Nigella Lawson: ‘I felt exposed and under attack. It was a form of trauma’

The cookery writer on becoming a tabloid story and why she’d rather talk about food

Nigella Lawson in Melbourne in Januray. The British author and television star  just marked the 20th anniversary of her breakout cookbook How To Eat. Photograph: James Richard Geer/The New York Times

Nigella Lawson in Melbourne in Januray. The British author and television star just marked the 20th anniversary of her breakout cookbook How To Eat. Photograph: James Richard Geer/The New York Times

 

Nigella Lawson posted a photo to Instagram, a closely cropped shot of her and her first husband, John Diamond, looking at each other. His arms are wrapped around her waist, his smile is soft and loving. The caption reads, “This time 20 years ago, I was at the launch party for my first book, How to Eat. Looking at this photo makes me happy, but also very sad. I wish I could be in John’s arms now.”

“I hesitated before I did it,” she said recently. “But then I just did it. I suppose I didn’t want to appear sorry for myself. I didn’t want anyone to think I was getting out my tiny violin.”

Lawson, now 59, has recently been spending a lot of time immersed in that past, thanks to the 20th anniversary of How to Eat, which was published in Britain in 1998. Diamond died less than three years later of throat cancer. How to Eat started an almost unparalleled culinary career that sits perfectly and uncomfortably at the highest echelon of fame and scope, particularly in Britain, where an anniversary issue of the book has been released, along with a new audiobook version read by Lawson.

During her current, seemingly endless schedule of appearances around the world, people keep asking her: Does it seem like a long time ago? How has food changed? How has your life changed? “Of course, you know how time works,” she said while taking a short break during a hectic day of appearances at a food festival in Western Australia. “It does this weird thing where it both seems like yesterday and 50 years ago, 100 years ago.”

And her life? It could not be any more different. Lawson’s celebrity in Britain and Australia is approximately royal in its breadth and intensity. As a result, she serves as a canvas on which people project their ideas of femininity, celebrity and the British upper class. Diana Henry, the British food writer, explained: “In the UK I often think, not with pleasure, that she has Princess Diana-like status as a celebrity. She is that well known, she is that well-liked.”

But there are uglier connotations that come along, too. Earlier in the day, while waiting for Lawson to appear on the festival’s main stage, a woman standing in the VIP tent wondered aloud, “Is Nigella going to be carried in through the crowd by shirtless men, lounging on a silk-draped bed?”

Asked why she might expect such an entrance, the woman said, “She just seems like the epitome of spoiled, beautiful British aristocracy. Perfect and untouchable.” Lawson’s view of herself and of why she became successful oppose this image of the wealthy beauty queen. When she’s not on the road, she said, she is usually “sitting around my house with no makeup, wearing baggy things”. She is the home cook, the anti-expert, the person who cooks for pleasure rather than ego.

“What I’ve learned is that a lot people project onto you something which is a function of their own take on the world,” she said. “And once people have that view of you, anything can be made to be that thing they’ve already decided.” In 1998, Lawson was a freelance journalist with a history as a book critic, a restaurant critic, a columnist and an editor. She is Oxford-educated, the daughter of Nigel Lawson, a conservative British politician, and his first wife, Vanessa Salmon.

Diamond’s death in 2001, just as Nigella Lawson had a career kicking into high gear and two young children to look after, was not her first experience with cancer and loss: The disease took her mother in 1985 and her sister, Thomasina, in 1993.

But life does not pause. For Lawson, it came quickly. There were television shows; more cookbooks; newspaper columns (including one in The New York Times); a second marriage, to Charles Saatchi, the business magnate and art collector; an ugly divorce, one version of which played out extensively in the British tabloids; more books; more TV.

Lawson has a policy of no longer giving interviews that go beyond her professional life, though she made a cautious exception for this article. Her two children are off-limits, and she remains scarred from the time beginning six years ago when she was in the tabloids constantly, owing to her divorce and a subsequent court case in which two former assistants were accused of embezzling from Lawson and Saatchi.

The tabloid stories were invasive and exposing: Paparazzi photos captured Saatchi with his hand around Lawson’s throat, drawing speculation about abuse. During the trial of her former assistants, she gave testimony responding to accusations of drug abuse, admitting to isolated incidents of cocaine and marijuana use.

“It wasn’t just about being in the paper all the time,” she said. “It was generally about feeling exposed and under attack. In a way, it would have been much better for me to be able to speak openly. It goes against my nature not to. But I do think that becoming a tabloid story, and everything I went through then, shame, various things , in a way gave me a form of trauma of its own. And I don’t think I’ve addressed that enough to talk about it.”

“Besides,” she said, “I would genuinely rather talk about food.”

In a 2005 article in the Guardian, a friend of Lawson’s was anonymously quoted as saying that all articles about her were basically the same: “Blah blah tragedy, blah blah sexy, blah blah cooking.” The “sexy” part was not always part of the dynamic, at least not in her culinary life. The only photo of Lawson in How to Eat was the author photo on the back flap of the book jacket.

How to Eat was written mainly in narrative form, in the tone of the newspaper columnist Lawson was at the time, the recipes told like stories. Her voice is intimate and chatty, in the midst of telling you how to make “soft and crispy duck,” Lawson muses about the “industrious intimacy” of cooking with other people, memories of doing so with her sister Thomasina, and how cooking food ahead of time feels like “the bolstering up of a life”. There are few cookbooks that might warrant an audiobook version; How to Eat was screaming for such treatment.

The book was well ahead of its time, introducing ingredients that have since become ubiquitous in Britain and the United States but were not popular in 1998: avocado, pomegranate, quinoa. “I remember complaining in the book that no one ate kale anymore,” Lawson said. How to Eat also marked a step away from technical, chef-written cookbooks and toward a philosophy of cooking that was about pleasing oneself rather than flexing culinary muscles to impress others. “Never worry about what your guests will think of you,” Lawson wrote. “Just think of the food. What will taste good?

'It’s bad enough to be called a domestic goddess, but to be seen as a self-styled domestic goddess is just the worst'

Bee Wilson, the British food writer and a friend of Lawson’s, described How to Eat as revolutionary. “It was the first book to make the case so persuasively that home cooking did not need to apologise for not being restaurant cooking,” Wilson said. “Suddenly, here was someone saying that a comforting bowl of stew could be better than some cheffy creation designed to impress.”

This attitude has remained a constant in Lawson’s career, the idea that food should be a joy as much for the cook as for the eater, that recipes are malleable, that status anxiety and guilt and stress are enemies of one of life’s greatest gifts: appetite.

Likewise, she holds neither herself nor the reader to unattainable standards. “Remember, you are not trying to produce the definitive Sunday lunch,” she wrote in the chapter on weekend lunches. “The idea is to make a lunch which you want to eat and can imagine sitting down to do so without bursting into tears.”

But it is Lawson’s voice, said Wilson, that elevates the book. “The greatest draw of her recipes, apart from the fact that they taste wonderful, is in how she writes, and how she makes us feel in the kitchen,” she said. The voice soon became secondary to Lawson’s looks and demeanor, largely because of a budding television career. The show Nigella Bites, which debuted in Britain in 1999, and her second book, How To Be a Domestic Goddess, published the next year, cemented her glamorous, flirtatious public persona.

In an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 2001, Lawson referred to Nigella Bites as “gastroporn,” and said, “When you deal with food, aren’t you always showing your sensual nature?” (That same article referred to Lawson’s “elegant-but-earthy, brainy-but-basic, sexy-peasant-with-a-pedigree persona.”)

As for her self-appointed status as a domestic goddess, Lawson insists that the title was taken the wrong way. “It was supposed to be ironic,” she said. “It’s bad enough to be called a domestic goddess, but to be seen as a self-styled domestic goddess is just ?” she shook her head in horror, “the worst.”

Beef tenderloin with red wine, anchovies, garlic and thyme is served with arugula in a recipe from Nigella Lawson in her iconic cookbook How To Eat. Photograph: Julia Gartland/The New York Times
Beef tenderloin with red wine, anchovies, garlic and thyme is served with arugula in a recipe from Nigella Lawson in her iconic cookbook How To Eat. Photograph: Julia Gartland/The New York Times

“I’m in no position to complain,” she quickly added. But she finds herself not wanting to use the book’s full title, she admitted, saying she usually refers to it by its initials instead.

“It does make me cringe a bit.” Newspaper columnists at the time accused Lawson of wanting to send women back to the kitchen. While the insinuation irks her, she understands its roots. “If I were still writing my column and I saw that title, I’d have accused me of the exact same thing,” she said. “But I also think it’s profoundly anti-feminist to disparage something because it has traditionally been in the female arena.”

There is no denying that Lawson’s brand has been built specifically with her beauty as a selling point. She travels without an assistant, but with a makeup artist. “It takes a braver and more secure person than I am to say, ‘Don’t put makeup on me and don’t brush my hair.’ I admire people who are like that,” she said. “For me, it’s armour.”

Lawson’s success on television has had its downsides, according to people who know her well, and the various programs she has done, which include her own cooking shows, like Nigella’s Kitchen, and competition shows, like The Taste with Anthony Bourdain, don’t capture her at her fullest.

“It doesn’t allow you to see her intellect at all, really,” Henry said. “It just shows a good home cook and a beautiful woman. That is really the least of what she is.” It did, however, provide a powerful vehicle for her message.

“Like Jamie Oliver, she has simply encouraged people to cook,” Henry said. “She links good cooking with glamour.” And, Henry added, many women embraced her. “She definitely did make it acceptable, desirable even, for women to bake pies and cupcakes and waft around the kitchen,” Henry said. “I think for a lot of women that was very freeing. We were allowed to luxuriate in food, allowed to be greedy, allowed to be happy in the home.”

After 20 years, 12 cookbooks and hundreds of television episodes, the way forward seems as elusive to her as if she were just starting out. Asked how she comes up with book after book of recipes, she said: “Who knows? I never thought I’d be a food writer, so who knows what’s next? I always think I’ll never come up with another recipe, but something propels you forward.”

Fear is a constant companion and motivator. “I feel that people fall into two categories, goal-oriented or fear-driven,” she said. “I’m fear-driven. So it’s that terror of filling the empty page, or the director saying, ‘Action!’ But everything is frightening, isn’t it?”

She credits that fear with pushing her forward. “If I get bored, then I’d have to stop. Everything would go slack. And I suspect if I stop being frightened, that would be a bad thing, too.” Later, though, she wished to retract that sentiment. “I felt that I overstated the fear element,” she said. “I think I am driven by anxiety, I think that I’ve had to learn to accept that. But I also get so much pleasure in thinking about food in all its manifestations. I’d hate to make it look like it is all a bed of pain. Obviously it is something that makes me happy.”

But the ingredient that made How to Eat so alluring may be gone for good. “When I wrote How to Eat, I never really imagined it would be read,” she said. “I think there’s an innocence that you can’t go back to, a lack of self-consciousness. And it so easily could not have worked. I’m still slightly astonished that it did work.” – New York Times

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