At My Table: A Celebration of Home Cooking
When I moved into my first home, before I did anything else, I bought a table, a table not just to eat at, but to live around.
I read recently that when NASA originally designed their spaceships, they didn’t put in a table: it wasn’t thought necessary, and it was hard to see how it would work; without gravity, the food would just float off it. But, as Mary Roach wrote in Packing for Mars, the astronauts did mind, and asked for one to be put in, even if it meant strapping on a tray, with food Velcroed to it. In the alienating isolation of space, they wanted, they said, “to sit around a table at the end of the day and eat like humans.”
A table is more than a piece of furniture, just as food is more than fuel. “It seems to me,” wrote M.F.K. Fisher, “that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” Around a table is where these three things meet. Our lives are formed by memories, and the focus of mine is the food I’ve cooked and the people I’ve cooked for, the people who have sat at my table, as well as the other tables I’ve eaten at, from the blue formica table of my childhood, to the mottled zinc one that is the nexus of my life now.
This book, like all the books I’ve written and all the cookbooks I’ve read, is not just a manual, but a collection of stories and a container of memories. But then, any recipe ever written, any meal ever eaten, is a story, the story of home cooking which, in turn, is about who we are, where we’ve come from and the lives that we’ve lived, and what we say to each other—all those assertions of love, friendship, hospitality, hope—when we invite people to sit at our table and eat the food we’ve made for them.
Personal history, the weaving of memories that sum up a life, social history, the story of how a culture most intimately expresses itself, a cookbook can be about all these things and more, but at its core, it answers that important, everyday question: “What are we going to eat?”
The food in this book—which comes from my kitchen, is eaten at my table, and will be eaten at yours—is the food I have always loved cooking. It doesn’t require technique, dexterity, or expertise, none of which I lay claim to. Life is complicated; cooking doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t matter how many cookbooks I write or how many times I am erroneously called a chef, I will never be a professional. But then, no one needs qualifications to cook, or human beings would have fallen out of the evolutionary loop a long time ago. I cook, as you do, to feed myself, my family, my friends. A home cook is not a lesser being than a chef, though a markedly different one. I hate hearing people describe themselves as “just” a home cook. We may not have the technical proficiency of a chef, but why should this matter? We cook to bring pleasure, comfort, and flavor to life, to the table. This is not to say we operate in bumbling chaos, although I have learned over the years that I need a certain amount of this. In a sense, a recipe is a way of finding order in the mess of life. It’s a guide, something to hold on to. And because of this, it must always be reliable, and as exact as possible, even if cooking itself can never be a precise art. There is a lot of snobbery about giving exact measurements – as if they impede the creativity of the real cook – but I do need the recipes I write (and the recipes I read) to provide as reliable and straightforward a guide as possible, without denying the spontaneity of cooking. So, please do not become hamstrung by weights and measures; I freely admit that cooking itself demands a certain cavalier attitude towards both. If you want to use 6 carrots in a stew, when I have stipulated 4, that’s fine, but there needs to be a framework in the first instance, and often there can be a significant discrepancy in the weights of particular ingredients, so an entirely laissez-faire attitude would not be helpful. In baking, of course, absolute precision is a prerequisite; in cooking there can be more freedom of movement.
But no matter how specific the amount given – both in general and, in particular, of spices, herbs, salt, citrus, and so on – nothing can do the job of your palate. You cannot cook without tasting, and you need to taste, taste, taste, and taste again. A recipe can be an idea, a starting point, but when I write one, I need to know I’m giving you the tools to share the food I make. And for me, too, a recipe is the way I share my enthusiasms. I repeat certain ingredients unashamedly. The home cook has to, and happily. If I buy a jar of preserved lemons, say, for a particular recipe, or require you to, it wouldn’t occur to me to leave that opened jar in the fridge with nothing else to do with it. And, indeed, it is finding ways to use up such a jar that is in itself inspiring. A home cook may work with a much more limited pantry than a chef, but still, we do discover new ingredients, and they inject new flavors into the food we cook. Home cooking isn’t about treating food as a museum piece or an empty exercise in nostalgia. So many of the recipes here are drawn from meals I remember, the food I’ve eaten at various stages in my life, but in evoking memories, I’m also making them part of how I live and eat now.
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Perhaps it is slightly churlish of me, but I admit that there is an always forthcoming question I have come to dread when I tell people I’m working on a new book or have just written one. It is “What’s the theme?” Part of me wants to answer “Cooking doesn’t need to have a theme, any more than life has a theme,” or “The theme is the food I love cooking and like eating,” though I feel the book’s subtitle – a celebration of home cooking – says this more graciously. And the book’s structure, or lack of it, reflects this too. All cooking, all life, is part of a continuum and, as this book came into being, I felt I didn’t want to interfere with the honest jumble. The messiness of having no chapters, no breaks in the run of recipes felt so much more like the way I actually cook and live. Of course, there has to be some order; there is a flow to the recipes which, once the book was finished, I tried to impose without losing a certain random quality. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” and this Kierkegaardian premise holds true here, too. That’s to say, I tried to keep the “living forwards” element intact. To those who like clear delineations and neat order, I apologize; but I breathe easier without either. And I felt emboldened by the different approach of the ebook. I’d been checking a recipe in a book of mine in ebook form, and found the list of recipes at the beginning enormously helpful. There’s no reason why this should just be a feature of a digital format, and so I have happily imported that idea here.
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Any food writer I’ve ever spoken to has always agreed that while coming up with recipe ideas is easy – we all tend to have a natural greed that invites us to think obsessively about what we want to eat and cook – giving a clear indication of how many each recipe is intended to feed is confoundingly difficult. I’ve written about my hesitancy in this area before: when having people over to eat, I am always stricken with fear that there won’t be enough food; there are always leftovers. But that’s the way I like it, and that’s how a home should be. Knowing there’s always something in the fridge to eat without having to cook afresh not only makes life easier, it gives a sense of security and comfort.
My portions are generous, that I freely admit; I am never knowingly undercatered. But the problem I have settling on a serving size to give for each recipe is more than just a personal neurosis. There simply cannot be any precise or absolute formula to rely on when deciding. How old are the eaters? How large are their appetites? What else are they eating at the same meal? How big was the meal they ate earlier in the day? How large the plates are that they’re eating off will make a difference to the portion sizes, too.
Of course, some recipes make deciding on serving sizes relatively easy, though this is generally if they are to feed one or two people. Elsewhere, I have tried to give a range of, say, 4–6 or 6–8, to show that there is room for maneuver and to guide you – which is always what I prefer to do – rather than bark instructions.
But, as I said above: I always err on the side of generosity, believing that, whether in the kitchen or out of it, this is a happier way to be.
Copyright © 2017 by Nigella Lawson
Photography copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Lovekin