Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Nigella, Donna, and me

I love cookbooks. I read them in bed, bring them on vacation, fondle them in the bookstore, and greedily peruse them before dinner time. (I also spend far too much time on epicurious, but that's another story.)

Last night as I was looking for something to do with bananas, I pulled a representative batch of books off my shelf. I'd just recently made the delicious Nigella chocolate-banana cake, so that was out. There's a lovely lemony banana "breakfast ring" in Feast, but I really did want a dinner dessert. Fannie (who's really Marion) and Irma (who's really a different Marion) didn't have anything I wanted, despite being old standbys. So I ended up with Donna.

Only, the thing is, I'm not on a first-name basis with Donna. I have two of her books, Modern Classics I and II. That's the same number of books I have by Nigella. But Nigella, she's all over her books, from the picture on the front cover to the anecdotes throughout. I know Nigella. I know Irma/Marion and Fannie/Marion, too. Irma told funny stories which mostly had to do with her family's German cook, while Fannie wanted to make sure I was cooking things myself. And there are other women on my shelves, women who speak to me and help me out. Marion (of Fannie fame) wants me to eat dinner around the table every night, while Suzanne wants me to appreciate how they do it in Rome. Mollie and Deborah want to help me eat my vegetables, Mollie with cute pictures and Deborah with exhaustive--but never exhausting--detail. The only man in heavy rotation in my kitchen, I have to say, is Pierre, who makes me laugh with his stories of learning to cook in French kitchens and finding American ingredients that work just as well, except when they don't. Pierre also isn't above a little trickiness to look fussier than you are, as when he smears the fish fillet with mayonnaise instead of making a real sauce. It works; he's a little embarassed by it, but he's not above sharing the tip, either.

Donna doesn't tell stories. Compared to Nigella, she's a sleek Danish modern coffee table next to an overstuffed couch. I love to look at Danish modern. It looks so clean, so calm, so peaceful. But my life is overstuffed, not sleek at all, and I want someone who recognizes that. Donna not only doesn't tell stories, she assumes I know stuff, like that stirring the caramel sauce will keep it from thickening. (I figured that out well after her specified eight minutes were up). Now, of course, I did know that once--which is how I figured it out again--but in my overstuffed life I need constant reminders, maybe even stories of how Nigella forgot once too, and made something else instead when it didn't work out.

Donna's banana cake was very good, by the way, as was the caramel sauce on it. Maybe a little fussier than I would have liked--did it really matter that I used extrafine sugar in it? Does she know that my grocery store doesn't offer both single and double cream? But still, very good. Nonetheless, I'd rather sit down with Nigella any evening. Donna intimidates me, just a bit, and there's nothing I like less in cooking than intimidation.

Really, everything you need to know about Donna and Nigella--or everything I need to know, anyway--is expressed by their book covers. Donna's is all sleek and modern and beautiful. Even that artfully-placed drip is, well, artful. I want to make food that looks like this, though I know I won't. I don't know anything about the woman who made it (except to suspect that she's just a little obsessive). Nigella's is all her, her proffering food and making me want to take some, even though that sleevey thing is really dumb. She may wish she'd worn something else on that cover a few years from now, but the food inside, and the stories, will still be good.


Lilian said...

Hmmm great post! I too will write about my cookbooks someday, but it'll have to be at a later time when I grow accostumed to them again (sigh)...

I don't have any Nigella books YET but I'm planning on getting some in the near future (I get all my cookbooks by becoming a member of the whatever name cookbook "of the month" club... I've done it twice, and now I have all these huge, beautiful, expensive cookbooks that I basically got for free :)

sam said...

Ok, once again, you really make me want to get these Nigella cookbooks, but I think I'll wait until I move back to America.

What a fun assortment of books! Of course, the two that I routinely look through are Sara Foster's and Cat Cora's. I've become a big fan of Cat lately, partly because she grew up in Mississippi. I hear she was also the first woman iron chef.

Tracie B. said...

you should check out fine cooking magazine. i have a very similar addiction/obsession with cookbooks and i JUST love it :)

caroline said...

Yes, yes, yes. I have just the same relationship with Donna and Nigella.
Pierre isn't represented in my kitchen, though how you feel about him is sort of how I feel about Jacques (though oddly enough I only know him from tv, not a book; I'm sure his books are a little too meaty for me). The male equivalents of Donna and Nigella for me are Nigel (Slater) and Jamie (Oliver), respectively.

Libby said...

Thanks for the link, Caroline. I've got Sara Foster on my amazon wish list, and am glad to learn of Cat Cora (I love Iron Chef!) and Fine Cooking magazine, though I'm not sure I can have any more cooking magazines in my life...yet. And I need to go back and look at Jamie and Nigel. I have Nigel Slater's Real Fast Food, which is an older cookbook of his and is nothing like Donna Hay...no pictures, for one thing! And I've seen Jamie on TV but never looked at the books. Obviously there's more to say about all this!