Underrated: Nigella Lawson

The domestic goddess never forgets that above all else she is a cook

Sarah Johnson

Nigella Lawson: “The most luminous beauty ever to lighten Lady Margaret Hall’s brown corridors” (illustration by Michael Daley)

“Food for where I am in my life,” Nigella Lawson promised in her new autumn TV series, Simply Nigella. But what a life. It has been said that all men want to be with her and all women want to be her — but what woman would wish for a life so peppered with tragedy?

Even as an undergraduate, she narrowly escaped death in a horrific car accident, and suffered the nightmare every Finals candidate dreads: turning over an exam paper to discover that she could not answer a single question. (She was one of only two students taking a particular literature option and the examiners had misunderstood which texts they had studied.)

Small inconveniences, compared with the loss of her mother, a sister and a kind, warm, witty first husband, all to different forms of cancer within 16 years. In 2013 her second marriage to a “brilliant but brutal” man ended in tandem with an agonising court ordeal where, bizarrely, she was not the defendant, yet, because of the character assassination methods used by the defendants’ lawyers, she appeared to be the only person on trial.

Now she is back, bouncing and bonny as ever. After exile to a rather dreary American contest show Nigella is where she belongs, on British TV screens, sticking her fingers in cake mixture and making us feel unsettlingly included in her world as she slyly licks the spoon.

The alabaster brow might not be quite all God’s work these days (she is 55 after all) but who the hell cares? The most luminous beauty ever to lighten Lady Margaret Hall’s brown corridors will always shine more brightly than any surgeon’s art.

Of course, the new show was instantly slammed from all corners. On one side were the old fans who complained she wasn’t using as much sugar and butter as they thought she ought, even though she plainly still regards sugar as a morally blameless flavouring which you put in a sauce to “balance the heat of the spices”.

The same fans were shocked that she was including “healthy” vegan chocolate cake and multi-seed bars among her recipes. Presumably these fans haven’t noticed that these “healthy” foods are packed with calories and nutrition — unlike the recipes from the anorexic “clean eating” trend.

On her other flank, cookery experts scoffed that she had devoted part of a programme to explaining how to spread a ripe avocado onto toast. Yet we remember how this nation once sat agog in front of its TV while Delia Smith showed it how to boil an egg. Who’s to judge? By demonstrating the simple process of getting some ripe avocado and spreading it on toast, Nigella surely does more to nudge our eating habits towards the healthier end of the fridge than any amount of lecturing and political campaigning.

Considering that with her family background she has more inside knowledge of politics than most TV cooks, it is notable that Nigella has never tried to front a campaign aimed at changing how we eat. She does not need to, because everything she does is part of her mission — to convey pure pleasure in cooking and eating decent food.

Look, she is saying as she disembowels dates with her fingers, doesn’t preparing this stuff seem more fun than putting a frozen pizza in the microwave? “This is disturbingly gratifying,” she murmurs as she whacks chicken breasts with a rolling- pin, in possibly an oblique reference to her marital troubles. “This is like being a three- year-old,” as she crushes cornflakes with her hands.

The much-parodied pouting and lip-licking is her way of encouraging us to loosen up and enjoy ourselves. Where Delia would primly nibble a piece of spaghetti on camera to demonstrate how to tell if it was cooked, Nigella gives every mouthful a slow, lustrous, cherry-lipped going-over, pushing her enjoyment to its televisual limit (and glueing the menfolk permanently to the screen).

Her first cookbook was called How to Eat, not How to Cook (a Delia Smith title), because nobody enjoys eating more than Nigella. Her gift to the nation is not only her sensuality but her determination to put aside her sorrows in the refuge of the kitchen. Cooking is really pretty boring, so why not allow ourselves to enjoy it?

And her avoidance of campaigning may also stem from something very becoming in a person with much physical beauty: namely, a lack of vanity. She has always insisted that she is only a cook, mother-taught and domestic, mainly engaged in the business of seducing with foolproof chocolate cake and love. She is adamantly not a chef forged in the authoritarian, masculine hell of a restaurant kitchen.

Time and again she has shown how to move forward through grief by work and enjoying the moment. It was her late husband, John Diamond, who simply expressed how many people feel about Nigella, when he said of the supposedly ironic title of her second book, How to be a Domestic Goddess: “There is nothing ironic about it as far as I’m concerned.”

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