In 1997, I graduated from Yale Law School, certain of nothing except that I did not want to be a lawyer. Instead of trying to make myself into a fledgling law professor, as most of my classmates did in law school, I had spent hours poring over memoirs, essays, and travelogues, trying to figure out how to do what the greatest nonfiction writers did. I took a writing class from a famous novelist. I spent a summer working at a national magazine instead of at a law firm. I underlined key passages in my $2 copy of Walden, where Thoreau bemoans the fact that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and encourages his readers to pursue their dreams instead. I was ready to take his advice.
I decided I needed to go abroad, to throw myself into a new environment where everything would seem strange and therefore be compelling material for the travel narrative I was certain I could distill from my experiences. One of my best friends from college, David, had landed himself a cushy consulting job in London, and he had a spare bedroom he was willing to let me stay in for a modest rent. My mother, bless her generous soul, was willing to finance a year of my finding myself. And so in May of 1997, I moved to England.
My timing could not have been better—I arrived just days after Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister, ushering in what the British press called “Cool Britannia”—a sense that being English was not just something to be proud of, but was downright chic. London was flush and buzzing, indulging in a food renaissance that helped foster the careers of people like Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsey, Ruth Rogers, and Jamie Oliver.
I was lucky in other ways, too. David’s best friend at work was an American who’d done graduate work at Cambridge, where he’d met a tall, slim, dark eyed English beauty named Louise. Louise quickly became my closest English friend, based in no small part on our mutual love of cooking and eating. Most weekend evenings that first summer in the UK, I would grab a couple of bottles of white wine from the nearest corner store and meet my friends at Louise’s flat. Louise and her roommates had a roof terrace that featured a grill, and they’d throw a whole chicken on the fire to roast, along with whatever vegetables they had to hand. We’d work our way through the wine slowly as the summer night unfurled, and by the time we ate we were so tipsy and hungry, everything tasted divine.
Without talking about it much, David and I had quickly sketched out distinct household roles for ourselves. I shopped, cooked, and managed our social calendar, while David did the dishes and enthusiastically ate what I made. Within a few weeks of arriving in England, I’d run through most of my familiar dishes and needed new ideas. I was also curious about the food around me and wanted to learn more about English flavors. I asked Louise for advice about what cookbook to buy so I could churn out weeknight dinners. “Nigel Slater,” she said without hesitation, pulling a small, fat volume from her kitchen shelf. “I have his Real Fast Food, but I think he has a new book out.”
I bought the book she’d recommended, which was called The 30-Minute Cook, and I set to reading. Slater wasn’t just a knowledgeable chef; he was an evocative writer, too. I could open to any page at random and salivate. Here was Slater writing about aubergine-cheese sandwiches: “The cheese may ooze a little from the sides—just scoop it up with a palette knife and wipe it on the aubergines.” On cooking sausage for a sandwich: “Fry the sausage . . . till the skin is golden brown with a few black patches, and swollen to bursting.” On a chicken dish with garlic, cider, and cream: “A voluptuous, ivory coloured sauce that illustrates how sweet and mellow garlic can become when it is blanched.”
I spent long hours poring over the book, imagining the dishes he narrated. Slater implied that most of them would turn out best if the cook had the right degree of nonchalance. (One recipe for carrots began: “If the oven is on anyway.”) Slater’s serving suggestions, in particular, conjured up an attainably sophisticated world of people who threw together a sensual meal for a lover on short notice. As he warned readers in an introduction, “Most of the recipes are for two. I know more people who eat in twos than in fours. Except at the weekend.” So an Indian spiced aubergine dish was described as a recipe “For 2 people as a quick, mildly spiced stew to be eaten with warm Indian breads”—and, at the end, a dollop of “thick natural yoghurt.” Chorizo and chickpeas were “A warming, frugal and hospitable supper, best eaten with a glass of cold beer.” And how could you not cook tomato and olive tarts in the face of Slater’s explanation that “These crisp, savoury tarts make a delightful outdoor summer lunch, especially with a bowl of green salad into which you have tossed some lightly cooked French beans. A bottle of rosé would not go down badly either.”
Most of the recipes weren’t even recipes, but rather brief descriptions of things you could do to food. Slater acknowledged this by calling lots of them “ways”, as in “some quick ways with spinach” or “An Italian way with peas.” It’s hard to explain what Slater meant by a way to someone who’s never read him. This is as close as I can get: Imagine you’re in the South of France for a week. Exploring the town, you find a butcher shop or a fishmonger, and the cuts of meat or the silvery fish in the windows tempt you inside. You buy a pound of shrimp, a packet of lamb chops, and you ask in halting French about the best way to cook your purchase. The answer you’d get in that shop in France was the exact style of Slater’s recipes. This is what he says to do with prawns: “You will need about 350g/12oz prawns for two people. They must be plump and in their shells. You can skewer them if you wish but I see little point. Lay the prawns flat on the grill pan, cook them over, or under, a high heat till pink for 3-4 minutes. Eat them while they are hot with a little softened, warmed butter.” Virtually all Slater’s recipes included a mouth-watering description, an unnecessarily opinionated aside, a dollop of instructional imprecision—and a generous knob of butter or glug of olive oil. At times I felt like I was listening to someone’s grandmother letting me in on the secret to a family recipe.
But the recipes your grandmother passes down work largely because she’s shown you how to execute them. Without the rigorous measurements and instructions I was used to from American cookbooks, I found that Slater’s imprecision had its drawbacks. Like many similarly minimalist recipes, Slater’s depended on two things to turn out well: great ingredients and impeccable technique. I generally had the first of these, although I had a misguided instinct to cut back on fat wherever I (thought I) could. But as for technique, I was really a fairly basic cook, intimidated by anything besides a sauté pan and a sauce pan.
Looking back on the recipes now, I can tell what went wrong with many of the ones I mangled. One of the major issues was that I was cooking on an electric stove and didn’t have enough control of the heat. Heat was the culprit when I ruined a tartafin—a sort of potato gratin made on the stove rather than in the oven. Slater advised cooking the potatoes in a sauté pan for 20 minutes on low heat “till you can push a sharp knife through the layers with little resistance. They should be quite soft and buttery.” After 30 minutes on my electric stove’s version of low, though, they were still waxy and stiff, not the meltingly delicious rounds Slater had advertised.
Then there was the very public catastrophe with the chicken, garlic, cider, and cream sauce recipe I mentioned earlier. I’d invited an Irish friend and her French husband to dinner along with a couple of other people—I think there were four or five of us at what I was sure was going to be a sparkling soirée. Everything was fine until I started cooking. I was doubling the recipe for two, but I hadn’t thought about the fact that crowding four chicken breasts into a medium sauté pan wasn’t going to work as seamlessly. Then, too, I was cooking boneless, skinless breasts rather than the skin-on, bone-in breasts Slater called for, which required further adjustments. Worst, I didn’t want to use the cream Slater called for and was instead convinced I could get by with milk. (Milk!) This was long before I’d read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking and learned about how heat and acid could cause milk proteins to curdle. Cream has so little of this milk protein that it’s far more resistant to curdling—which made my substitution for the cream a very bad idea. Sure enough, as soon as I stirred milk into the pan the entire sauce—that “voluptuous, ivory coloured sauce”—immediately seized and became a clumpy wreck. Serving it on rice did little to help hide the disaster, and my guests were similarly unable to hide their revulsion. I still hope they got something better to eat once they got home.
Despite the disastrous results of some of my recipe attempts, there are some dishes that I still make regularly because of Slater. I adapted his recipe for leek-and-mushroom risotto to a less interesting mushroom risotto, but it’s still delicious. One of my signature dishes is a recipe I feel fairly sure is his, one Louise passed down to me, for pasta with cherry tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes, scallions, and crème fraiche. His spinach salad, studded with crisp bits of bacon and swaddled in a dressing of bacon fat, olive oil, white wine vinegar and a ton of mustard, is still one of my favorite quick and cozy meals. And lots of his ideas and “ways” with a salad or a sandwich have stuck with me more as inspiration than direct instruction.
More lastingly, what I got from Slater was a kind of swagger in the kitchen and a conviction that a dish could be—no, really should be—delicious, simple, and fast. This belief has caused some tension in my marriage, since my husband believes that cooking is only worthwhile if the cook makes something complex, and that allowing flavors to marry takes a minimum of two hours. But even he has to admit that some of the dishes I throw together quickly are deeply satisfying. The key to making these meals work has been practice—making a dish dozens and dozens of times so that I can iron out how high the heat should be, tweak the ingredients, memorize the process, and cook with the kind of insouciance that Slater’s recipes call for.
At the end of over two years in London, I moved to Boston. The essays I had worked on during my time in London had gotten me into a graduate program in writing in New England. My time in Britain had proven to be one of the best periods of my life. During the days, I read and wrote, and in the evenings, I cooked. I was neither a perfect writer nor a perfect chef, but I was getting better, page by page, and 30-minute dinner by 30-minute dinner.
Beth Johnston trained as a lawyer before earning an MFA from Bennington College. She has written for The New Republic, Cleaver, The Life Sentence, and other publications. She lives in Washington, DC, where she teaches writing at The George Washington University.