The following is a preamble by Nigella Lawson to a recipe she contributed in yesterday’s ‘Observer Food Monthly, 20 Best Christmas Recipes’,
Needs must and all that, so I have always been an open anti-perfectionist, but in truth it is impossible to cook roast potatoes without needing them perfect, which to me means sweet and soft inside and a golden-brown carapace of crunch without. And, strangely, no matter how many tricksy things you may succeed at in cooking, nothing gives quite the contented glow of achievement that cooking a good tray of roast potatoes does. Unfortunately there is concomitant decline when you feel you’ve failed. The brutal truth is that you either get it right or you don’t, and anything less than perfect is a disappointment. There are three critical things that I think make the difference: the first is the heat of the fat – if it’s not searingly hot, you don’t stand a chance, and since goose fat has a very high smoking point and tastes good, it is my annual choice here; the second is the size of your potatoes – you want them relatively small, so that the ratio of crunchy outside to fluffy interior is optimised; and, finally, I think dredging the potatoes – and this is a family practice, inherited through the maternal line – is semolina rather than flour after parboiling, then really rattling the pan around to make the potatoes a bit mashed on the surface so they catch more in the hot fat, is a major aid.
This is an interesting, signature piece of writing by Lawson, sumptuously sautéed with language that at times oozes charm but at others is a little cloying. Overall, I think it engages because it is distinctive though I do not think its descriptive qualities match its aural ones: not poetic, but linguistically melodic enough to sing above plainer recipe tunes.
And there you go: my spuds would seem to have been splashed a bit by her linguistic oil. I’m not alone. Mike Bradley writing in The Observer’s TV guide began his ‘Pick of the Day’ for today’s ‘Nigella: At My Table’ with the line Preview tapes were not available for this evening’s final feast with the silk-shrouded purveyor of all things delicious, a mimetic take too of Lawson’s alliterative and hyperbolic style.
I could produce a detailed analysis of her piece [and in fact have, linked to teaching writing] but won’t here for now. Not detailed. It is, as I’ve said, mixed: I think it is characteristically stylised for that signature; is linguistically rich at times; has a reasonably coherent narrative drive, though is also occasionally incongruous [the brutal truth does not really match, even as exaggeration, the disappointment of imperfect potatoes], and the nerd in me applauds her handling – simply accurate, but accurate all the same – in the construction of the triplet beginning three critical things.
As a model for teaching writing, it isn’t! I certainly wouldn’t use in a wholly grammatical exploration as exemplification which government English Key Stage testing would endorse and insist open – despite evidence otherwise [see here]. I would and have used such with which to be playful in a workshop for writing: I used Nigella Lawson recipes as a text transformation task in my co-authored GCSE textbook Writing Workshops [and I’ll post a screengrab of a single page as illustration at the end: there is clearly instruction as well as advice in the teaching approach, but reading and student discussion of the style model – not reprinted here – is the key stimulus].
I did yesterday, however, experiment with Lawson’s piece at the beginning of this article to find a poem within it all, using a random word generator and then crafting a found poem, and I would happily do similar with students for that playfulness, but not in terms of teaching writing for GCSE [and, of course, beyond]. And it is the playfulness I wanted to focus on here rather than the mild teaching argument, but I couldn’t resist the latter. Here is the outcome for the former,
Finding Nigella in Her Perfect Roast Potatoes
is a fluffy
soft to fat:
in a decline
The following is a page from the teachers’ resource I wrote to go with this workshop, and for the whole book: