Nigella Lawson talks tasty food, #MeToo and why she's no domestic goddess

by Diana Wichtel / 30 June, 2018
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Nigella Lawson. Illustration/Weef

TV cooking queen Nigella Lawson has come through a fair amount of personal adversity with an air of fragility and flintiness.

Nigella. Her last name, Lawson, may have been useful when she was starting out in the 1980s as a critic and literary editor. Her father is Nigel Lawson – The Rt Hon The Lord Lawson of Blaby – the Chancellor of the Exchequer for much of the Thatcher era; her mother, Vanessa Salmon, was a socialite of the Lyons Corner House food and catering dynasty. It can’t have hurt.

These days, though, Lawson is one of those figures – Oprah, Adele, Elvis – who are globally mononymous. “Nigella!” cry a couple of twentysomething women who are probably not the core audience for her television shows and unthreatening cook books, when I mention I’m going to chat to her. “Say ‘Hi’ for me,” says one.

“That’s very nice,” says Lawson, on the phone from wherever she is, when I pass on the greeting. “Say ‘Hi’ back. I have a daughter in her twenties, too.” She sounds pleased.

She’s a survivor of considerable personal adversity. She has also had a fair dicing and mincing in the media’s industrial-grade celebrity blender. Now she’s back with Nigella: At My Table, a BBC series promoting her dreamy, resolute brand of home cooking. At 58, and holding up freakishly well, she’s still a player.

Still a domestic goddess, possibly. That was, she’s insisted, meant ironically. Maybe it was also a disguise. In what has been, the odd Delia Smith and Two Fat Ladies aside, a largely male genre, was it a way to get in?

“No,” she says firmly. “I never really wanted to get in anywhere.” In person she’s a steelier proposition than she appears on television as she raids the fridge in her jim-jams to hoover up left–over caramel croissant pudding.

Lawson. Photo/Getty Images

“It’s my fault because I did coin that phrase and I didn’t mean it, really,” she sighs. “I do wince a bit internally if I’m described as a domestic goddess or a goddess of any sort.” True, she created a monster. “Nigella resembles nothing less than some eternally youthful fertility goddess,” declared one columnist. Yikes.

So, not a goddess, domestic or other. And, despite appearances alongside the likes of Anthony Bourdain on such cooking competition shows as The Taste and MasterChef Australia, she’s no chef. “The world always wants to make you into an expert. When I do a Q&A anywhere, I always say, ‘Don’t ask me anything technical; I’ve got no idea.’” She’s just a home cook. “You don’t need to have any knife skills. Anyone watching me on TV can see that I’m a bit clumsy. I’m not saying that in an ‘aw-shucks-I’m-no-good’ kind of way. I’m saying that it doesn’t stop me making dinner.”

Nothing, you imagine, would stop Lawson making dinner. She has spoken about cooking as a survival strategy. I’m forbidden from asking “personal” questions during our brief encounter, but the territory has been well traversed. It’s a history played first as tragedy and then, thanks to British tabloid horridness, as a sort of farce.

With her first husband, John Diamond. Photo/Getty Images

With her first husband, John Diamond. Photo/Getty Images

First her mother, Vanessa, then her sister Thomasina, then her first husband, journalist John Diamond, died of cancer. It was, she has said, like there was “a sniper in the garden, picking off everyone you love”. After Diamond’s death, she married family friend and art collector Charles Saatchi. That union imploded after paparazzo snaps appeared of a scene on the terrace at a Mayfair restaurant: Saatchi seemed to grip Lawson’s throat and tweak her nose. She looked distressed.

After the divorce came a court case in which two former employees of the household – Italian sisters who formed the “Team Cupcake” that ran Lawson’s life – were accused of fraud. Dirty linen was aired, including an email in which Saatchi accused Lawson of drug-taking and referred to her as “Higella”.

Lawson called him “brilliant but brutal” and admitted to some drug use. “I don’t have a drug problem,” she told the court. “I have a life problem.” The then Prime Minister David Cameron declared himself part of the group of supporters known as Team Nigella.

Even what should have been a privileged childhood wasn’t happy. Lawson has spoken of a depressed, volatile mother. “The sound of a plastic bag being crinkled would send her deranged. She’d shout at all of us and say, ‘I’m going to hit you till you cry,’ and so I never would cry. I still don’t,” she told historian Simon Schama.

That’s a lot not to talk about. We find safe ground in discussing the solace of cooking in difficult times; the rituals of the table as a joy and a sort of meditation. “Mmm, I think so. It’s about getting so much pleasure from beauty, whether it’s all my little knickknacks or the way the table is shot. A bowl of lemons is beautiful or how fruit looks as you’re cooking it.”

If life gives you a bowl of lemons … There’s less languid finger-licking in At My Table. This series seems more freighted with time, experience, endurance. “Life can be complicated,” says Lawson, with an autumnal smile. “Cooking doesn’t have to be.” We see her, like Clarissa in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, head out into a London morning to buy the flowers herself. She selects Nigella damascena, also known as love-in-a-mist, to put in “teeny” vintage milk bottles. “I love a cluttered table.”

There’s still the verbal voluptuousness. Why add and mix when you can squish, dollop and splosh? In her world, despite the calamities she’s been dealt, an urgent desire for a brownie – “warm and squidgy, when your need is great” – still counts as an emergency.

Some smart-arse has edited together Lawson’s more sensual descriptions into an online video called Nigella Talks Dirty. She’s not amused. In Australia this year, she gave The Project’s Hamish Macdonald a chilly reception when he quoted such pronouncements as, “my empty vessels are waiting to be loaded”. She denies there’s an imperial fluid ounce of intended innuendo when she hangs over a pan of pork chops murmuring, “Mmmm, all the meaty juices are getting drawn into my pond of cider.”

Her second husband Charles Saatchi. Photo/Getty Images

Her second husband Charles Saatchi. Photo/Getty Images

Hmmm. Still, she’s irresistibly likeable and a certain ditzy obliviousness is part of the charm. She’s wonderfully vague when talk turns to the desirability of artificial meat. “I read a thing the other day that they’ve produced a fake meat that can bleed, which sounded … slightly alarming. When you look into it, it’s produced industrially and it’s not terribly ecologically sound either, so in what way is it better?”

The question of what to eat is fraught these days. When At My Table screened in the UK, she upset some viewers by chucking too much salt into the bulgur wheat accompanying her beef and aubergine fatteh. “I mean!” she says, exasperated. “If people can’t work out that they don’t need to put that much salt in if they don’t want to …” 

The angst is, in a way, nothing new. “Food is such a broad emotional language that it can’t help but reflect all people’s anxieties about themselves and about life in general. People feel they don’t exactly know what’s been tampered with and what is safe. But I think the notion that somehow, there’s a foodstuff that can give you immortality is troubling. People’s fears now get fuelled or fanned.”

There’s often no logic to it – “It’s bonkers to worry about someone making a cake or pudding for Sunday lunch and yet think nothing of a muffin every day” – so she takes it all with a grain of salt, but not, after the over-seasoned bulgur, too much. “Well, I do actually have quite a lot of salt,” she confesses. “In my defence I use very good Maldon salt and also I have low blood pressure, so I need a bit of extra salt.”

The Whittaker’s ad.

The Whittaker’s ad.

She needs a fair amount of chocolate, too. In her ads for Whittaker’s she doesn’t just nibble photogenically; she attacks from the side, going in for a good old chomp. The latest ad has her costumed as a succession of vintage chocoholics through the decades from the company’s 1896 beginnings. She liked the colonial garb.

“I feel like I’m slightly built for the early ones. You know, with those lovely long full skirts and short tight little jackets. And I love a hat.”

During her stay she went to Waiheke Island, or “Wai-hee-kee”, as she enunciates in her London vowels. “It wasn’t just dress-up. It was also eating and drinking and gazing at beauty. All of these things which are very important in life.”

On At My Table, she ricochets between earthy and ethereal. The climax of one episode woos viewers with a classic Nigella mix: a fairy-lit dining scene of aspirational enchantment where dinner is some chicken pieces roasted on a bed of peas straight from the freezer. “I’m very proud [English food writer] Nigel Slater crowned me the queen of the frozen pea,” she purrs.

Her on-screen persona has always been regally sensuous, indolently camp. “Plum jam I want!” she commands, like some queen of antiquity, or Yoda. A segment ends with a Garboesque “I need to be alone with my sandwich.” It’s all Mona Lisa smile and yes, matron; a complicated image to unpack.

She once ate an entire jar of pickled eggs on a bet. “It was a time when I didn’t have a great deal of money,” she says.

The new show.

The new show.

You wouldn’t want to mess with her. When she was here doing the chocolate ad, she went on Mike Hosking’s radio show. He embarked half-heartedly on a question about her experience of pay equity. “I almost hesitate to ask the question because I’m sick of the subject.”

You are sick of the subject?” she said with a dangerous laugh, as the in-studio camera caught a withering eye roll. She made it clear she runs her own show. Hosking looked outgunned.

She has spoken out about the #MeToo movement. “Well, I haven’t really spoken out about it,” she corrects me. “I was asked and I felt I should answer. They never ask the men about it. They always ask the women. It’s just ridiculous. It says everything.”

Well, yes. But seeing I’ve asked, she will say, “You’re already getting things like ‘Has it gone too far?’. What has gone too far? Someone’s right not to be assaulted? It’s such a mad thing. How can you say that?”

Does she think we’re handing our daughters a better world? “Well, I think our daughters might make a better world and that’s what we have to hope. You know,” she sighs, “the struggle continues.”

Meanwhile, there’s the comfort of the day job, cooking and eating and gazing at beauty. “It can be as simple as seeing the green of leeks against the green of peas and then the different green of dill. It sounds pretentious to say but I never mind saying it: those small things are quite uplifting.

“Those little things make more difference in a day, in a life, than you can quite explain,” she murmurs, managing to sound simultaneously fragile and decidedly flinty. Nothing’s going to stop her making dinner.

Nigella: At My Table, Sky Food TV, Monday, 8.30pm.

This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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