Nigella Lawson on Midwest Eating ‘With Relish and Abandon’

Nigella Lawson
Nigella Lawson Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

In the second part of our interview with Nigella Lawson, whose new book Nigellissima came out on February 12, the cookbook author and The Taste judge talks specifically about the midwest and the philosophical similarities between Italy and the heartland of America. Though her book tour, which took her rapidly through a series of events in Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis, didn’t give her much of a chance to sample local foods, she did get to check out Chef Kevin Hickey’s mix of highbrow and classic South Side Chicago flavors at Allium. Here’s what she had to say about Italian food and Chicago; read part one here.

It’s interesting that you mention a kind of sympathy between midwestern chefs and Italian food, because that’s something that really went through this town, where people said they were using an Italian approach— go to the market, get what’s fresh, cook it simply— but with things that grew here in the midwest, and the results didn’t always look much like “Italian food” as everyone thinks of it.
But that’s fine! I feel that’s authentic. You see, what a lot of people call authentic, I call “theme park.” You cannot, in the midwest of America, or in London— look, you’re not in Italy. You and I are not Italian. But your food can be informed and influenced by Italian attitudes, by what we’ve eaten in Italy or in Italian restaurants.

It’s like language— the Italians have loan words, which the French reject. So for instance, the English word bow window, in Italian is “bovindo.” They accept that food evolves, language evolves, and it’s anti-evolutionary to codify it any further.

People travel more, there’s the internet— influence cannot be denied. I mean, you go to Italy today and they’re cooking muffins like mad. I would never say, “this is an Italian recipe,” unless it actually was. And even if it were, I’m not in Italy, I don’t buy my ingredients from Italy. Everything has to be adapted, and I’m a great proponent of an authentic style being the style that belongs to us personally or locally.

And I’m sure an Italian would look at it and say it isn’t Italian food, but they’d understand the principles and where you were going with it and that it’s about the local produce.

So we have to ask you the obligatory Chicago question. Has someone forced deep dish pizza on you?
Not on this visit, but I have had it before, and as long as I’m wearing something elasticky not like I am now, I eat it with relish and abandon, as I eat most things!

We wondered because your showmate Mr. Bourdain despises them utterly, and we thought maybe he’d warned you off.
I prefer a thin, it’s too much topping for me. But as long as I think of it as, not Italian, but a Chicago dish, then I like it. I don’t disdain it like he does. But then, I’m not a purist.

Well, it’s claimed to come from an Italian dish called scarciedda, though we wonder how close it really is.
But you know, different regions in Italy cooks so differently anyway, I don’t see why it’s inconceivable that some people would cook their pizza like that. And also, of course, when Italians cook pizza at home, which they don’t do very much anyway, it’s more like that. It’s only when you go to a pizzeria that you get the very thin crisp one.

I mean, I have to say, I feel there are certain things which, I would even take a bad one, and— for instance, even bad fries I can eat, I like all fries, I like all pizza. As long as the dough is cooked enough, because uncooked dough is never pleasurable. But I will do any other sort. As long as the beer is cold enough, it will be a satisfactory eating experience for me.

An admirable attitude, we congratulate you. Well, thank you, we know you have to go—
Do I? I don’t know, I do what I’m told. Up to a point.

That’s one of the very very dispiriting things about being on a book tour, which I absolutely like, is that all the events take place at meal time. So I come to a city of incredible food, and I just gaze, as I’m walked past a window…

But I do get a little chance to try local things sometimes. I said to Bill [her local media handler] the last time I came here, I couldn’t understand why I put on so much weight in Chicago, and then when I got back I looked at my diary of what I’d eaten, and I suddenly understood, oh, now I get it!

* * *

At that point Nigella pulled out her iPhone and found a photo she had taken of one of the few things she had managed to eat while in Chicago— from her lunch earlier that day at Allium, it was roasted brussels sprouts with Polish kielbasa, a dish we’ve also enjoyed and written about. Our bonding moment quickly came to an end, because she had to leave for her event at the Union League Club. But later that evening, she tweeted that she did get one last bite of Chicago before leaving for Milwaukee:

I don’t think I could be any happier right now: just demolished a Whoopskidawg at Superdawg; all hail Chicago!

Previously: Nigella Lawson: “The Whole World Is Enslaved By Italian Food”

Nigella Lawson on Midwest Eating ‘With Relish and Abandon’