Evan Kleiman Talks Food and Why Nigella Lawson Has Earned Culinary Diva-dom
Come see “An Evening with Nigella Lawson” on Saturday, November 12 at 7:30 pm at the Granada Theatre, as the global food icon converses with KCRW’s Evan Kleiman about her new cookbook and the meals, people, and experiences that shaped her life. I had the chance to recently chat with Kleiman about the upcoming event and Nigella’s influence on the food world.
Q. Usually when a celebrity comes to town you read an article about the celebrity, not the person interviewing the celebrity, which is what you will be doing next week for UC Santa Barbara’s Arts & Lectures series when culinary diva Nigella Lawson comes to town. I should also note that you’re a culinary celebrity too with a wildly popular radio show (KCRW’s Good Food) and cookbook author, which makes you uniquely qualified to be the one onstage with Nigella.
A. I’ve interviewed Nigella four times over the past 15 years or so and we always enjoy the conversation, which is why I think I was asked to do the in-person interview. All my radio interviews start as 30-minute conversations that are then edited down. But interviewing someone in person in front of an audience is so much richer. There is more time, more laughter, and the energy from the audience brings additional thoughts out of the person being interviewed. It’s such a treat for me.
Where does Nigella fit in the sphere of Ina Garten, Martha Stewart, and even Alice Waters – where neither claims to be a chef?
In the 1980s Martha was the exacting mother with crazy high standards whose focus was on how everything looked more than how things tasted. Hard to please and hard to live up to. She pushed the idea of food as entertainment forward. My mother and I found her screamingly funny. I like her so much better now. Ina is us if we were absolutely comfortable in the kitchen, had a fabulous husband, house, business. She’s less idiosyncratic than Nigella, which I attribute to the fact that she had a food business for so many years and had to develop recipes to please those customers. Alice is in a different category. Never a cook, always a supporter of cooks/chefs she hired and yet she’s probably the most influential of them all as the person who made us all aware of the deliciousness of seasonality and the importance of knowing where your food comes from and having a direct relationship with growers. There is the thread of Alice running through all of them. Nigella has made cooking at home sexy and is a consummate communicator of realness in the kitchen. In fact, in the preface to How to Eat, Nigella says, “I am not a chef. I am not even a trained or professional cook. My qualification is as an eater. I cook what I want to eat – within limits.”
Besides being a self-described “domestic goddess,” Nigella is Oxford educated and by most accounts a very good cook. Why is she important to the culinary world at this particular moment?
There are many smart people in the food space, more joining every day, but Nigella has always been special. Being a journalist for many years (covering beats other than food) means that she is a natural researcher and a phenomenal writer, not only on the subject she may be focusing on (a particular recipe, ingredient, trend) but on herself as well. I think it’s what enables her to be so open emotionally about the subject of food and how it affects her. Nigella is a perfect example of how the specific is universal. As she moves through questions that interest her, there is emotional resonance for all of us.
In these tough economic times, Nigella’s How to Eat, which makes a case for home cooking versus dining out, seemed like a novel idea when she wrote it two decades ago. Do you think she was ahead of the curve here?
Yes, in fact to prepare for my upcoming interviews with her I re-read her first book. The intelligence of the preface is still groundbreaking. The idea that to know how to cook you have to first understand what you want to eat, what pleases you. Because we’re all different and what may obsess me may not do anything for you.
I also think that her thoughts on restaurant/chef food versus home cooking is spot on. After two decades of food media being focused on chefs and restaurant food and with more of us eating “prepared foods” from everywhere from the local grocery store to gas stations, reading her thoughts on home cooking – how she says “What I am not talking about is strenuous originality.” Too many of us view cooking at home as a competitive sport even down to the photographs we post to prove our chops. Nigella’s pictures are filled with brown food, the soups and stews she loves, and often you can see they are real meals she’s made, not some prettified version.
Nigella doesn’t seem to buy the concept of convenience when you can easily prepare the same recipe at home. How has her approach to “making it at home” as opposed to buying it “premade” changed the American psyche?
Nigella often talks about how grounding cooking is for her. The repetitive practice itself is immensely pleasurable, not a burden for her. What I think she strives to do more than anything is to lead readers and watchers along a cooking journey until we too can feel that we have attained enough chops to be more relaxed in the kitchen and also find it to be grounding. In a time like now when people are experiencing so much anxiety, learning how to approach cooking, it binds that anxiety (rather than causing more) and is so important. It’s also so much healthier. I’m not sure it’s changed the American psyche because we still consume so much prepared food, but she’s there to reach out a hand when people are ready to start.
In many cultures, women are expected to be natural cooks. But in fact, cooking does not come naturally for a lot of people. In what sense has Nigella’s perspective changed the narrative?
None of us who are home cooks are chefs. I think women used to learn how to cook from their mothers and grandmothers or aunties so in that sense the learning of how a kitchen works and how to buy and prepare foods became “natural.” Although many of us who learned that way didn’t necessarily learn from a gifted home cook. That’s why I started cooking, to eat food I found more delicious than what my mother offered.
I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s when the industrialization of food was beginning and convenience foods were embraced by women who found the repetitive nature of putting three meals on the table drudgery. My mom mostly cooked fresh food from scratch but our meals relied heavily on meat. Chops one night, followed by a roast, followed by different chops, etc., all accompanied with one cooked vegetable made with just salt and pepper and a salad. The salad was the best part. She never baked and the recipes she made were either weird slop made with cream of whatever soups or from Weight Watchers. I started reading cookbooks about food from other parts of the world as a child and I was eager to try recipes. I financed my first trip to Europe as a teen by making chocolate chip cookies at home and selling them to stoners at school.
For this generation of food lovers, Nigella in essence becomes that older sister, or aunt or mom in absentia, giving us tools both technical and emotional to feel comfortable to create our own unique kitchen practice.
Presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures, “An Evening with Nigella Lawson” is on Saturday, November 12, 7:30 pm at the Granada Theatre. Pre-signed books will be available for purchase, courtesy of Chaucer’s. General Public tickets are $31-$46 or $16 for UCSB Students (Current student ID required). More info can be found at ArtsAndLectures.UCSB.edu, (805) 893-3535; or The Granada Theatre,
granadsb.org, (805) 899-2222.