Nigella Lawson: ‘The Whole World Is Enslaved by Italian Food’

Nigella Lawson at Allium in The Four Seasons, Chicago.
Nigella Lawson at Allium in The Four Seasons, Chicago. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

It took a trip to Italy for the 19-year-old Nigella Lawson to discover who she really was: an Italian soul in an (imposingly tall and chic) English body. That, at least, is the premise behind her newest cookbook, Nigellissima (Clarkson Potter, $35), released two weeks ago in the U.S. The cookbook author, who also happens to be one of the judges on The Taste, came to Chicago last week for a quick book tour of the Midwest. And figuring that she’d probably had enough questions about Anthony Bourdain and TV in general, we stuck to talking about the universal love for Italian food, and how going to Italy at an impressionable age literally changed her life and made her the single-named star she is today. You can’t hear the rounded, brandy-voiced tones and precise diction with which she answered our questions, but her warm affection for the subject of Italian food and culture comes through even in cold type.

A lot of people in the Midwest, which is kind of a reserved place, fantasize about Italy as this place where larger than life emotion comes out — that your bigger personality can kind of come out of the closet there. And it sounds like that’s what really happened to you.
Yes, because I come from a reserved place. I always feel that I was such a shy, reserved person. And I went to Italy, and — one, by being independent you have to learn to speak for yourself, so my personality changed somewhat. When I spoke Italian, I became more voluble and less reserved. And then when I came back to England, that relative confidence translated back into my native tongue.

So, I feel that it rather changed — I don’t know if it changed who I was, or rather my true self didn’t find its expression until I went to Italy. Now, of course, for me I see it as an Italian experience, but I can’t overlook the fact that it might just be the age I was then. Obviously at 19, or 18, one is less tongue-tied and reserved and self-conscious than one is at 15 or 16. So it’s a bit of both, but for me, my sense of becoming a person is inextricably linked with Italy, and becoming Italian. Or attempting to.

And linked with Italian food.
Yes, but my love affair with Italy began as a fantasy romance before I’d actually gone there and eaten the food. So the food cemented the relationship — had the food been different, then perhaps it would have been just a teen romance, instead of a lifelong passion.

I think it’s very hard to separate the food from the sense of the country, because it has so many of the same qualities. It is so open, and welcoming to all — I mean, it’s not surprising that the whole world is enslaved by Italian food, because it’s not a type of cooking that turns away foreigners or newcomers.

There’s no mystique; it doesn’t try to keep its methods or its ingredients a secret. There isn’t some sort of inner sanctum you have to be ushered into. It’s there, it’s simple, but in the best possible way. And also, there’s something about the Italians I love because — and this is a Midwestern thing, too — there’s an earthiness and a robustness to the Italians, but what they marry that with is a stylishness, and chic, which somehow manages to exist with a lack of pretension.

Where if you had gone to France, they would have had to break you first and rebuild you.
Well, the thing about the French is, even if you speak moderately good French — maybe this is more true of Parisians than the French as a whole — the French really enjoy making you feel uncomfortable. And they will make a big point of not understanding you.

The Italians, you can know one or two words, and they will do absolutely their best to understand you. When this book came out in Italian last fall, I did Q&As; in bookstores in Italian, and every time I couldn’t think of a word they’d be egging me on, ecce ecce ecce! And they’d be throwing out suggestions of what word I might want. And the whole thing was so warm and lovely. It’s a different attitude — I mean, generalizations are always deficient, but I get the feeling they want you to share their pleasure, where the French are kind of working up whether you’re worthy of it.

And I think in terms of the food, the French are very proud, and rightly so, of their sort of grand resto tradition, the professional chefs, those incredible geniuses; that’s where French cooking find its truest expression. Whereas in Italy, no matter how illustrious the chef, he’s never going to think his cooking is better than his mother’s.

In America, there’s definitely a kind of American Italian food — mostly with three times as much sauce and cheese as an Italian would use —
There is, but it’s still authentically American. I was in a conversation with Mario Batali, and I said, you’ve got these Italian restaurants, and he said, well, yes, they’re Italian restaurants, but what they really are is New Yorcchese. And he said to me, do you feel your food is Londonnese? And I said yes. So you could say yours is Midvestese.

I think that is allowable. What I don’t think is right is when people make false claims about Italian food, but people are always making false claims about Italian food. Like saying that Italians don’t use butter. Well, no one’s ever told an Italian that!

But by that token, is there an English-Italian style that you can identify?
In a way, because we’re so near to Italy, but we’re a slightly different society. So what happens in the States, so far as I can see, is that people hold onto their heritage very dearly, and identify themselves as Italian-Americans. Whereas all the Italians — there used to be, when I was a child, very much an Italian quarter in London — we’re much more of an assimilationist culture. So they are now absolutely English. But we have got many, many native Italians living in England, so it’s more of an Italian-Italian.

But it’s still about buying what produce you can get. For instance, I translated the Italian pasta with sardines to pasta with mackerel, because the British are a mackerel nation rather more than a sardine nation. And we don’t grow wild fennel, so I used dill. So in that sense, it’s still about adapting to local ingredients.

Nigella Lawson: ‘The Whole World Is Enslaved by Italian Food’