Simpler language for better understanding

The following article appeared on the opinion page of the January 10 edition of Manila Standard Today.

In the United Kingdom, the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills conducted a study to highlight the government’s adult learning campaign. Thirty-five recipes from the books of five celebrity chefs were analyzed and the conclusion was that Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith are far less understandable than Nigel Slater, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. A snippet from a report in UK’s Telegraph:

“…more than 5.3 million adults would not be able to understand Lawson’s instructions as her writing style is too ‘chatty’ and she uses long sentences. Her books, which include Nigella Bites and How to Eat, often draw on personal observations that detract from the point of the recipe, the report said.

“Delia Smith was criticised for having too many different stages to her instructions and using unnecessary adjectives. She used complex measurements, with some of her recipes requiring the ingredients chopped to the nearest half inch…”

Before you conclude outright that some sort of sexist standards must have been involved, read on.

Among the five authors, Lawson, Smith and Slater have had prior professional experience in writing. Nigella Lawson was a journalist long before she became a cookbook author, a TV personality and a celebrity. She was deputy literary editor for The Sunday Times, a food columnist for Vogue, she wrote for The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines in the United States. She was also a radio and TV broadcaster. In short, she had been in the writing profession for years before she became a best-selling cookbook author. After publishing How to Eat and How to become a Domestic Goddess she was named Author of The Year at the British Book Awards in 2001 beating JK Rowling, the creator of the Harry Potter series.

Nigel Slater wrote a column for The Observer’s Life Magazine and was food editor of Marie Clair. Delia Smith, who quit school at age 16, wrote for The Mirror and, later, the London’s Evening Standard. Oliver and Ramsay are both chefs by profession.

All five are international TV celebrities today. You must have seen them once or twice on the Lifestyle Network and Discovery Travel and Living Channel. I love Nigella’s and Jamie’s shows. Although my husband says Nigella cooks nothing but fattening dishes–but ogles her anyway–I like her attitude about cooking as something to be enjoyed rather than be treated as a tiresome chore. I like Jamie Oliver because of the social dimension that he adds to food and cooking–he started a campaign to get British public schools to pay more attention to what young children are being fed.

My admiration for Nigella Lawson’s philosophy prompted me to buy one of her cookbooks, Forever Summer. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for several months and, sad to say, I have not cooked a single recipe from it. In fact, apart from casually browsing the contents, I haven’t really read it. Why? Okay, let me quote a portion of the opening paragraph in the Red Mullet with Sweet and Sour Shredded Salad recipe:

“We are in rose-tinted heaven here: the pink glint of the red mullet’s skin flashes like a Barbie-mermaid’s tail against a salad of shredded pawpaw…”

Some would call it brilliant writing; I can only raise my eyebrow. It’s not that Nigella’s recipes are complicated or that her writing style makes them seem complicated. Her recipes are fine, from what I’ve seen of Forever Summer. It’s just that her writing style turns me off. One might say that appreciation for a certain style is a personal thing and some people do enjoy reading whimsical prose. Some would call it creative writing and some would say that cookery is not an arena for creative writing. Some call it anecdotal style of writing, a style popularized by blogging, and hordes enjoy it immensely. But “rose-tinted heaven” and “Barbie-mermaid’s tail”? Picturesque, sure, but… okay, those two phrases are just a hair breadth away from something I read in someone’s Web log about having cooked a dish so delicious, it was almost like kissing Jesus’ lips. Sheesh.

Well, a matter of style, as I said. Come to think of it, it is her style that makes Nigella Lawson stand out–not her cooking nor her recipes. She represents the modern woman–beautiful, intelligent, professionally successful, at home in the competitive corporate world and equally at home in the kitchen. And that’s what she’s selling — her persona. The cookbooks and the TV shows are simply her medium. I like her on TV; her books, well… Despite all the brouhaha over the release of Nigella’s latest cookbook, Nigella Express, I wasn’t pining after it the way I scoured every bookstore for a copy of JK Rowling’s seventh Harry Potter book.

On the other hand, I have pored and pored over Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries (my copy was sent by Slater’s publicist a year or so ago). His instructions are simple, his recipes are unpretentious and I never get the impression that he is trying to make his recipes seem tastier than they actually are by coating his words in colorful language. I am not an accomplished baker but I learned to bake French-style cheesecake by following Nigel Slater’s very simple recipe. Res ipsa loquitur.

Language, at its most basic, is a tool for communication. But, in reality, we know that language is also a tool that can be manipulated to impress, to play around with, hide meanings, relay double meanings and even to intentionally relay the wrong message altogether with the proper choice and omission of words. I don’t know about you but I’m all for effective communication–the simpler, the better.


  1. says

    “…someone’s Web log about having cooked a dish so delicious, it was almost like kissing Jesus’ lips.”

    Hahahahahahahaa! I almost choked laughing at this. :twisted:

  2. BlogusVox says

    “more than 5.3 million adults would not be able to understand Lawson’s instructions”

    5.3 million is roughly 8% of UK’s population, who I can assume does not cook anyway. If Lawson’s cook book is a best seller, it means, people who cook buys her book more than the other cook book authors. As for her “chatty” style, I can’t fault her, she’s British. They’re fond of using flowery words and too much adjectives.

    Personally, I detest flowery words (that’s why I don’t read Shakespeare). As an engineer, I like my report short and to the point. No beating around the bush.

    BTW, I’ve seen Lawson’s picture. I understand why Speedy ogles. I think it’s a remnant of an infant’s fixation to his source of nourishment.

  3. says

    i think it’s a matter of practicality. If one wants literary prose, then buy a poetry book or a sci-fi novel or a critique of someone else’s work. Cookbooks are meant to teach how to cook, period. One does not need flowery words to say add a pinch of salt, a cup of milk, stir. That’s all one needs, right?

    And yet, I enjoy watching Nigella Lawson, probably as much as Speedy enjoys ogling. Especially when she starts biting. Imagine putting food over her mouth and letting the sauce trickle. brrrr!

  4. says

    Ah, say it, BlogusVox: it’s her boobies. HAHAHAHAHA And she’s pretty, really. :)

    Isa ka pa, Tito Rolly. The way you describe it, it’s like cooking is an exercise in eroticism. hehehe Hmmm… come to think of it — that may be a huge part of Nigella’s popularity.

  5. peterb says

    …Isa ka pa, Tito Rolly. The way you describe it, it’s like cooking is an exercise in eroticism….

    It can be. :) But, let’s not go there. hehe

    It’s difficult enough trying to identify ingredients in cookbooks, cooking equipment and cooking terms, no need to complicate it.

    Then again, i’m sure there are those who enjoy (and understand) that kind of writing style.

  6. says

    peterb, re “let’s not go there”. Are you sure you don’t want to go there? hehehehe

    rhodora, I was thinking that less words means saving more trees hehehe… these whimsical writers aren’t environment friendly. :razz:

  7. d0d0ng says

    Last night, we were watching Still Standing episode where the wife was complaining of losing sexual steam due to sight of cooking husband, only to be fixed by having him wearing a manly blue denim apron and hard pounding of garlic gloves. It was hilarious. This was in contrast with husband finding his niche in cooking as better than sex.

    Now I understand why cooking is such a passion for men. Language as tool for communication has different flavors. Hehe.

  8. says

    I read a similar article on GQ about Giadda de Laurenti (Everyday Italian). Apparently, she has a large male following because of what they call “the Giadda reach”. She loves wearing not-overly plunging necklines but enough to sneak a peek when she does her “reach”. It wasn’t about the cooking, it was about her boobies :)

    Btw, ok naman siyang magluto. And not too chatty.

    Personally, I like Nigella. I like the way she cooks and I like that she actually eats what she cooks. I haven’t really read any of her books yet. But with regards to cookbooks, I like them simple and direct to the point. Hate ko din yun may mga intro sa recipe na masyadong mabulaklak ang lenguwahe. Tapos pag niluto mo di naman pala masarap.

  9. says

    Men. Does everything have to be related to sex?

    Nagtanong ka pa. E alam mo naman ang sagot. :-D

    Nigella could be credited with singlehandedly bringing hips back in fashion. (With a little help from Beyonce of course.)

  10. Trosp says

    I love Singaporean food (chicken rice, fish head curry, chille crab, laksa). I can say Singaporean recipes in English would often misdirect a reader.

    Try googling Violet Oon and her recipes.

  11. bayi says

    I thought in every 101 Writing class, the very basic rules taught would be to use simple words and short sentences. :)

  12. says

    Thanks, Trosp. I read about Violet Oon online and I’m gonna check Powerbooks for her books.

    Bayi, I thought so too. But the way some people write — from one extreme (plain bad) to the other (over the top) — I’m wondering what they teach at university these days hehehe

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