Nigella Lawson on how to Bring Meaning Back to Cooking

Nigella Lawson has always rejected the title ‘chef’.

She is not a chef, she declares. She is a cook. A communal cook. A cook who delights in creating dishes for friends, family, and, just as importantly, herself. What makes her food special is not the professional performance that culture has come to associate with great food, but the personal presentation.

International fame and success sprung from Lawson’s ethos, which lies at the heart of her ten bestselling cookbooks, and wildly popular TV programs.

Tonight, attendees of The School of Life’s special event “On Why Food Matters” were lucky enough to be offered a new angle into this ethos not through Lawson’s food, but in a conversation with social psychologist Hugh Mackay at Melbourne’s Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The theme: the importance of food and the dining experience in modern society.

Mackay opened the discussion with a tone-setting quote from Lawson’s new book, At My Table:

“When I moved into my first home many years ago, before I did anything else I bought a table, and not just to eat at but to live around.”

It’s an exceptional quote, and one that exemplifies what attracts fans to Lawson. Of course, the food is important, but the table – that totem of belonging around which families across the world have huddled for centuries – it too plays a profound role in making a meal special.

So profound, Mackay points out, that studies indicate children who eat at the table at least five times a week are more likely to succeed at school, and generally get into less trouble.

Similar results, it’s not hard to believe, would likely be discovered if a similar study was performed on adults. Ruthless competitiveness and cynicism have come to dictate how we develop relationships both in and out of the office. Surely that would change if only we took the time to sit down and share a meal.

After all, feeding people – as Lawson and Mackay point out – is ultimately an act of acceptance and recognition.

Lawson mentions a part in Mackay’s book The Art of Belonging in which he muses on that feeling of discomfort that we feel when visiting a person’s house, but don’t receive an offer of even a glass of water.

It’s a simple, almost odd observation but, as the murmur that moves through the hall confirms, an entirely poignant one. There will definitely be a few audience members arriving at the office tomorrow morning with a tray of baked treats.

In Mackay’s view, our social responsibility to accept and recognise others through cooking extends beyond our immediate circle of associates.

He cites 2016 Census data which found 1 in 4 Australian households are composed of a single person. That figure is expected to rise to 1 in 3 by 2030.

Such social isolation stands in direct conflict with our nature as herd animals, and is considered a contributing factor to the endemic levels of anxiety and depression currently being faced in the country. Something must be done.

That could mean making as simple an offer as inviting your neighbour over for dinner. Even little acts of generosity can make a tremendous difference.

The conversation is peppered with witty banter and charming anecdotes. For all the focus on her disarming ‘family cook’ personality, Lawson carries with her an unmistakable gravity. She’s a bastion of brilliance, as comfortable discussing psychology as her mother’s old recipes, and a true role model; one that has become as synonymous with a memorable dining experience as the dinner table itself.

Lawson ended the night with a book signing that lasted close to two and a half hours. It’s a testament to her generosity, as well as the value in her words. We would all do well to listen.

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