Everything is Copy

A food editor’s inspiration


From Betty MacDonald and Arabella Boxer to Nigella Lawson and Nora Ephron, editor Lisa Markwell charts the food writers that have inspired her throughout her life.

Growing up, I didn’t know that I wanted to write about food, but I did enjoy reading about it. The fact that I’ve ended up as a food editor and chef, via editing a newspaper and being a restaurant critic, suggests a desire that went beyond just greed. There are countless female voices to whom I turn when I want to cook – from Diana Henry to Claudia Roden – or when I’m writing about food – from Marina O’Loughlin to Ruth Reichl. But when I decided to bring together the writers I find most inspiring, it’s their approach to life (with food often a grace note or a component of a wider story) that really resonates.

One of the first books I can remember owning was Cooking is a Game You Can Eat, by Fay Maschler. It was published in 1975 – when I was 10. She soothes the young cook like this:

Don’t be dismayed if the first time you try, some of your efforts are literally a flop. They may well taste very good and that is what matters - and they will have the home made look! Next time, follow the recipe very carefully and you are sure to have better luck. Practice never makes perfect in cooking, but it does help.

This gentle guidance may have made me feel better 43 years ago – it certainly helped more recently, when I took a ‘gap year’ from my career in journalism to train as a chef. Some of my efforts did flop and I cried over a sunken Swiss roll in a way I never cried over combative exchanges with David Cameron. Better luck next time, as Fay might say.

Mrs Beetle stared, while Flora tossed an egg, two ounces of brandy, a teaspoon of cream and some chips of ice in a jam-jar, and everybody else was interested too

A few years later, my mother introduced me to the author Betty MacDonald. Why she’s not better known is a mystery to me – she writes about her life in depression-era America with wit and warmth. She wrote several autobiographical books, including Anybody Can Do Anything and Onions in the Stew, but the one I return to time and again is The Egg and I, in which MacDonald charts the year she spent raising chickens on a wilderness farm far from Seattle. She describes food wonderfully, even when the food isn’t wonderful. Coming from a family of less than enthusiastic cooks, this description of her grandmother’s baking always strikes a chord. (My own grandmother used to make cakes on a corner of a crowded kitchen table, mixing the ingredients with an ancient knife honed down to a shiv.)

Gammy taught us that when you bake a cake you put in anything you can lay your hands on. A little onion, several old jars of jam, leftover batter cake dough, the rest of the syrup in the jug, a few grapes, cherries, raisins, plums or dates, and always to use dripping instead of butter or shortening. Her cakes were simply dreadful – heavy and tan and full of seed and pits. She made a great show of having her feelings hurt if we didn’t eat these cakes but I really think she only offered them to us a sort of character test because if we were strong and refused, she’d throw them out to the dogs or chickens without a qualm.

Gammy said she did not believe in waste and she nearly drove our maids crazy by filling up the icebox with little dishes containing one pea, three string beans, a quarter of a teaspoon of jam or a slightly used slice of lemon. If Mother finally demanded a cleanup and began jerking dishes out of the refrigerator and throwing stuff away, Gammy would become very huffy and go out and get a twenty-five pound sack of flour and hand it to Mother, saying, "Go on, throw this away too. Waste seems to be the order of the day".

1. Cooking is a Game You Can Eat by Fay Maschler (Kestrel Books, 1975)
2. The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald (JB Lippincott, 1945)
3. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Longman, 1932)

wit and warmth

Food waste, now there’s a theme that echoes down the decades… MacDonald goes on to describe the horror of using a pressure cooker, the stunning produce of the land around her farm and the appalling sowbelly diet of her neighbours. It’s a gem which informs not just my writing, but encourages me to look for the humour in less-than-bright times.

In one of my favourite novels, Cold Comfort Farm, country folk – including Aunt Ada Doom, a particularly truculent matriarch – are transformed by the heroine, Flora Poste. Author Stella Gibbons has this flourish towards the end of the book…

"I’ll just take up ‘er breakfast," said Mrs Beetle. "She’ll ‘ave to ‘ave it cold today. There’s ‘alf an ‘am and a jar of pickled onions. I won’t be a jiff."

"Oh, I’ve just been in to see Aunt Ada," said Flora, looking up from her breakfast. "She doesn’t want anything for breakfast except a Hell’s Angel. Here give me an egg. I’ll mix it for her." She rose and went over to the newly-stocked store cupboard. 

Mrs Beetle stared, while Flora tossed an egg, two ounces of brandy, a teaspoon of cream and some chips of ice in a jam-jar, and everybody else was interested too.

Oh the joy of seeing the plot turn on a frothy cocktail.  

This is my moment to say what’s been in my heart for years: it’s time to put a halt to the egg-white omelette

In my early 20s and living in west London, I became firm friends with two girls I worked with on a pop magazine. Francesca was vivid and dramatic, with knowledge of Spanish food and a taste for white Rioja. Marielle was half French and taught me more about food in our year of flat-sharing than I’d learnt in the previous 22. She wrote a feature for Elle, where we were working by then, on making an impromptu dinner from what’s in the fridge. In what I’d now call artistic licence when it comes to food writing, our fridge on that occasion seemed to contain such surprisingly smart ingredients as monkfish, pancetta and asparagus.

Francesca, meanwhile, grew sick. When it became clear that she had developed HIV and her career as a writer and artist was to be cut short, we spent time at her family home in Wales. Her mum Elisabeth gave me a copy of a cookbook she had written: European Peasant Cookery. She’s Elisabeth Luard, of course, and that book, and her writing, have inspired me ever since. But nothing she has ever written about food is as poignant as this:

It is very busy, this physical hospital world. Each night we are worn out with the hustle. Decisions must be taken about what to be brought for breakfast, for lunch, for tea, for dinner. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, shepherd’s pie, side dishes of jelly and yoghurt. Trays are brought and removed untouched. We talk of Chinese take-aways, pizzas from her favourite bakery, we read recipes in glossy magazines – chocolate truffles, caramel baskets with vanilla ice-cream. Poppy [Fran’s sister] is despatched to search the canteen for baked potatoes with cheese, chips with tomato sauce. We steal space for reheating the chosen delicacies in the nurses’ microwave. Forbidden, but stolen just the same.

Francesca pecks at our offerings, smiling encouragement. ‘The mind is willing, my sweets - but the body––’ 

4. Family Life: Birth, Death and the Whole Damn Thing by Elisabeth Luard (Bloomsbury, 2013)
5. Nigella Lawson’s first column for British Vogue, December 1995
6. I Just Want to Say: The Egg-White Omelette by Nora Ephron, November 2010

Fran and I, and all our friends, had pored over Vogue – mostly for the clothes, but a little for the food. Before ‘our’ Nigella Lawson in the 90s it had been Arabella Boxer, whose beautiful prose was accompanied by the most stunning and inventive food photography, by Tessa Traeger. Both have been much imitated (in fact my Leiths chef diploma portfolio borrowed heavily for its design on Boxer’s masterpiece, First Slice Your Cookbook).

Nigella meanwhile, gave voice to a fresh, relaxed way with food and her first Vogue column, from 1995, is instructive. Here she is talking about having guests at Christmas:

No one wants to eat a lot, since there's too much food in the normal course of events, but the difficulty is, there isn't much to do apart from eat… The food has to interest palates jaded by overindulgence and yet be comforting too. The easiest thing to do is to settle on a menu and stick to it, even if it means you will end up eating the same dinner more than once yourself: in food, as in life, it is better to be bored than to bore.

How true. Ten years later I interviewed Nigella for a magazine about her favourite books. Even then I was still not really a food writer, and more interested in the literary titles we discussed. But I did end up reading the book she pressed into my hands as I left, Heartburn by Nora Ephron. And that, perhaps, has been the biggest influence of all.

Ephron’s mantra ‘Everything is copy’, has become the inspiration for my own (very slowly developing) book. My mother imposing her coeliac diet on my furious teenage self; how great I looked when I had cancer, thanks to a diminished appetite; the cashew chicken dish which finally wooed my boyfriend into bed, and so on.

I wake up thinking about food, and go to sleep thinking about food. I read cookery books before sleep and last night, looking for a bit of Ephron to end on, laughed out loud at this: 

So this is my moment to say what’s been in my heart for years: it’s time to put a halt to the egg-white omelette. I don’t want to confuse this with something actually important, like the war in Afghanistan, which it’s also time to put a halt to, but I don’t seem to be able to do anything about the war, whereas I have a shot at cutting down consumption of egg-white omelettes, especially with the wind of this new book in my sails.

You don’t make an omelette by taking out the yolks. You make one by putting additional yolks in. A really great omelette has two whole eggs and one extra yolk, and by the way, the same thing goes for scrambled eggs. As for egg salad, here’s our recipe: boil eighteen eggs, peel them, and send six of the egg whites to friends in California who persist in thinking that egg whites matter in any way. Chop the remaining twelve eggs and six yolks coarsely with a knife, and add Hellmann’s mayonnaise and salt and pepper to taste.

I’ll have what she’s having.

everything is copy