In the comedy Miranda, Penny, Miranda’s preposterous mother, laments that her daughter ‘hasn’t been blessed by the goddess of socialising.’ ‘There isn’t a goddess of socialising’, Miranda rebuts only to be swiftly rejoined by her mother: ‘then how do you explain Nigella Lawson?’
For me, this is no joke. Nigella is a goddess, though she herself chafes against the title. I’ve never been particularly invested in the notion of ‘role models’ or ‘idols’, but I make exception for the goddess Nigella, whose shrine I worship at every day. Like her, I adore delicious food (both the cooking and tasting of it); she too was once an Arts student at Oxford; we both fell in love with Oscar Wilde at 16 and, most crucially, we both share a rare species: a father called Nigel. Nigella is often considered ripe for burlesque: her name has become virtually synonymous with ‘voluptuous’, her perceived seductive presenting style is satirised in the label ‘the queen of food porn’, and her misfortunes are scrutinised under the media’s glare. For me, however, Nigella is so much more than all of these trivial caricatures, and so I write my defence of Nigella.
Every morning as I pad downstairs in my tired, old dressing gown and Birkenstocks, with my dishevelled bed hair (which has earned me the family nickname of ‘Brian’ for its resemblance to the tresses of Brian May), peruse the cupboard and engage in a toss-up between Weetabix and Shredded Wheat before reaching for the latter, I vow to be more like Nigella. I pledge to purchase a black silk wrap; to stop wearing sandals which include my own surname as slippers; to wake with perfectly coiffured hair; to glide rather than shuffle; to have my own well-stocked pantry and finally, to feast on things like ‘Eggs in Purgatory’ and ‘Panettone French Toast’ rather than paper wrapped oblongs which have the flavour profile of cardboard. In short, I take the oath to be Nigellissima.
In a world of Joe Wicks and Deliciously Ella and their legion of ‘clean eaters’, of keto diets, of rabbit-food fanatics and a New York Times Bestseller called I Quit Sugar: Your Complete 8-Week Detox Program and Cookbook, I salute Nigella’s unapologetic loyalty to the indulgent: to pasta, to chocolate, to wine. Her raison d’être is never to rule out any food stuffs but to celebrate proper, nourishing, homemade food in all its delectable variety. Only Nigella would say something as delightfully irreverent as ‘I’m a great believer in fat. My view is, it’s a moisturiser from the inside.’ Nigella once speculated about her success saying, ‘I do have a theory about why women like to see me, and that’s because I’m not thin.’ What Nigella implies is a kind of feederism, that her audiences enjoy watching her cook and eat ‘naughty’ food whilst themselves abstaining. Whilst it’s not something with which I personally identify, I suspect Nigella’s theory contains much truth and it is a complex to be conscious of: fetishizing Nigella in this bizarre schadenfreude-esque fashion is to be avoided.
I always reproach people when they parody Nigella, pouting their lips and swaying their hips in the sexualised manner that commentators attribute to her, because I think they fail to see what Nigella articulates as her ‘pronounced sense of camp.’ Nigella doesn’t do things by halves, but I find her flamboyance and sensuous theatricality so refreshing when compared with the muted tones of many food presenters. What I admire too, is that there is nothing underhand, calculated or contrived about Nigella’s style: she does what she says on the (baking) tin. Nigella herself has said that ‘I was astonished to be told I was suggestive and coquettish and so forth because the reality is, I’m a straightforward person.’ Of course Nigella is sexy, but she’s also an enormously talented presenter, one who’s manner is vivacious, sharply witty and inviting of one’s confidences. So, trying to condense her recipe for success down to her sexuality, to the idea that Nigella hoodwinks us into viewing through her flirtation, is just flawed. She is a storyteller, a wordsmith, and one who elevates the humblest ingredient to the level of splendour through her mouth-watering prose. It’s Nigella’s commentary, the moments when she tells us she is wearing gloves to prepare her beetroots because ‘otherwise I’ll have something of the Lady Macbeth about me’ as she smiles wryly at the camera, or when she holds a couple of jewel-like blackcurrants to her ears and turns archly to the viewer: ‘nice earrings?’ In short, there is no-one I’d rather watch.
Every time I – the girl who’s never even punted – weave my way home after a tequila-too-many at Bridge, I think wistfully of that iconic photo of Nigella during her student days; playing croquet whilst being carried in a sedan chair. I bet Nigella wasn’t spending her Thursdays in a sweaty nightclub, I sigh, or munching on Twiglets to motivate herself through essays at ungodly hours. But then, actually, Nigella has never claimed to be or to have lived a perfect life – it’s the reason why she pooh poohs the goddess title. Her life has been punctuated by great sadness: her mother died of cancer when Nigella was only 25, her younger sister aged 32 and her husband at 41. Then, after a ten-year marriage, images emerged of Nigella’s second husband, Charles Saatchi, with his hands around her throat. Plagued by allegations of habitual drug use, Nigella was forced to admit very occasional use during a tempestuous marriage to ‘a brilliant but brutal man.’ It has not, by any means, been an easy life; but Nigella is stoical and has no desire to be pitied saying, ‘some see me as a tragic heroine, and that’s what makes me acceptable to them. The idea that I might be happy is unforgivable. Well, I’m sorry. It’s better to be happy.’ And it’s not just tragedy: Nigella glories in all kinds of imperfection. When Nigella took her presenting style to the US, it was a welcome change to American viewers who were accustomed to being told everything had to be ‘just so’ by TV cooks like Martha Stewart. Nigella – who dips and licks her finger, who spills and eats in bed, who is messy, fun and spontaneous – felt within the realms of possibility to the average home cook. Nigella is spirited but there’s also something so endearingly forgiving and relaxed about who she is. She never seems to lash out or to be enraged but instead laughs things off with an appealing nonchalance. Missing the irony of the title of bestseller How to be a Domestic Goddess, critics initially lampooned her as being anti-feminist and retrograde. Nigella merely said ‘at first I thought it was ridiculous but then, I thought, you have a column to fill. If I were still a columnist, and this book came out, I’d have done exactly the same.’
The maxim by which I live, is that it is always better to be an embarrassment than a bore. Thankfully, the goddess approves: ‘I would rather embarrass myself and be a bit idiotic sometimes than spend my whole life worrying about what people think.’ So what I ask is this: look past the black silk and bee stung lips, the luscious locks and smoky voice, and you’ll find what it really means to be a goddess, to be Nigellissima.