Sowing the Seeds

nigella bookWatching the ghastly events at Isleworth Court this week, it was pretty much a forgone conclusion I’d be Team Nigella since it would take a lot for me to back a man who throttled his wife. But it was also because Nigella has probably been the biggest influence on my cooking career of anyone.

It was her columns in Vogue in the very late 90s that turned me from being able to make food to being able to cook and understanding the power of writing and talking about food. Prior to that, most of my food influence had been from family or watching people like Keith Floyd on TV, but Nigella introduced me to food writing. Her columns seemed incredibly grown up and very cosmopolitan. I felt so very adult cooking things she wrote about while friends made baked potatoes and Old El Paso kits when we went round for dinner before a big night out.

The very first cook book I bought for myself was How to Eat. I took it and a homemade recipe book, full of her columns and the names of people and books she suggested, with me to university and I cooked from it constantly. Despite her background, that book is full of good value dishes that fed a penniless student flat with love and style. It also taught me many shopping skills and tips that growing up around supermarkets didn’t teach me and I have used ever since. My copy is battered and filthy and never bettered for me as the book I turn to most when I need guidance.

Above all, Nigella showed me the wonderful wide world of female food writers who I had no idea existed having only ever seen Delia do domestic science style cooking on TV. From her I discovered the fabulous Lindsey Bareham whose daily columns in the Evening Standard when I first moved to London became a highlight of my day. Her goulash recipe became a Monday night staple for my whole house for months and paprika is still my storecupboard essential spice above all else. Countless little columns were cut out and stuck in my recipe book to be used and prized again.

Losing that cookbook a few years later remains a source of great sadness to me. My life was measured out in recipes, clippings and cuttings, all along with notes and details that showed the process of learning to cook, eat and knowin what I liked and what I could do. My mind wanders occasionally to the recipes in that book that I never got the chance to make and I still feel its loss. It makes me appreciate the books similar to it that came from my grandmother all the more now.

I’ve comforted myself by finding more writers to guide me. Many of them are women as both an antidote to the macho ‘yes chef’ culture and as proof of what teaching yourself can do. My Nigella and Lindsey Bareham books are joined by Niki Segnit, Claudia Roden, Victoria Moore, Sally Butcher and Fuschia Dunlop. The feminism that shapes my life elsewhere spills over into my cooking and reading far more than I thought.

I couldn’t even begin to list the bloggers I read, and I can’t thank those such as Niamh Shields, Rachel McCormack and Signe Johanssen enough for the help and guidance they, and others, have given me since I started to write and cook in the last four years. The men in my life who could come to any meal I cook are Dan Lepard and Nigel Slater. They both combine the best of the cheffing and cooking worlds and have both kindly answered incredibly stupid questions of mine on Twitter.

I’ve only been able to see the influences of these people in my kitchen as my own writing and cooking style feels more secure and I have confidence in it. I can see the skill in being able to create and write about food long term without becoming jaded or repetitive and learning to write my own work has given me even greater pleasure in reading other’s work. I’ve got a lot to thank Nigella for. And if anyone can reunite me the original recipe for her Venetian Carrot Cake, I will be undyingly grateful to them too…

Who shapes you? Family, friends or those familiar faces in the kitchen?

17 replies
  1. bee
    bee says:

    Keith Floyd, Nigel Slater, Lyndsey Bareham, Simon Hopkinson, Rick Stein, Delia (early days – gave me confidence), Nigella…

    I still cook things my mother and/or grandmother did. Nana could make scones by eye and they were the best ever. I’m still not confident enough to do that but it is one of those things I’d like to be able to do.

    Ma always took a third off a ham and cooked it alongside the main piece. I asked her why one day and she said because the was how her mother did it. I consulted with Nana who told me that she did it because her oven tray wasn’t big enough to take a whole ham.


  2. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Beeze: love that ham story. I love hearing family traditions and little tales about food and cooking. I so wish I’d been smart enough to ask my granny more about what she cooked before it was too late, but I am loving trying to decipher her recipes from her handwritten books. Still can’t make a scone to save my life though!

  3. Alicia (foodycat)
    Alicia (foodycat) says:


    The writers who are best represented on my shelf are Nigella, Delia, Diana Henry and Elizabeth David. Delia’s recipes mostly just work, and the others have a lot to give as inspiration for food, even if I don’t end up making their recipes.

  4. Rosemary York
    Rosemary York says:

    I was reflecting on this subject recently, and realised that I learned to cook from Jane Grigson’s column in the Observer. Writing in the tradition of Elizabeth David, Grigson combined erudition with uncompromising culinary standards. Although there are some excellent cookery writers active at the present time (although do we really need to know what they look like?) I cannot immediately think of any who demonstrate Grigson’s breadth of learning. Incidentally, her recipe for Country Christmas Cake in the original edition of English Food, not the revised one edited by her daughter, produces what is, quite simply, the best Christmas Cake in the world.

  5. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Alicia: I love it when a cookbook is infinitely readable and can be dipped in and out of. I really need to discover more Diana Henry. Have been hearing great things about her books.

    Rosemary: I have to admit that I don’t especially care for Sophie Grigson and that has put me off investigating Jane Grigson. I’m going to go and hang my head in shame now.

  6. Mister North
    Mister North says:

    Earliest memories of cookbooks are reading Keith Floyd and Claudia Roden at our parents. Delia was always there for reference, but never held my attention for education or entertainment in the same way as those two when I was a precocious and hungry teen.

    I have fond and grateful memories of you buying me ‘How to Eat’ (and I read it from cover to cover when sat as a hungover car passenger on the way back up to Mcr from London, licking my lips impressionably at various dishes which have since become staples)

    However for me Marcella Hazan and Simon Hopkinson would probably be the two food writers which contributed most to my formative kitchen experiences, and gave me the confidence to experiment and broaden my horizons. Good reading as well as good food.

    More recently I’ve come to love and embrace multiple books by Elizabeth Luard, Jane Grigson, Diana Henry, more of Claudia Roden, Anissa Helou, Fuschia Dunlop. Interesting that although I probably have more food books by blokes, the ones which resonate most are often written by women. Perhaps there’s more of a personal (and personable) touch in many woman’s writing styles which I find chimes with me and makes a connection. I like technical books, but I don’t want to read them in bed, or on the sofa on a lazy Sunday afternoon…

  7. Mrs Nordy
    Mrs Nordy says:

    Still using and loving Delia Smiths complete cookery book. Love anything by Nigel Slater and really enjoy his TV programmes. And of course, just love the new kid on the block (to me anyway) Miss South ;).

  8. Gemma
    Gemma says:

    Delia’s Complete Cookery Course was the kitchen oracle when I was growing up. When I went away to uni, I found a bit of a gap in my knowledge (in that I could make cakes and biscuits with the best of them, and rustle up hearty meals for upwards of four people, but the ability to make cheap, nice food for one with two gas rings, a toaster and a microwave was beyond me).

    The following are not well known, but they got me started and interested in proper cooking and I’m hugely grateful for that:

    Student Grub by Alastair Williams
    More Grub on Less Grant by Cas Clarke
    Low-Fat Indian Cookery by Roshi Razzaq (did I mention that my student days were when I discovered curry?)

    These days, my go-to cookery writers are Nigella (although I went off her after Nigella Kitchen- that might be due to carrying the blighter home from the library) and Nigel Slater. I’m starting to cook more from Delia again though as I find her recipes a bit lighter.

  9. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Mrs Nordy: you charmer. I think you made me blush…

    Gemma: ooh, great tips there. I have a friend who has only a small hotplate to cook on at the moment and those books sound very useful. I use Delia for the practical stuff like how to line a tin or that kind of thing I wish I’d learned in HE, but I love Nigel just to read before bed. Gives me lovely dreams!

  10. Sharmila
    Sharmila says:

    For me, it would have to be Nigel Slater (the writing in Kitchen Diaries still makes me so happy that I can easily lose myself in it), Madhur Jaffrey (my mum used her books when I was little, I turned to the Ultimate Curry Bible so much when I first moved to London), and Fuchsia Dunlop. For me, all of these writers are ones I know have had a key role in my cooking because the majority of the time I don’t actually have to look at the books anymore. The basics of the recipes, and how they have evolved are imprinted on my brain!

    Thinking of Nigella, I realised the other day that whilst I find her TV persona cliched, again, a hell of a lot of her tips, recipes, etc. are ones I turn to time and again. Her way of soaking red onion in red wine vinegar is what I have pretty much done now for years – it just makes sense. And her writing is really fantastic.

  11. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Sharmila: totally agree on Nigella’s TV persona. I struggle to watch her on anything without finding it too much, but god, her writing is good and she knows food. Her passion and lack of phrasing about ‘healthy’ or ‘naughty’ or anything like that is a refreshing change in this day and age.

    Going to have to get the Madhur Jaffrey book on your recommendation. Between the two of you I will finally cook a decent curry. I had no idea until recently that she was also an actress too!

  12. Gemma
    Gemma says:

    Miss South, your friend with the hotplate might find Katherine Whitehorn’s “Cooking in a Bedsitter” worth a look. I don’t use mine much to cook from (it’s a very battered copy and somewhat fragile), but it has some good tips if you’ve only one hotplate and her writing is wonderful to read (lots of retro charm and wit- particularly the section about inviting a man up).

  13. simba
    simba says:

    ‘Kettle Broth to Gooseberry Fool’ by Jenny Baker- that’s the book I was thinking of. It, of course, came to me immediately after posting the comment.

  14. Stuart Gardner
    Stuart Gardner says:

    Hi, you had me thinking about this one. Well yes My nana could cook but I was always ushered out of the kitchen as I suspect as children were in her way, and as well as a boy she probably thought I should not be interested in cooking….. just eating the end result… which of course I was. My dad was one of the last to be conscripted into the army and his job was as a cook…. so my Dad did all the cooking in our house…. and I did watch him at work. I don’t think he like the army much but he used to say at least he learned to cook. One anecodte I remember was him with the other cooks making Sunday lunch and with all the men waiting for their lunch the Officer inspected the menu and on tasting the cabbage said that it was over cooked. The result of this was that the whole food of the barracks was thrown away and the cooks had to start again….. so that meant the men had to wait six hours for lunch!!!!

    One thing that was nice my dad made was a curry out of a tin of Royal Game soup served with some rice in a round with the curried soup poured into the middle….. kind of fun when you are a child for saturday lunch.

    One book that I like…. which I lent to a friend is Jocasta Innes, The Pauper’s Cookbook….. not seen it since I loaned it out….. be interesting for you to have alook at it…. think it was published in the 1970’s. If I recall correctly it has a lovely simple recipe for soda bread….. so if you are down to nothing as long as you have flour, water, salt, a little milk and vinegar you can have some bread.

    The other book I like is the cook book by Rabbi lionel Blue…. Its a sort of book with the Rabbi talking about his life and the a recipe. There is a nice recipe for veggie toad in the hole….. chesse chunks and stuffing in the yorkies, hunters stew, and a very good one to use left over pieces of chesse to make a pate which I have made and id lovely on toast. There is an idea for you…. interview the Rabbi am sure he would be interested in cooking on a budget….. headline….. Miss South and the Rabbi….. Hope you are both well.

  15. simba
    simba says:

    Wrote a big long comment to this a few days ago, and I think I just never sent it. D’oh!

    Second the recommendation for Madhur Jaffrey, her recipes are lovely and are often great student grub. Her sour chickpeas (khatte chole?) recipe is just incomparable. It’s food you’d make for guests, and when they arrive you’d have it accidentally eaten.

    Jenny Baker’s book From Kettle Broth to Gooseberry Fool is also excellent. The recipes really work, suit my tastes, and actually taste good, which is unusual for cookery books.

    Why do so many recipe books have lovely food-porn recipes that don’t actually work, don’t work consistently, need impossible-to-find ingredients, or just taste bland and uninteresting? Grumblegrumble. So many cookery books, so few that are reliable to cook with. Off my lawn, kids, and such.

    Your blog is one of those influences for me- if I want to make something I’ve never made before I look up northsouthfood or one of the above two.

    I have yet to have a major failure from any of those three, and that’s saying something considering my total lack of cooking skills. Not to mention the lack of any kind of realistic limits on what I should try to make.

  16. Katie
    Katie says:

    Nigel & Nigella are my mainstays – to cook with but more so for reading in bed & on the sofa. They both write so lyrically & comfortingly, it’s sheer delight to read!
    I’ve been off sick this past week & it’s been wonderful to read about Belfast food in the depths of sw London. Weest bit homesick now & feeling the need for a fifteen!

  17. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Katie: happy to have brought some home comforts to you this week. I’d have offered Heinz tomato soup too if it wouldn’t lose me all my food blogger cred!

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