The Enduring Enthusiasm of Nigella Lawson

One of the most beloved public figures of modern times, Nigella Lawson can teach us a lot about celebrating the good times and enduring the hard times.

Years ago, a friend of Nigella Lawson’s told The Guardian that all features written about the cook followed the same basic format:

“blah blah tragedy, blah blah sexy, blah blah cooking.”

I mean, it fits. Everybody’s favourite Domestic Goddess is that favourite because her life does seem to be perfectly split between these three factors: she is a brilliant and generous cooking teacher, she looks like Sophia Loren and she has, time and time again, overcome the kind of tragedy that can make people turn into bitter versions of themselves, yet she remains an unfailingly kind person.

Nigella rose to fame at a time when her fellow celebrity chefs were either becoming recognised for being literal kitchen nightmares (Gordon Ramsay), sexy rock’n’roll esque travelling chefs (Anthony Bourdain, RIP) or lad-next-door ‘pukka’ princes (Jamie Oliver). But her calling cards were, in their own quiet way, far more ground-breaking. She legitimised home cooking for enjoyment; rather than trying to recreate chef-levels of gourmet food in your own kitchen, it was about cooking something that a) you still wanted to eat after making it and b) didn’t leave you feeling like you’d emotionally aged a decade by the end of it. In her first book, How To Eat, she wrote that one of her reasons for creating the book was going to a dinner party and hearing the hostess’s audible sobs through the kitchen door. So her recipes were just as much about keeping the cook sane as they were about keeping the guests fed.

But the second thing she also did was she glamourised the joy of eating food and, even better, having a little bit of greed. When I say greed, I don’t mean the gross, white-collar, property developer mentality, I mean the sneaky little five-year-old inside all of our hearts that says ‘eat the piece of chocolate cake.’ So much of food talk, particularly with women, is a lesson in shame, or morality. Guilty pleasures. ‘Bad’ foods versus ‘good’ foods. There’s an entire movement now – intuitive eating – that basically reads like a duller version of a Nigella Lawson cookbook: eat what you want, when you want it, and trust that your body is actually that of an adult human and won’t just be like ‘chips for every meal, thanks.’

Because Nigella started off as a journalist and then became a food columnist, she still writes like a journalist, rather than a chef, meaning that her recipes are a meandering and detailed description not only of what to do but how the food should *seem*. I am never far from a Nigella Lawson cookbook, so I can provide you with perfect examples from her latest book Cook, Eat, Repeat, which came out at the tail-end of last year and become an unexpectedly timed meditation of cooking during a lockdown, for one’s self or family in replacement of cooking for dinner parties. A chocolate, tahini and banana pudding is ‘embracingly cosy and almost regally sumptuous,’ the chips that sit under a roast chicken are ‘gooily sticky and sodden with savoury juices,’ a roast cauliflower dish is filled with ‘aromatic toastiness’ and ‘spicy softness.’ Food isn’t just for cooking and eating, it is a full-on sensory experience. It’s a celebration, every time.

It’s also in this book that Nigella discusses where her freedom to fully love food came from: after watching her mother do the opposite. Her mother, Vanessa, was a wonderful cook but suffered from disordered eating, whose restrictive views on food came at a high cost. “Diagnosed with terminal cancer two weeks before her death [at age 48], she started eating – for the first time, she said giddily –without worry or guilt,” Nigella writes. “How unbearably sad to allow yourself unmitigated pleasure in food only when you receive a terminal diagnosis.”

With her first husband

It’s well-trodden as a part of her personal history – “blah, blah, blah, tragedy”, if you will – but the death of Nigella’s mother, sister and first husband in quick succession, not to mention the very public divorce from her second husband Charles Saatchi does perhaps highlight her as someone whose enthusiastic attitude to life is very much hard won. There are certain people who, no matter how famous they become, retain that ‘one of us’ warmth and Nigella very much fits the bill. As a single mother of two adult children, Nigella has spent much of the last year isolating at home, alone, and has turned to Twitter as a way to forge some human connection. Because cooking and eating are two of the few possible joys during the UK’s months-long winter lockdowns, a lot of people are cooking their way through her cookbooks and tagging her in on Twitter – and Nigella seems to be on a mission to reply to all of them. This makes her Twitter presence one of the only zen parts of the fraught social media feed, like watching someone very calmly drink a festive-looking cocktail when there’s a brawl going on behind them. It’s just one interaction after another of someone saying ‘I made this Nigella Lawson cake/pasta/dinner/bread and I think it’s pretty good?’ and then Nigella responding with something both soothing and enthusiastic. It is marvellous to see.

In my own life, I have very much treated Nigella’s entire presence as an emotional lifeline during both good and troubled times. When my father was caught in the Christchurch earthquake and then couldn’t leave the city for a week, my mother and I gave up on watching the news and watching Nigella cooking shows on repeat. When I had a diabolical break-up that left me suddenly having to move back home at 33, I created a Pinterest board (!) of Resilient Women and it was just 23 different photos of Nigella cooking things (yes, this was a tremendously grim part of my life and the Pinterest board was an interesting choice to make!) There are people who squeeze the joy out of life because they are lucky and there are people that squeeze the joy out of life because they know what it is like to suffer, and have realised the importance of celebrating life when you can. Nigella is the latter, and we are so lucky to have her because of that.

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