Until a few years I ago, I never really got why people went so gaga for Nigella Lawson. For one thing, her recipes are at times hardly even recipes. Take, for instance, from her career-defining first book How to Eat, a dish of tomato and rice soup which calls for nothing more than, ‘adding water to a good, bought tomato sauce to make it liquid enough for rice to cook in. Bring to the boil. Throw in some basmati rice and 10 minutes later you’ve got soup’. Or that infamous recipe for avocado on toast from 2015’s Simply Nigella.
While Nigella is undoubtedly an obsessive gourmet, I always thought she was a slightly lazy, unskilled cook – and her television shows over the years, a little too soaked in her own Nigellaness.
Re-reading recently her first book, released in 1998, it finally struck me that her priorities simply lay elsewhere: in the eating and the language of food. Obvious as it is, the book is pointedly called How to Eat, not ‘how to cook’. Coming across phrases like, ‘I love these leeks blistered on the outside, suggestively oniony within their slithery centre’, it seems clear now that language and eating are her first loves, while the actual cooking is merely a pleasurable means to both those ends – and she seems wholly unashamed about this.
She said herself in the first episode of Nigella Bites in 1999, ‘my skill lies in eating’ and, I would add to that, using language. To millions of people her un-cheflike, eating-for-pleasure persona has proved immensely endearing, making her feel more like one of us.
It’s no wonder that she has a better grasp on how to use language over, say, a mandolin or chef’s knife. (In a recipe for Treacle Tart in How to Eat, she calls herself ‘so un-deft as to be embarrassing’.) After all, she has a Masters degree in Medieval and Modern Languages from Oxford, speaks four languages, and was a successful journalist and deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times before becoming the Domestic Goddess. What is perhaps less clear from her books and television persona is how she acquired such a ‘skill’ for pleasurable eating.
At first glance, it might be easy to dismiss the idea that eating is a skill. While Nigella’s addiction to alliteration requires an appreciation of the rhetorical nuances of language (think of the classic line ‘I want the searing savouriness that is supplied by soy sauce’), eating is surely just a case of food in gob, chew, swallow, job done, right?
But for many people, and for many women in particular, eating with the sort of self-possessed delight she has come to embody in our cultural imagination can be an altogether more difficult matter. In a 2008 interview with Andrew Denton in Enough Rope, Nigella spoke about her mother, Vanessa, saying, ‘I only worked out after she died that she’d been bulimic. I knew she’d been anorexic. And we all put on an awful lot of weight then because anorexics tend to feed other people because they have a such an obsession with food.’
Having grown up with a bulimic mother and having suffered from eating disorders, in one way or another, all my life, I can attest to the obsessive pleasure in cooking and seeing others consume my food. As Nigella hints at, for those with an eating disorder, cooking for others can be a way of over-compensating for one’s own denial, sublimating desires to consume for your own simple, unadulterated pleasure. In other words, there’s a sort of masochistic relief in seeing others eat. In a similar way, as television viewers, we take vicarious pleasure in seeing Nigella eat in her cooking shows.
To the child of a parent with an eating disorder, though, knowing ‘how to eat’ isn’t necessarily natural. For while Nigella’s mother – like my own – prepared food, it’s unlikely she was able to enjoy it entirely guilt-free, which kids pick up on.
As she says in the chapter on Low Fat food in How to Eat, ‘like most women, too, my eating habits and whole attitude towards food have been influenced by my mother’s habits and her attitudes towards food.’ Though she doesn’t elaborate on what those ‘attitudes’ were. It seems to me, however, that we might think of Nigella’s skill for eating for pleasure as a culinary rebellion against inherited neuroses.
Over the years, Nigella’s eating and her use of language has been much commented on by journalists and on social media, with many finding her eating performative and provocative and her use of language just plain annoying. While I sometimes felt almost embarrassed by watching her masticate with such orgasmic gusto, over time I’ve come to admire this skill greatly.
I see Nigella as a sort of role model for all those women for whom eating is a hard-won skill. For me, Nigella’s real talent lies not in cooking or even her recipes per se, but in her confidently taking a creamy, loaded forkful of carbonara as joyfully as she wields the tools of language. Like cooking and grammar, eating for pleasure is a skill that can be learned; how one goes about it, though, can take a lifetime.
Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ‘Peasant Wedding’ (detail), 1566-69.