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6th November 2017

At My Table: Nigella Lawson in conversation

We joined Nigella Lawson and Jeanette Winterson as they discussed the fundamental pleasures of food

As part of the annual Manchester Literature Festival, Nigella Lawson was joined by author and close friend Jeanette Winterson for an intimate discussion musing over the acts of cooking, eating and writing.

Set amidst the decadent concert hall in the Royal Northern College of Music, there was a stark contrast between the two intimately placed armchairs that took centre stage — as if we were being given a small glimpse of someone’s living room.

The staging set the tone for the evening, as there was a voyeuristic indulgence in getting to eavesdrop on a conversation between two old friends — the format often slipping into anecdotal moments and memories.

Though Nigella has become iconic in the food world as the ‘Domestic Goddess’, renowned author Jeanette Winterson (‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’) created a seemingly unlikely pairing.  However, Winterson has been a long-standing advocate for organic food and slow eating, and even opened her own deli Verde & Co in 2006.

The dynamics between the two created a relaxed and informal atmosphere, one which seemed to echo the tone which Nigella creates in her books. She spoke of how her recipe books were less of a manual to be followed, and more of a collection of stories. Here you could see where Winterson came in, as she focused the talk around the narratives behind Nigella’s love of cooking and eating.

Nigella was humble yet insistent that she did not count herself as a chef, perhaps not even a cook, but an eater. She emphasised that where chefs focused on rules, schedules and mastering food, as a home cook it was about exploring, sharing, and harmonising with food. Cooking taking a cathartic form.

Her new book, At My Table, puts this articulation right at the centre of the recipes, each underpinned by the details and experiences which lay behind their conception. It evidences how food becomes a medium of expression, one which can be loaded with memories or emotion:

“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 on, from the blue formica of my childhood, to the mottled zinc that is the nexus of my life now.”

It was refreshing to have a discussion of food which embraced the act of eating — even advocating the liberal use of butter and salt! For discourses around food are so often now focused around restriction, or clean eating, or going gluten free, and here we saw a shift back to the basics.

Nigella herself was as delectable as ever, and just as Nigella-ery — the only adjective appropriate — as she is on television. She the masters the ultimate art of seduction in merely talking about a sticky toffee pudding.

As the talk came to a close, there was something poignant about the fact that, while watching the discussion, the woman next to me carefully unwrapped a tightly tin-foiled cheese sandwich. For there is something unmistakably effective about homemade food – even be it the humble cheese sandwich. It was these human touches in food which the talk revelled in throughout the evening.

Nigella’s recipes are often defined by a simplicity and accessibility, which resonated with the discussion itself. For despite lacking a structure and even a clear intent, the talk between these two was remarkably charming in its sincerity. I found I couldn’t quite articulate what they had talked about for an hour, but I left feeling nourished – and enthused about what to have for dinner.

For more coverage of the Manchester Literature Festival, visit The Mancunion website.

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