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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hughes

Nourished: Freud, Food And Nigella

Updated: May 28, 2022

Back in in 1985, a long lost manuscript was discovered in the dusty archives of the Freud Museum in Hampstead, a final opus by the man himself to compliment The Interpretation of Dreams and Moses and Monotheism. Its subsequent publication turned the world of psychoanalysis upside down, reputations were re-evaluated and 'the pleasure principle' took on a whole new meaning.

Well, that is what James Hillman and Charles Boer imagined when they concocted Freud’s Own Cookbook, a tongue-in-cheek spoof inspired by this quote from Sigmund Freud: ‘enough has been recorded of we said; yet not one word of what we ate.’

Whilst a private cookbook written by Freud is just fantasy, the idea is not beyond the realm of possibility. Pleasure was one of Freud’s preoccupations and oral gratification a major theme. Freud would have surely approved of dishes such as slips of tongue in madeira sauce, erogenous scones and Melanie Klein’s good and bad breast of chicken.

Being Jewish and living in Vienna, life was food and food was life. Whilst Freud chose the couch and free association, he could have easily unlocked unconscious desires by sharing schnitzel, knodels, stollen and schnecken.

As Freud grappled with his theories, consider too his home and office, Berggasse 19, an intergenerational household with six children and a relentless round of nursing and nappies, (not that Freud would have got his hands dirty with that), and what you have is the background for Freud’s theory about the psychosexual stages of development.

Within the psychoanalytic tradition, the outcome of not being developmentally nourished, or of getting the wrong kind of nourishment, can lead to a displacement of emotional hunger on to food or conversely a rejection of food. And whilst the idea of having an 'oral character', of being emotionally and nutritionally unsatisfied is a little old fashioned, we still talk about care and attachment as a nourishing factor which can be stomached or not. Cooking for others, and for ourselves for that matter, can be an expression of love. Developmentally and relationally, cooking and care are intertwined.

Of course, we now live in an age where processed food, meal replacements and supplementary pills may sustain us, but they do not nourish us. And whilst pleasure has connotations of privilege, especially when so many are surviving on food banks and free school meals, anyone can experience the joy of a bowl of lentil dhal or buttered toast.

There is an alchemy to cooking and it is perhaps no suprise that in esoteric traditions, witches and wizards use cauldrons. Food often leads to enchantment or seduction. In Homer's Odyssey, the 'witch-goddess' Circe invites Odysseus's crew mates to a meal of 'barley, cheese and golden honey, mixed with Parmnian wine.' Once tasted the men are turned into 'pigs in body and voice and hair; their minds remain the same.'

Without doubt, food plays its part in our subconscious, fantasies and memories; those 'tea-dipped Madeleine moments', as Proust wrote.

Growing up in the 70s, food was brown, lurid or both and had the aroma of Rothman's cigarettes. Teatime was about the familiar tropes of enamel eroding orange squash, Findus crispy pancakes and alphabet spaghetti. There was a lot of unrendered lamb fat and boiled carrots.

Perhaps it was because I was an only child, or that my parents were aspirational baby boomers, but the kitchen cupboard was never off limits. I was very fortunate. If I wanted a Wagon Wheel, I just helped myself. I do not remember over-indulging, even though I could, which maybe says something about the comfortable, ‘secure base’ my parents created at home.

It was therefore a shock to go to boarding school at the age of eight, where the week’s supply of mince was delivered in plastic barrels and every breakfast involved lumpen porridge and fried bread. I used to shovel this inedible beige matter into my handkerchief to be deposited somewhere in the school grounds during break. It was a miserable experience, made more so since I knew there was an alternative. Each night at 7pm, trollies laden with the most delicious delicacies, along with bottles of Spanish wine and freshly baked bread were trundled into the dining room for the teachers. Me and my friends would stand by the dining room door, like the Bisto kids, just to catch a glimpse of this food, whilst laughter and the sound of wine corks being drawn matched the volume of my grumbling stomach.

Both my mother and father loved food and entertaining and were passionate cooks. My dad had a large plastic box full of curry spice tins and at least once a month he would take over the kitchen to prepare rogan josh or chicken masala, the unique taste of which I’ve never encountered anywhere else.

My mother meanwhile, just got on with cooking meals day in day out. Saturday night would be chicken paprika, pepperpot beef or pork Italian, all of which looked great on 70s earthenware plates and tasted even better. Knicknamed ‘the Queen of Puds’ by her friends, no dinner party was complete without at least four puddings: creme caramel, raspberry meringue roulade, bread and butter ice-cream and orange trifle, (a 1920s recipe from the Spread Eagle Hotel in Thame, Oxfordshire). These were favourites which I would spoon from the fridge the next morning.

As the 70s became the 80s, food in our household changed too: pesto, lasagne and avocados were the new staples. My mother’s best friend brought back plats of garlic from holidays in Mallorca and we made Princess Diana’s chilled watercress soup from the Food Aid cookbook. Mary Berry was considered a bit old fashioned; instead the must-have cookbooks were written by Nicola Hay, who could have been the next big TV food personality, though in the end she packed up her cookery school and started a new life somewhere else.

All of this set me up for a love of cooking. Even as a student on limited funds I was able to rustle up feasts for twenty on a twin-hobbed Baby Belling. I have been loyal to Nigella over the years - a Kleinian 'good mother' figure if there ever was one - having fallen in love with How To Eat back in the late 90s when me and my 20-something friends were experimenting with lamb shanks and puy lentils and Moroccan tagines. Of course Ottolenghi was a game changer; the enormous shared table at his Islington restaurant with its bejewelled salads and colourful meringues always feels like a treat and I still make his striking stuffed peppers, from a recipe I keep in a scrapbook. I have to admit, I had a Gwyneth moment a few years back and her Thai style chicken burgers remain a favorite.

When I worked as a television producer, I travelled the world making food programmes, and whilst we filmed in many of the top Michelin-starred restaurants such as Noma in Copenhagen and Odette in Singapore, it was always the Sri Lankan curry cooked over a wood fire or the soft shelled crab caught that morning by Venetian fishermen that I relish the memory of the most.

Further reading:

The Debt to pleasure - John Lanchester

The Odyssey: Homer translated by Emily Wilson

How to Eat - Nigella Lawson

Ottolenghi: the cookbook - Yotam Ottolenghi

The Food Aid Cookbook - edited by Delia Smith and Terry Wogan

It's All Good - Gwyneth Paltrow

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