those many mindless, mundane, repeated actions that cooking consists of, that allows it to be a means of decompression for so many of us.”

Lawson has come to believe that people are “losing sight” of what recipes are, so she memorialized her philosophy on the matter as part of a writing process in which she would “every now and then ask my publisher for more pages.”

“I’m always aware of how rigid the recipe looks when it’s printed out,” she says. “A recipe is really how you’ve cooked this before. And you cook it again, but really when you cook it you change it a little bit, maybe because of what you get at the market but maybe just because these things are not fixed for all time. The open-endedness of cooking I think is what draws a lot of us back in. You have to talk readers through it a bit so it becomes clear what can be changed or what might be difficult to change or why you’re using a particular ingredient because then it gives the reader more freedom to change.”

Talking readers through anchovies or stews, which get the spotlight in the chapter “A Loving Defense of Brown Food,” requires a skillful pen. Lawson certainly has that—fans of Domestic Goddess and Nigella Bites will find her as sharp as ever in Cook, Eat, Repeat.

“I went into recipe-writing partly through a love of language, and I feel that language and words are a very important ingredient because that’s what helps a reader imagine what a dish is before they’ve actually made it,” she says. “A recipe has to take root in the imagination as well as being practical and reliable.”

You’ll also find very on-trend recipes such as an oxtail stew—not that Lawson knew about the recent American foodie obsession with the butcher’s cut. “I’ve had oxtail recipes in a few books,” she says. “It’s quite funny: In my first book, I had a recipe for kale in it. This was 1998 and I said, ‘Isn’t it such a pity that no one cooks with kale anymore.’”  

GO: An Evening with Nigella Lawson. Saturday, November 19. 8 pm. Yardley Hall at Midwest Trust Center. $25.

Social Media

Get The Latest Updates

Subscribe to our newsletters

Kansas City magazine keeps readers updated on the latest news in twice-weekly newsletter. 

On Tuesdays, Dish brings you food news and our critic picks. 

On Thursdays, The Loop offers exclusive news reports and our curated events picks.