The highlight of the Observer Food Monthly awards last Thursday, for me, was being able to personally thank two of the people whose recipes I learned and loved over the last decade, to the point where, in my bleakest times of staring at a few white-labelled value range groceries and some frozen or canned vegetables, I could recall good recipes from my repertoire that – with a little tweak here and a substitution or two there – would form the basis of good, nutritious, cheap meals. Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson might not have known it, but their books and their food instilled in me a love of cooking, and the confidence to explore, experiment and create, with what little I had.
My pasta alla genovese was based on a recipe from Lawson’s ‘Kitchen’ (albeit with sunflower oil instead of olive, tinned potatoes and cheap spaghetti) as was my Spanish chicken. Nigel Slater’s words, his columns, his books, took me through a looking glass into a wonderland of technicolor sensuality – from bleak desperation to tentative exploration of smells, tastes, flavours, in-season fruits and vegetables and the transformative effects of lots and lots of gorgeous garlic. I remember watching his Simple Suppers series, some years ago, always with a notebook and a pen in my hand, and digging out that notebook when times got tough. He unknowingly taught me about herbs, flavours, excited me, delighted me, talked to me about food in a language that felt like my own. There are other names on the list, other books in the pile, but Nigel and Nigella are owed the biggest Thankyou. And on Thursday night, shyly and grinning, I managed to let them know.
The other big name on the list is, of course, one Allegra McEvedy – whose book Economy Gastronomy adorned my kitchen bookshelf around about the same time as I was making notes from Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers. I remember jokingly pointing to a black and white portrait of her in her kitchen in 2010 or 2011 and saying to my housemate that she was ‘pretty bloody gorgeous.’ Just a passing comment. Just a thought.
I could never have dreamt that that kitchen in that picture would one day be my kitchen. But then I don’t think I could ever have dreamt that life would turn out the way it has. And from devouring the Leon book as part of my culinary education – most of it sitting on the floor in Waterstones where I picked it up and just couldn’t stop reading – to holding my hand on Thursday night as I nervously navigated the grandeur of the Observer Food Monthly Awards, she is my support, my guide, my mentor, my rock, my best friend, and I just can’t thank her enough, for everything.
And so I have a gorgeous new Blok knife to commemorate the year (and have already used it to chop up several kinds of fudge, a few cabbages for a coleslaw, and two accidental nicks out of my hand), and a deep, humbled gratitude to everyone who nominated and voted for me for the OFM award. Truly, this has been a year to remember. Thankyou.
Jack. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe