Being famous can get in the way of how good you are. Take the case of Nigella Lawson, who has sold more than 12 million books worldwide and is on so many “successful television programs,” as her bio proclaims, that she’s “a household name around the world.”
But she’s not just a comely face on our bookshelves and small screens, and no one should discount the power of her writing. Take this passage in her latest book, Cook, Eat, Repeat: “I do so love a crumble. I don’t just mean to eat, but also to make. When I stand at the kitchen countertop, with my hands immersed in cool flour, fluttering my fingers against the cold cubes of butter to turn these two disparate ingredients into one light pile of soft and sandy flakes, I feel, at one and the same time, that I’m not only repeating a process but reliving the memory of all the times I’ve done so before, and yet utterly immersed in the present, alive only in a sensation of flour and butter in my fingers, as they scutter about the bowl.”
Lucky Santa Barbara will get to be with her in the present, if without butter and flour on her fingers, on Saturday, November 12, at 7:30 p.m. at The Granada Theatre. The evening, presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures, will begin with Lawson in conversation with Evan Kleiman from KCRW’s Good Food and then continue with an audience Q&A.
“For me, what’s very important is this event just unravels authentically, spontaneously, directly,” Lawson said on a recent Zoom. “Who knows what ground will be covered? If people will want to talk about recipes or about an aspect of food that is perhaps more about what food means to them, or their memories associated with certain dishes? I think that’s why food is such a fascinating subject to discuss, because it takes in our history both personally and as a people, our culture, our petty prejudices, and our huge enthusiasms.”
Enthusiasm is clearly a watchword for Lawson, and that excitement carries over to her interlocutor for the evening. “Evan is a fascinating talker about food, and I’ve done a lot of radio with her over the decades,” explained Lawson, whose 16-night tour has her ready for anything. “There’s a quality to a room when people are responding in the moment,” she said. “I mean, even when I do my TV programs, I’m not scripted; I just blither and blather until the director says ‘Cut.’”
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That blither and blather tends to win folks over, partially because, as she put it on the Zoom, “I’m talking home cooking here, not showy-offy fancy stuff.” Also note that she studied medieval and modern languages at Oxford, so language is crucial to her. Lawson also stresses the sensuous — see that far-from-humble crumble passage above — that often gets confused for the sensual in our too-crude culture.
“It’s really about just trying to think about the whole process of cooking,” she explains. “For me, in life, you want to draw the maximum amount of pleasure out of everything, so of course eating is a divine joy and a pleasure. But so is contemplating what you’re going to eat, and so is enjoying the ingredients as you chop them. Or you see a bowl of lemons, and that’s beautiful — you’re creating your own still lifes. And then it’s also lovely when you think about the food afterward and how much you enjoyed the meal and what you might do with the leftovers. I want to share this tremendous sense of gratitude at wallowing in every pleasure, so you know it’s not a quarter-hour of pleasure; it becomes two hours of pleasure as you think about everything.”
And few think, really think, about food more than Lawson. She suggests cooking is one way to be “open to living lyrically,” and when asked about how people can do just that, she admits, “You know you cannot have too-high expectations. You got home from work, your toddler has been in a state of uproar because they didn’t like that they were given chocolate milk and not vanilla milk or whatever it is. So, you’re dealing with that, and then you realize your other child needs to get their football clothes ready for the next day, so might not be open to living lyrically then.
“But if you can say, ‘I’m going to have five minutes in the kitchen.’ Then you put a bit of oil in the pan, and maybe you take a lemon zester and grate some zest, and that smell will rise up and hit you — you know, it’s aromatherapy and it’s cooking your supper. One reason I think cooking is so good is that you have to take your intelligence away from your mind and make it exist in your fingertips, if you’re making a dough, or the feel of some beans as you press them with your wooden spoon in a pan and some of them begin to soften. And you live with the sound of the hiss when you quickly put some bacon in a pan. All those things are happening, and if you can just let yourself experience those things, that will help you feel less grumpy and more lyrical.”
As no doubt spending an evening with her at the Granada might, too.
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Nigella Lawson in conversation with KCRW’s Evan Kleiman on Saturday, November 12, 7:30 p.m., at The Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). See artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.