"Someone asked me the other day for a low-calorie version of a cake recipe. I said: ‘You either give up this mean diet or you give up cake. It’s not a low-calorie thing to eat!'"
Nigella Lawson, the best-selling Jane Austen of food writing, is sitting in a low-cut, wine-red wiggle-dress in the restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel off Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Her run as a judge on ABC’s new talent show The Taste has only just begun, and for the moment no one runs up to nag for autographs (though the men all shoot her glances). In England, where she is a megastar nicknamed the Domestic Goddess, such a public conversation would be impossible. She’s on a roll, eating, gesticulating, and shooting out jaunty put-downs. I ask about America’s problem with obesity.
“I don’t believe in indiscriminate greed: you have to understand the nature of restraint ... Most people have weight issues because they have hard lives. It’s all very well for the manicured ladies of the East Side to derive satisfaction by depriving themselves of food, but for most people food is the only affordable pleasure in their life. Eating is very pleasurable, I find.”
It’s for putting the pleasure back into eating that Nigella is originally known. Her breakthrough book was called How to Eat (as opposed to How to Cook), and her work is a paean to butter and full-fat milk, bright colors, rich sauces, and all things plumptious, delicious, and voluptuous. There is much more here than simple rebellion against the dictatorship of the diet. Between the ages of 25 and 40, before her career began in earnest, she lost her mother, then her sister, then her first husband to cancer. All three were only in their 30s or 40s when they died. Food (telling stories about food, eating food, analyzing the meaning of food, cooking food) is in part a way to make sense of the experience. She sits back when she talks about this, picks her words carefully.
“Food is the acceptance of being alive. You don’t always feel that way when someone has died. Because you want to deny life. You cannot sleep for grief. I felt that hunger is such a force for good in that sense—hunger and recognizing the need to assuage that hunger.”
The encounter between deliciousness and depression, between chicken soup and the battalions of sorrow—the drama encapsulated in the phrase “to lose your taste for life”—sits near the root of her work.
“In the Jewish tradition the bereaved are brought food by friends. It’s an obligation to eat in order to live ... The most touching thing when John [her first husband] was ill, and I had a 7-month-old and a 3-year-old to look after, and a friend bought the shopping and left it outside: it’s those gestures ... ”
Reading Nigella’s books, you’re pulled into a life-affirming (one of her favorite terms) swirl of stories about walnut chicken eaten with gangsters and molls in Russian restaurants, recipes gleaned in transvestite bars in Florence, anecdotes about her grandmother’s vertigo attacks in the kitchen. She wrote her first book in memory of her mother and sister.
“You want the feel of someone. You want their smell. Then, years later, you get to the stage you want to honor them ... So many of my conversations with my mother and sister were, ‘What are you cooking tonight? Have you eaten?’ Trying to write the recipes for the food we’d eaten together was a way of continuing the conversation. I still have a lot of my sister’s cooking utensils in my kitchen.”
It was her mother, Vanessa Salmon, who first taught her how to cook. Salmon was a daughter of the Lyons food empire, the third generation of self-made Jewish multimillionaires who came by their money in the early 20th century by marketing upmarket food to the masses: their multistory “corner houses” had a different themed restaurant on each floor, with orchestras playing for lower-middle-class eaters transported to a different status via food. But by the time Nigella was growing up, the business was already losing out to the new fast-food joints and the Salmon fortune was blown.
“My mother had a slightly aristocratic sense that everything she did was the right way. So if that meant wandering around in a Victorian nightdress when people came round, that’s what she did. I think that’s a very enchanting way to be. She was like a child. I ended up mothering her really.”
Her father, Nigel, was the editor of The Spectator before moving into politics, becoming Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor of the Exchequer and transforming the British economy by redirecting it from producing coal, cars, and cutlery to the financial services and media, creating a social revolution by spawning a new class of stockbroker yuppies who burst through the barriers of the establishment. He wasn’t home much.
“I remember doing my homework at his office in Parliament. He took Thatcher home in the car. He always drove very fast, and Thatcher winced as he drove through nearly every red light in London. My father isn’t an anxious person, or prone to introspection. My mother was more hysterical: she would shout and throw things.”
In the photos of the family from the 1960s, they remind me ever so slightly of the Addams family. The suave, clever father, the more-beautiful-than-Anjelica-Houston mother, and the young Nigella as the serious, bookish daughter.
“Maybe I didn’t feel very lovable for a child. When I was small I just couldn’t get out of my little dark place. My mother thought I was autistic, because I would be sitting on a swing talking to myself ... As I get older I am much less prone to bouts of melancholia.”
“How did the bouts express themselves?” I ask.
“I used to not be able to get up in the morning.”
“That’s a sign of ... ”
“Depression. I know. Well—I’ve got better at that.” At another moment she tells me, “I am dark. People think that if you cook you’re all sweetness and light. And I am a dark person. Which doesn’t mean I don’t take an inordinate amount of pleasure in life. There’s a fantastically bad biopic of Mussolini. And he says to Mrs. Mussolini, ‘Why do you always look on the dark side?’ And she says, ‘There is no other side.’ [Nigella smiles broadly] It’s almost worth watching that film for that reason.”
It was her first husband, the journalist John Diamond, who helped bring her out of her little dark place, encouraged her toward food writing and television. He was diagnosed with throat cancer as she was setting out on her first series. Their kitchen became the TV set.
“I had a dying husband and I didn’t have any money. When the children were little and John was very ill, it was impractical to work outside the home. My crew looked after me. When I had to rush him to hospital they looked after the children. He’d hemorrhage at home and they would clean up the blood.”
John decided to go public with his illness, writing about his experiences in a weekly column and letting the BBC in to film his journey. Nigella had been utterly opposed to the intrusion but agreed (“I would have done anything to help him,” she told the BBC). John’s resultant book, C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too, became a bestseller, as he catalogued in almost unbearable and funny detail his operations; the loss of the voice that had made him famous as a wit and broadcaster; and his anger as he couldn’t eat the food Nigella cooked, having to adopt a liquid diet sucked through a tube in his throat—and throwing pots of venison stew across the kitchen in frustration.
Nigella is always in the background of the book, reeling from facing the third cancer in a person near to her, running around supermarkets looking for the fattiest foods when the hospital dietitian says John needs lard and butter after his operations as she desperately tries to cook him back to health. In the stills of the BBC footage of her next to his hospital bed she looks frail, fawnlike, frightened. But looking over the cookery programs she was shooting at the time, I can’t find any chink where the awfulness seeps through, no break in the rhythm of chopping and baking, freshly cut lemons, steaming pots, and storytelling. The shot is filled with an almost ethereal light. “In one of the shows she filmed just after John’s death,” writes Nigella’s biographer Gilly Smith (who never met her subject), “she once turned to the camera, lifted her eyes from the chopping and whisking and said, ‘Believe me, life is so much easier when you can take pleasure from such little things.’ ” It’s an idea Nigella repeats often. Another phrase she uses regularly is “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” In the age of the teary television confession, of the “pity me, love me” Oprah interview, she harks back to the near-lost virtue of the stiff upper lip.
“I don’t like women crying in offices, but then I’m not crazy about men crying in offices either. I did send my boss home once for crying in the office,” she tells me. And then a little later: “Even if I’m exhausted to the point of weeping I wouldn’t. I’m proud and I never cry.”
When sadness does creep into her writing it does so subtly, and is all the more powerful for it. The chapter about Passover cooking in perhaps her best book, Feast, opens with the sentence: “When my first husband was diagnosed with cancer, just as that year’s Passover was about to begin, he suddenly felt—out of the blue, it seemed to me—that he wanted to mark the occasion much as he had as a child.” Raised outside the faith, she writes how she found her first Passover meal “vaguely threatening, as if some alien force were making its way into my home.” What follows is her learning the meaning and symbolism of the seder: “[T]he hard boiled egg for birth, renewals and beginnings, the leaves dipped in salt to represent tears shed.” Cancer and her husband’s death are not mentioned again, but they hang over the text, which ends on the glimmer of relief found in the Passover kitchen: “the long cooking, the patient stirring and waiting until the dried fruits turn a deep, brick red and so gungily thick it’s hard to stir any more ... it took the best of a day and half. You think one would feel exhausted by the activity, relieved it was over. But rather, it felt restorative.”
In the years following John’s death, Nigella began to develop her persona as a glowing TV Fertility Goddess. The shows continue to be shot in her own kitchen, a primetime shrine dedicated to the cult of deliciousness and color, the song, whiz, bubble, and whir of life and cooking, with Nigella its coquettish, Liz Taylor–looking high priestess, stirring chocolate in silk nightgowns, licking spoons of mascarpone, flicking her eyes at the camera while indulging in music-hall double entendres about ice cream “whipped to soft, thick peaks.” Ask most males in England about Nigella and they will sigh with a vaudeville desire. It’s a very English, seaside-postcard take on sexiness, saucy rather than raunchy, so camp it’s utterly safe. Women don’t only find her unthreatening but, and this is the word I hear the most, “comforting.” She calls it her “circus act”: “It’s part of me—the circus act. But I had to bring it out. John used to say I had a hidden gay man inside of me.”
The whole thing is shot through with oodles of playful irony. The cover of her most famous book, How to Be a Domestic Goddess, is a close-up of a cupcake on a pink background, an almost Jeff Koons-like, joyful satire on kitsch worthy of the modern art collection of her second husband—the advertising genius Charles Saatchi, who helped make the subversive careers of the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. On the U.K. cover of her latest book, Nigellissima, she poses as the ideal housewife while wearing the same dress as Catherine Deneuve in Belle du Jour, Luis Buñuel’s classic film about the seemingly perfect wife with secret, dark desires. She instantly recognizes the association when I ask her about the dress: “I must have been thinking of Buñuel unconsciously—in the book I talk about working as a chambermaid in Italy just like the heroes of his films ... I used to think there was a discrepancy, between the circus and the act-seriousness: now I think everything’s dark and light at the same time. It’s life totally.”
In England, at least part of her appeal is social, too: she is the posh girl, the daughter of the minister and the heiress, descending down the stairs (so many shots in her programs show her coming down the stairs) to the kitchen, the old province of the servant and butlers in the age of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, meeting the aspiring middle classes halfway as the kitchen becomes the forum where new and old wealth meet to indulge in the now all-affordable pleasures of oysters, Chablis, and smoked salmon. Uniquely in TV, she controls all her own scripts and edits—hers is an image formed entirely by her own rules, and she still uses the same crew she had from the first series shot when John was dying.
“They’re my family. My children remember them from when they were little. If I was to lose them it would be a much greater loss: I wouldn’t mind if we never put the programs out.”
But she does put them out, and the whole interplay of class games and irony, of flirting and intellectualism, the whole comforting delicious entity, has made her tens of millions. Saatchi is worth hundreds of millions. But money is barely the motivation. “I don’t like being left all alone to myself. I don’t like the emptiness and the void ... the sense when the light goes off when the fridge door closes.”