A Cook's Diary

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.

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