Inspired by a 19th century book, Nigella Lawson asked two of her favourite creatives – author Jeanette Winterson and artist Tracey Emin – to produce original pieces reflecting women’s relationships with greed. Here we present the results: Emin’s soul-bearing sketch (pictured above) and Winterson’s fascinating essay.
Food is all the love you can eat. Real food, like love, takes time, imagination, passion, good humour, a willingness to learn, and not too much distress over upsets. Things go wrong. Things go right. Sometimes all you need is a soft goat’s cheese and a sharp apple. Other days, six Whitstable oysters and a Manzanilla sherry are just the start of dinner. Food is a discovery not a recipe; like love.
If you love food and if you have a nose for the unusual, some of the most exciting discoveries can be found unearthing old cookbooks or long out-of-print books about food. A good writer is never out of date – think of Elizabeth David’s Fifties classic Mediterranean Food or Edouard de Pomiane’s utterly bonkers and charming 1948 Cooking In Ten Minutes. No microwaves or fast food joints back then – just a gas ring and genius.
I have a collection of more-or-less falling apart forgotten books about food, but one of my favourites, recently back in print, is The Alice B Toklas Cookbook. I often re-read the chapter Murder In The Kitchen; it makes me feel better about the pheasant or duck hanging upside down on a piece of string outside my back door. Alice B Toklas – an American living in Paris from the turn of the century until her death in 1967 – devoured cookbooks the way her lover Gertrude Stein devoured food. They were both greedy women but in very different ways; Gertrude the giant-size bon viveur who loved to eat, and Alice, tiny and sharp as a paring knife, who loved to cook.
POETRY OF THE DISH
When Nigella sent me her own falling apart copy of Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s (ERP) A Guide For The Greedy By A Greedy Woman (1896), I felt sure that Alice B Toklas had been influenced by this pioneering writer. The same excess and recklessness is present in the writing of both of them, combined with a ruthless pursuit of perfection. This perfection isn’t French-influenced flawlessness – the classic dish impeccably prepared – it’s the pursuit, as ERP puts it, of “the beauty, the poetry, that exists in the perfect dish”. And that perfect dish can be a simple plate of grilled mushrooms and fresh parsley – although Toklas would add a cow-full of fresh cream. “If you have happiness at heart, secure a quart of fresh mushrooms. Clean them with hands as tender as bathing a new-born babe… To say that you do not like them is a confession of your own philistinism. Learn to like them; will to like them, or else your sojourn on this earth will be a wretched waste. You will have lived your life in vain, if at its close, you have missed one of its finest emotions.” As you can see, ERP does not believe in relative values. The short-form of this book is, “Live food or die miserable”.
Written in the 1890s as a series of magazine essays and later made into a book, this greedy guide was a direct challenge to late-Victorian notions of femininity and appetite. Middle and upper-class women were taught from girlhood that femininity depended on modesty and restraint – and what could be more restraining than a corset? Have you ever tried eating in a full-length lace-up corset? You might as well wire your jaw shut.
A man could guzzle and gobble, drink and womanise. A woman was expected to be delicate and dainty in her appetites both sexual and gourmand. But the greedy guide encourages women to enjoy coffee, cigarettes, cognac, foie gras, kippers, geese, gravy and sauces; Epicurean enjoyments that would certainly need a looser-laced corset. Morning coffee, she tells us, should be mellow and taken with milk. After-dinner coffee must be hot and thick and Turkish. A breakfast cigarette should be cool Virginian tobacco. After dinner, short strong Egyptian cigarettes are called for “with the suspicion of opium lurking in their fragrant recess”. There is more than a hint of Oscar Wilde in such a sentence – ERP dined out with Wilde, and his style and sensibility are evident in her writing, just as something of ERP is present in Alice B Toklas. I like these connections – they remind us that writers are radical and food writers no less so. What we eat – how we eat – is a political act that happens every day.
"Gluttony, not greed, is one of the seven deadly sins. Greed can be forgiven."
An American by birth, ERP lived in London and travelled widely in Europe, generally by bicycle, and championed cycling and cooking as good for the soul as well as the body – especially for women. Not for her the languid drawing-room beauty eating a small soft boiled egg. She wanted women to work up an appetite. To be greedy.
Greedy is not the same as self-stuffed, which is just as bad as self-starved. You have to love food in all its glory to be greedy. And that means some days you might not eat at all if what is on offer is horrible. I have travelled and preferred to go hungry for a day, knowing I could get home and sleep a short night in the certainty of a home-cooked breakfast of my own eggs, and bacon from a pig I used to know.
Gluttony, not greed, is one of the seven deadly sins. Greed can be forgiven because it has, at its heart – or maybe its stomach – a roué’s search for the beauty of the season. Wild salmon. Truffles. Grouse. Chanterelles. English pears with skin as green and firm as a pond-frog. Sprouts after the first night of frost.
ERP deplores the robbery of the female by the male – that man reserves for himself the best of everything and by a sleight of hand convinces woman that it is her nature not to want to eat. Yet ERP was not a feminist or even a Suffragist. The year after her Guide was published in 1896, Millicent Fawcett founded The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. ERP did not join. Instead she believed women are better off attending to their own world than bothering too much with what men have to offer. Exalting the making and eating of food as a daily work of art was right and true, but she ignored the miseries of women allowed nothing other than domestic matters, or those having to manage with a pound of mince.
But when I read her, loving food, cooking food, eating food – I remember Virginia Woolf in A Room Of One’s Own (1929) lamenting the terrible dinner served to women students at Cambridge compared to the luxurious fare offered to the men. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.”
ERP would have agreed with that simple statement – although she would have ignored the complex economic relationship between what a woman can earn and what she may eat. Now, women have much of the financial independence (if not the parity) that Woolf was writing about. Yet – whether we are too fat or too thin – food is still a feminist issue.
ERP was radical in her belief that women should enjoy cooking. She was writing for a class of women who could afford a cook – not nearly as expensive in real terms as it would be today – but for whom it was a matter of class politics and snobbery not to cook DIY. To campaign for eating as the natural result of cooking repairs a badly damaged link in the female psyche – one that goes on needing to be repaired.
Now, while celebrity chefs do their best to seduce us into cooking, the pinging microwave and the ready-meal chops up the sensual connection between preparation, anticipation, and the well-earned leisure of sitting down to a lovely meal you have made. Which is why reading ERP on food is absurd and uplifting; she returns to cooking and eating the one ingredient that is more expensive than truffles or caviar: time. We have foodstuffs everywhere, more than at any other moment in history, yet no time to cook well or to eat well.
Time – even tiny amounts of it, can be enjoyed in food preparation. The sandwich is ERP’s fast-food – and her descriptions of wrapped paper packages and snow-chilled Alsace transform the office lunch into an encounter with the infinite. “Between slices of good bread place thick uncompromising pieces of beef or mutton… lettuce, celery, watercress, radishes, not one may you not test to your own higher happiness… and your art may be measured by your success in proving the onion to be the poetic soul of the sandwich.”
Sandwiches have souls. Who knew? What could be better than sitting down to read a food classic, like this one, with a glass of cold prosecco and a sardine sandwich on thin brown bread with wafers of pink radish peeping out? Food and love; food and books. Read all you like; love all you can. Cook extravagantly. Eat with pleasure.
Words: Jeanette Winterson Art: Tracey Emin