Head and shoulders photo of Nigella Lawson, wearing a black top, turned to the side but looking at the camera.
Head and shoulders photo of Nigella Lawson, wearing a black top, turned to the side but looking at the camera.

Cook, eat, repeat. Or rather, decide what to eat, cook, wash up, repeat. For many people, 2020 has felt like a never-ending set of chores, where the joy of eating has felt diminished given the few chances to eat out or share a meal with friends. Instead, we’re stuck with our own company, our own imaginations, and our own cookery skills.

But Nigella Lawson’s aptly titled and timed new book, Cook, Eat, Repeat, revels in the repetitiveness of the kitchen, of cooking something familiar and well-loved, and of the routines that creating something to eat involves. Reading it restored my love for the thrice-daily ritual of choosing a meal, preparing it, and consuming it (washing up is still tiresome, though).

Part of that is because reading Cook, Eat, Repeat you get a sense of the importance of connection when it comes to food. Lawson tells me over Zoom writing the book, which occurred largely during the pandemic, was a "very heartening experience”.

"I think it’s for that reason that I feel a very emotional connection with this book, because...I was by myself and I felt that this book, the writing of this book, both kept me company and fed me both in terms of the sustenance, physical and emotional. 

"So I felt that it became very important to me and it actually gave a structure to my days, gave me something to think about that mattered to me a lot that wasn't about the fears about the world. So in a sense, it was a great blessing for me.” 

But there were changes that had to be made because of Covid-19; a chapter originally titled How to Invite People for Supper Without Hating Them (or Yourself) is now called Much Depends on Dinner, and focuses on what cooking (and dinner specifically) brings to our lives. "Cooking is about imposing order on the natural world and ourselves,” writes Lawson in that chapter. "It is also an essential ritual, turning feeding to eating, mixing animal hunger and our civilised habit of assuaging it. Even done alone, it is something we share.”

Lawson’s views of food didn’t change during the writing of the book, but creating Cook, Eat, Repeat in lockdown did “put them in very sharp relief”, she tells me.

"I did feel it really heightened my reflections on the importance of food to make a difference to the emotional tenor of the day and our lives,” she says. "And both in terms of the cooking, as well as eating, because it became so clear that in these very formless days when there was a shapelessness to them, it was food that actually gave us structure and gave a sense of not being in that sort of free floating anxiety state.” 

Photograph of Nigella Lawson in a bright pink top, facing the camera and smiling.

"You've got to have a balance between cooking familiar recipes and cooking the odd new one," says Lawson. Image: Matt Holyoak

For some people though, the thought of having to cook each day – especially during this pandemic year – does elicit feelings of anxiety, or even boredom. The latter, Lawson says, is something we have to come to terms with.

"I think you have to concede that there is always going to be an element of 'what am I going to cook and what am I going to do?’ Lawson says. "I think in that sense for all of us, that's where cookbooks come in, because they nudge us towards something that we might never have cooked or might have forgotten about.

“The thing is, like everything it's about balance. And I think in order to not find it too challenging, but not too boring in terms of cooking food day in, day out, you've got to have a balance between cooking familiar recipes and cooking the odd new one. 

"But I also think often it can be as much as cooking a familiar recipe, but changing one or two of the ingredients, changing the spicing. So I think the changes don't have to be dramatic.” 

Advocating changing a recipe can seem an odd thing to do for someone who has made a successful career from coming up with recipes that are then followed by thousands of people. But Cook, Eat, Repeat is not a recipe book in the normal sense; while there are some traditionally laid out recipes, the remainder are folded into a series of essays. In this way, Lawson discusses alternatives to certain ingredients, different ways of serving, and variations that you might want to take based on the taste you’re trying to create.

Lockdown, Lawson tells me, has been good for freeing people from the “tyranny of the recipe”, something which she also spoke about in her first book, the now iconic How to Eat.

"I got a sense [in lockdown] that people were beginning to feel freer about the nature of the recipe,” she says. “I did spend quite a lot of time on Twitter saying to people, 'you have to think about these ingredients, you want to substitute in terms of the qualities they possess. Are you looking for the fattiness or the saltiness or the sweetness?' 

"I felt that perhaps during the stricter lockdown, that people were beginning have an idea of much more what cooking really is, which is improvisation, informed improvisation.” 

Lawson says she is “thrilled” when people tell her they’ve used one of her recipes but changed it slightly, and this new book is for cooks who need full instructions and those who just need inspiration. "I wanted to write a book that made sense to those who are the sort of cooks where we just open the fridge and see what's inside and start cooking, and also the cooks who initially may not be very confident and don't feel they have a grasp on the properties of the ingredients and therefore want everything to be quite precise.

"So it's finding a balance between the precision and also allowing for these slightly anarchic free flow quality that cooking has intrinsically."

Reading Cook, Eat, Repeat it’s impossible not to feel passionate about eating, to appreciate how lucky we are to be able to consume food we love, and to be able to take part in the anarchic pursuit of cooking. It’s clear that seeing people use her recipes – whether that’s as they are or by adapting them – is one of the many reasons Lawson is passionate about food.

"It sounds really sappy, but I do feel very moved when I see pictures of people cooking my food, or in the days when I used to do a book tour, people would come up to me or even now on Instagram, people will say something like, 'Oh, I've made your Malteser cake for my son's birthday forever, and he's now 18’. And it's like, 'Oh my God, you'll be part of people's family’. 

"I'm getting goosebumps, talking about it. But I do think that that's an extraordinary privilege, a blessing. That's the power of food to do that.”

Cook, Eat, Repeat is out now. Nigella’s Cook, Eat, Repeat airs on Mondays at 8pm on BBC2. 

Images: Matt Holyoak

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