Laurie Colwin once wrote about how the food in novels (such as Anna Karenina, and the books of Barbara Pym, although personally I don't remember anything about the food in either) was fantastic, but cookbooks were even better, because they leave out all the other stuff, like family relationships. I don't quite agree, because the best cookbooks have all the personal stuff. It's more than just about the food - it is about the writer's own life, a glimpse into the way they live, the way they think about food, what they love about cooking and why you should feel the same way.
In college I would spend cold winter afternoons curled up under the comforter with a pile of cookbooks (actually, I do this now, and it is no accident that all my cookbooks are next to the bed) and dream of the meals I would cook when I had a kitchen again and time to go to the market for ingredients and time for leisurely Sunday lunches with my family (not that we ever really did Sunday lunch). I had grown up reading Julia Child and Martha Stewart and the Silver Palate cookbooks that my mom had used since the 80's. But now it was the late nineties/early noughties and the Brits were invading America. In a few years reality tv would be on every channel and Gordon Ramsay would be terrorizing young American wannabe-chefs, but back then it was just Jamie Oliver (aka The Naked Chef) poncing about his kitchen on the Food Network every night. And then there was Nigella Lawson.
Before Nigella, cooking was about feeding your family and friends in thirty minutes or impressing your guests with complex creations that took days of preparation. It could be low-key and simple or exhaustingly elaborate. But she made cooking sexy. If food was the new porn, Nigella was Jenna Jameson. She was gorgeous (I seem to recall her being somewhere among the top 5 World's Most Beautiful Women according to some British newspaper or magazine), raven-haired, doe-eyed, and voluptuous, with that plummy, posh accent that made me (as a straight woman) go weak at the knees. And the cozy, forthright manner of her writing took me into that rarefied world she and her family inhabited. (Later I read that when she made dinner for Salman Rushdie, her hair caught on fire as she took the lamb out of the oven, whereupon he smothered the flames with his jacket).
Curled up in my flannel-sheeted bed I would dream about Sunday lunches of roast beef or goose with bread sauce (whatever that is), Yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes and brussels sprouts with chestnuts, or stews of oxtail in beer or venison in white wine, and desserts (puddings, the Brits like to say) with magical names like 'quince syllabub' and almond-and-orange-blossom cake, or Bakewell tart or treacle tart, none of which I have ever tasted. It has always been commonplace to sneer at British cuisine, but to me the foods Lawson described so lavishly and lovingly seemed heavenly. It was about warmth and abundance and freshness; simplicity and luxury and the best available ingredients.
Somehow I've never actually made anything from How to Eat (Lawson's first book), namely because I've got the British edition and all the measurements are metric, and I am too lazy to convert them. But aside from that I found that it was less about learning to cook than being inspired to cook; about taking inspiration from something you ate last week at your favorite restaurant or something your mother used to make or something you saw at the butcher or market. About the pleasures of simple things. Which is what life is all about, really.