NIGELLA ON THE PLEASURES OF COOKING

A meet with the Domestic Goddess by Shinan Govani

“There is no place for a bitterness in my life except in the kitchen,” Nigella Lawson was saying.

“Radicchio,” she murmured, her plummy vowels at mast. “I love the bitterness. I love it raw and I love it roasted.”

Coming from the leading raven beauty of British cookery — the one who is the first to tell you that the recipe is “a highly charged autobiographical form” and that “all my books have been snapshots of where I am at in my life any given time” — the metaphors arrive, as always, ready to be tossed, sauced and stewed.

“Radicchio,” she murmured, her plummy vowels at mast. “I love the bitterness. I love it raw and I love it roasted.”

Coming from the leading raven beauty of British cookery — the one who is the first to tell you that the recipe is “a highly charged autobiographical form” and that “all my books have been snapshots of where I am at in my life any given time” — the metaphors arrive, as always, ready to be tossed, sauced and stewed.

Having cycled past a less-than-pleasant interlude in her life — an annus horribilis, in 2013, that bequeathed both personal travails and courtroom drama — Lawson manifested in Toronto to tout her own cookbook (her 10th!), Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food.

A primer in the ABCs of pleasure and a book divided into chapters like Bowlfood (the book posits itself as an antidote to the scourge of puritanism), it very well could have been titled I Will Survive.

Cue the Gloria Gaynor. Whether peddling Sake-Sticky Drumsticks or Lemon Pavlova, she’s back to restore and elate, all the while unfurling on us what is possibly her most me-first project to date.

Minus now a husband (mogul Charles Saatchi, who notoriously enjoyed cereal more than else) and with with children who are past the blush of mommy’s care (Cosima and Bruno are 21 and 19), Simply Nigella surely marks the start of an era where the self-dubbed Domestic Goddess stands solo. One in which she is beholden to none, can eat what she wants, do as she pleases.

“I have to check if I have something in my teeth,” I heard her say, not long before our sit-down, when she was ably posing for a stream of photographs for the cover shoot held in Toronto’s east end.

Schooled in the finer of smoke and mirrors, one couldn’t help but be struck by the almost nostalgic classicism she brings to such occasions. Like a silent movie star she held some twigs of lavender at one point — so still, so limpid-eyed.

It reminded me — a thought I’ve carried since she burst onto the scene nearly two decades ago — that her charisma fl0ws from the thing that all great stars share, in that they are not necessarily the greatest thespians or even the most perfect-looking human beings but whose geometry is just singular. It commands attention.

Fairly or unfairly, the great stars off-screen personality always informed how we viewed them on screen, so that while Bette Davis nearly always played the wild spoiled girl who always got what she wanted and Katherine Hepburn was invariably the starchy smarty-pants with hidden depths of vulnerability, Nigella — the gourmet who also traffics in image — is ever the Oxford-educated enchantress who could always turn heads, but also “could recite cantos from Dante’s Inferno,” as it’s been said, while cooking you up a chicken.

So, tell me, Nigella, what say about palate? “Is it,” I got around to asking her, “like a sense of humour — either you have it or you don’t?”

“Some people really don’t mind what they eat — at all,” she starts to say. “I’m not sure if their tastebuds are blunt — or if it just doesn’t interest them. But, otherwise, I think, you can be, if not taught … at the very least, be encouraged to have confidence in your palate.”

“Of course, we don’t all have the same palate,” she adds, mentioning the copious work that’s being done in the field of neurogastronomy.

During the span of our conversation, she emphasizes and re-emphasizes the point that she’s there to “de-mythologize food.” Also, in terms of her kitchen philosophy (one, again, that can be applied to life!), she says, “You have to learn when to let go.”

Mentioning the “pernicious”effect of foodie culture with its competition-style reality shows and filter-ready Instagram posts (“one I’m implicated in,” she caveats with ample self-awareness), Lawson also frets that home chefs may be receiving the message that the “result” trumps “process.”

“I allow myself to apologize for something only once,” she footnotes, when she’s overcooked something or gone in the wrong direction. There’s an echo in there of Julia Child, one notices. Striving for “perfection” is hardly the point, i.e., the very joy of food preparation is.

By the time she stoops on a wonderfully old-fashioned term to describe her own experience — “Cooking makes me feel glad-hearted” — I’m struck by the zippy juxtaposition: here, now, lies this alabaster-skinned bluestocking (one who was raised in posh’s playground and is the daughter of the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer in Margaret Thatcher’s government) who grew into an ambassador of sorts for a kind of carpe diem, let’s-not-be-so-serious relatability.

How did it happen?

As all Nigellaologists know, a pinch of suffering as is the case with so many glamour figures, rates among the factors, the rise of her fame first coinciding with the decline of her first husband, storied journalist John Diamond. Just as she was rising to the point of a national and international celebrity — with the runaway success of her book, How to Eat — her love was dying from cancer (this after losing both her mother and sister to cancer).

The cruellest of ironies: a lump had been discovered on Diamonds tongue. He could taste nothing, say nothing. And as she once told Vanity Fair, that’s where she found her own voice: “That’s how I began talking more … because I had to talk for him.”

After her husband died, Nigella, as others have noted, was not unlike another young but fanciful widow with two small ones, bearing her grief among public scrutiny: Jackie Kennedy. And by the time the powerful chi had come along — the same Onassis tropes of Svengali and top trophy wife in motion — her celebrity would only rise in ever-accelerating increments.

But that was then. Powered by an industriousness that is palpable, her Q rating today is reflected in the near-million followers she has on Twitter and another 363,000 on Instagram (with whom she retains a familial rapport), as well as the prime-time pond-cross she made not long back, appearing on three seasons of ABC’s The Taste. She returned to British television in November on the BBC with Simply Nigella, inspired by the new book.

When I elbow her to play a round of epicurean word-association, she is unsurprisingly game. We start with “avocado” or, to be precise, “avocado toast,” which has turned into both a kind of cause celeb of late. “Australia,” is what she murmurs first, telling me that the Aussies essentially came up with the item.

“There’s something wonderful about the crunch if the toast and the smoothness of the avocado,” she adds, raving about the infinite malleability of the toast, give or take some lime and dill. Kimchee, that not so innocuous Korean staple? Since writing the book she admits, she’s gone “deeper” into the ins and outs of the cabbage slaw.

“I’ve bought a fermenting pot,” she starts to tell me. “I’m going to start making my own kimchee.”

Oh, and what of that drama queen of a spice, coriander? This elicits a faraway look — like Lawson is suddenly Lady Mary on Downtown Abbey walking the hounds on her street.

“Coriander,” Lawson punctuates. “I think it has an earthiness and a pungency that really adds a kind of depth. It’s very interesting to have herb that gives freshness and a depth at the same time.”

Asked, finally, if Simply Nigella has a theme, the sensualist prefers to side on the mercurialness of it all. “The book,” she says, “doesn’t have a theme … but then life doesn’t have a theme.

This story originally appeared in the January issue of Zoomer magazine.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.