Nigella Lawson is an icon of the food world. She is adored by her fans, who see her as the ‘domestic goddess’ personified; she is lusted over for her voluptuous beauty and seemingly innuendo-filled way of describing food and eating; she is held up as something of a martyr who has suffered personal tragedy and domestic abuse, though her halo slipped somewhat after she admitted cocaine use as part of the fraud trial of her former personal assistants last year.
Nigella is also unique among ‘celebrity’ chefs and cookery writers. Few are referred to by just their first name; the daughter of a peer, the former chancellor Nigel Lawson, she is technically “the Honorable Nigella Lawson”, but she does not use this title. Her mother’s family founded the famous Lyon’s tea rooms business. She has conquered the USA via the television programme The Taste; she has a successful cookware range and she remains a stalwart of British television despite making her first appearance 15 years ago.
I have most of Nigella’s books and her How to be a Domestic Goddess was one of my first cookery books, and something of a bible. I love her writing so when I saw that she would be speaking at the School of Life on ‘the meaning of food’, I immediately bought a ticket.
Nigella was interviewed on stage in front of an audience of what must have been about 800 people, and I was sitting right at the back, which was a shame – until it came to the book signing, which meant exiting the room at the back and going downstairs. So I was about tenth in the queue and dread to think how long the people at the front of the auditorium had to wait!
She was interviewed by School of Life founder and philosopher Alain de Botton. The interview therefore had a strong philosophical bent, and meant it was a bit different to a run-of-the-mill author talk. He didn’t ask Nigella about her career, but instead asked her to do things like free association around the idea of a lemon. So it was a little random in places… de Botton also interrupted and spoke over Nigella frequently, and while I think he drew some interesting (and very intelligent) comments out of her, I don’t think the interview went down all that well with the die-hard Nigella fans. A couple in the queue for the book signing ahead of me complained they had been to a lot of book fairs and never heard such a bad interview! I didn't entirely agree but I did think the line of questioning was a little esoteric at times.
There were large screens on stage but they showed the School of Life logo and not as I was expecting a close-up of Nigella; it did look as if the event was being filmed so I was surprised there wasn’t a live feed onto the screens. That would have been helpful for those of us who got lost trying to find the venue in the back streets of Westminster and ended up sitting in the back row!
Given the event cost £30 and was in a church building (which surely couldn’t have cost that much to hire) I was a little disappointed by the event as a whole, though I did like the programme that was placed on each seat containing ideas, reading material, a recipe and some ‘homework’ from Nigella (I will come to this later). But on the subject of seats, you could choose where you sat but this meant it was hard for latecomers to find seats and a few people were standing or sat on the steps – again, not great organisation when I assume they had not sold more tickets than they had seats available, and a better organised event would have meant these people had seats.
Having said that, it was really interesting to hear what Nigella had to say and to meet her in person at the book signing. I asked her what she thought about food blogs: read on for some choice quotes from the evening that I jotted down while she was speaking.
“I need to feel that everything I eat means something to me”
“I don’t feel any better for being able to cook my own food than I feel bad for not being able to sew my own clothes”
“When you are younger you have the starlet’s need to be taken seriously, thankfully I’ve outgrown that”
“People believe if you like cooking you are a wonderful, nurturing soul but actually for those of us who like feeding someone it is because we like being controlling”
When asked what are her guilty pleasures: “The only thing I can feel guilty about is not taking pleasure”
When asked what virtues make a good cook, such as discipline, patience: “The most important thing in becoming a good cook is having a palette and that is something that you either have or you don’t have”
“I’m not good with authority, when I cook from my own books I think ‘oh, she says put two spoonfuls but I don’t want to’, then I realise she is me”
“Roast chicken is the basic unit for cooking”
“Cooking isn’t cooking if you are just following a recipe”
“Salt is the only essential ingredient you add to anything you cook, it’s very unfashionable to say that but salt unleashes everything”
“In writing about food I felt I found my own voice”
“Food is a repository of memory and connections”
“I don’t believe in comfort food, it’s discomfort food using food as a narcotic. I do believe in comfort cooking”
“If the food is the most important part of a dinner party then things aren’t working. People would rather you were relaxed and phoned for a pizza”
“Writing and cooking are twins, so are eating and reading. I get a profound sense of whether I like the taste of a sentence or not”
“A peeled soft boiled egg on toast is incredible, so few things match up to it. If I write a recipe I think ‘is it as good as a soft boiled egg on toast?’ and if not I won’t write the recipe”
I spent much time deliberating over which book to bring along for Nigella to sign, and nearly went for Domestic Goddess but in the end decided Feast would stand the test of time as a cooking bible, and besides, it was a bit cleaner than my copy of Domestic Goddess! While she was signing my book I took the opportunity to ask Nigella a question on behalf of food bloggers everywhere – what does she think of the increase in food blogs on the internet, and that so many people are now writing about food whether it detracts from professional food writers?
Nigella told me that she loves food blogs and it’s just a shame she doesn’t have time to keep up with them all, and it’s great that so many people are taking an interest in food and writing about food. She came across as really friendly and interested, and from the talk and Q&A earlier very intelligent. She’s also incredibly beautiful up close – she has a porcelain skin, much thinner than she used to be but still a voluptuous figure and is really very striking. Unfortunately the security guard stopped me from taking a photograph.
I said I would come back to the programme and the ‘homework’ from Nigella. She suggested three books to read: Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin; Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton and The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik – none of which I have ever heard of. She also recommends three films to watch – Babette’s Feast, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Chef. Funnily enough those first two were both chosen by hosts of the Food ‘n’ Flix blog challenge- you can see what I made inspired by Babette’s Feast here and Jiro Dreams of Sushi here. Chef, the Jon Favreau film that came out this year, is already on my list of films to watch!
Nigella also advocates choosing one recipe and cooking it repeatedly over a month, fiddling with ingredients, so you memorise and perfect the recipe, which I think is a really good idea. Finally, we were given one of her recipes, for poached chicken with lardons and lentils, which I might have to try some time.
Some of my Nigella books