Okay, so it wasn’t just Nigella and I living it up at the Sydney Opera House. There were 1500 of our new besties. And some bright sparked asked Annabel Crabb along to ask the questions. I know! Annabel! It was like someone reached into my brain and started putting together my fantasy dinner party list.
Anyway, it was quite the night. I think there’s always a moment of anxiety, before you see a super-famous person in the flesh, when you wonder if they’ll be all they’re cracked up to be.
Nigella Lawson is. She really is all that.
And it’s not because of her super-stylishness (white blazer, slim black pants, minimal jewellery), or her super-lustrous locks or the figure that puts the hour into hour glass. No. While these are all very magnificent, the most extraordinary thing about Nigella is her enormously expansive and erudite mind.
Put simply, she is super-duper smart, able to speak with ease and eloquence pretty much anything. Last night’s discussion ranged from the causes of female oppression in the kitchen (capitalism, see below for explanation) to the frustrations of being unable to find the perfect gadget with which to julienne. On both, Nigella spoke with passion and precision.
Most people, when they speak, tend to use approximately 1% of the dictionary, and construct their sentences in the standard subject-verb-object. Not Nigella. Her vocabulary range is broad, and her syntax refreshing. A product, no doubt, of her extensive career as a journalist and opinion writer.
That’s the thing about Nigella. Most people know her from her adjective-laden and slightly-too-sensuous TV cooking show. This is somewhat of a shame for, I believe, she is at her best in print or, as she was last night, in un-scripted conversation.
Anyway, enough of my rambling. Here’s what the lady herself had to say, albeit, repeated here in my less verbally interesting paraphrase.
On what’s on her bedside table…
Condiments. She does eat rather a lot in bed. The bedroom is on a different floor to the kitchen, and Nigella does not use a tray. Therefore, she stores condiments by her bedside – usually two types of salt (Maldon Sea Salt, and one other – Australian pink salt is a favourite), Tabasco sauce, another type of chilli sauce, and soy sauce. As she also has a penchant for fine linen, Nigella’s manchester expenditure tends to be enormous due to errant splodges of soy sauce and the like.
The food that matters most…
The chicken. Yep. The humble roast chook. Nigella says it’s the source of her language around food, born of strong memories of her mother always having a least two chickens on the go most of the time. One to eat, and one to have cold. These days, she cooks it as a source of connection between her children and the grandmother they never met (Nigella’s mother died at the age of 48).
Advice on building a food empire…
‘A food empire?’ Nigella snorted. ‘It’s just me and a full-time assistant.’ However, understanding the point of the question, her advice was to do something good and worthwhile – at least that way, if you make a mistake, it’s in the aid of trying to do something decent.
On fad and food ‘exclusion’ diets…
Surprise, surprise, Nigella’s not a fan. But not for the reasons you may think. Ultimately, she believes that humans are drawn to fad diets for the illusory promise they hold in terms of longevity. In short, we think we can achieve immortality by following certain fads and fashions. Of course, that’s rubbish. Having seen loved ones (her first husband, and mother) die of cancer, Nigella understands that thinness does not represent health. While her new book Simply Nigella has a strong focus on ‘feel good food,’ she said the concept of balance is not new for her. It is one she has always believed in, and championed in previous books, contrary to popular opinion. ‘People think I sit around eating chocolate cake all day!’
On her own relationship with food…
It’s had its ups and downs, however, Nigella is now in a place where she feels she wears the pants in the relationship. At times, she has allowed her greed to get the better of her, but the getting of wisdom that comes with age has mellowed those issues. Her mother had a terrible relationship with food and told that Nigella that the only time she ate without anxiety was after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer – a history that Nigella was determined not to repeat.
On her critics…
Mostly, Nigella avoids going ‘down the rabbit hole’ of reading criticism. And, if she does, she’s generally thick-skinned enough to withstand it. There was the recent ‘avocado-gate’ scandal in which the papers ran a typically outraged story about Nigella presenting avocado on toast in her TV cooking show as a recipe. Of course, it was little more than a couple of narky tweeters. But, as a print journalist and former opinion columnist, Nigella says she understands the media business well enough to appreciate the lack of substance behind such stories. There’s an old adage she quoted which goes ‘Twice is a coincidence, three is a feature story’.
On the ‘domestic goddess’ tag…
She doesn’t like it, but neither does she rail against it, as she feels she largely brought it upon herself by titling her second book How to be a Domestic Goddess. She says anyone who knows her would have understood the irony of the title. Nigella is far from a perfect home maker and does have a problem with ‘self-styled’ domestic goddesses.
On her most useless gadget…
A deep-fat Turkey fryer.
The gadget she would like to invent…
A mandolin for julienning vegetables that doesn’t slice your fingers up. Though, she says, the lack of such a gadget suggests that life is probably too short for julienning.
On being a Masterchef judge…
Nigella says she could never compete on a cooking show and she could never be a judge on a show that belittles the contestants. Later this year, she’ll appear as a judge on Channel Ten’s Masterchef, but says the feedback she provides is usually encouraging and relates solely to improving the food.
On the snobbery surrounding domestic cookery…
On this, Nigella has a couple of theories. The first, and most obvious answer, is sexism. Traditionally, men have been chefs, and the dismissal of home cooking was simply another form of sexism. However, Lawson also believes that it’s simply a fact of capitalism that we only tend to value the things for which we pay – home cooking is unpaid and therefore has been undervalued. Until now. Times are changing. Lawson says most top-chefs have a healthy regard for home cooking and she’s finding more and more men are picking up the whisks. She thinks the division of home cookery labour is probably 50/50 among millennials.
On a career beyond food…
Nigella never expected to have a career in food but she now so thoroughly enjoys it that it would take an act of selflessness for her to give it away. It’s a possibility she can imagine, but she can’t extend the imaginings to say exactly what the next turn in her career will be.
On her current food obsession…
Caramelised garlic and roasted sweet potato. Not necessarily together, but possibly together for a soup. Nigella takes a lot of pride in championing humble ingredients, almost as an act of contrariness. Case in point – the frozen pea.
So there it is. My summary of a night that ended with Nigella taking a panoramic video of the crowd, so excited was she to be ‘playing’ the Sydney Opera House. She seemed genuinely thrilled to be there – almost as thrilled as we were to have her.
Her latest book is called Simply Nigella. For more information visit, Random House.
I watched this conversation on YouTube. I must say it was a delight to see Nigella interviewed by Annabel who clearly had a thorough knowledge of her subject. (Lamentably I did not feel this was entirely the case with the “in Conversation” at Melbourne Town Hall recently)
I have friends who assume that because Nigella is not hard on the eye that that is simply all she has to offer. I admit that it was my first point of attraction. However, once you take the time to understand her philosophy and to read her beautifully written works, you see so much more. One of her mantras “there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. The only thing one should feel guilty about is not taking pleasure” is not an excuse for full throttle gluttony, but rather an acknowledgement that life is for the living, for the engagement of the senses, and that the ability to partake in the feast can disappear with brutal, cruel efficiency.
Thanks Tom. I totally agree with you. I think some people underestimate Nigella because of her beauty but I think it’s actually her life experience (of loss in particular) and ferocious intelligence that make her so interesting. I think she, and others like her (Jamie Oliver, for instance) have done a lot to elevate the status of home cooking to a point where it is savoured and valued… and the people who engage in it are thus also savoured and valued.
I know of a few people who’ve gone and enjoyed it. I love your recap and love that she sounds so balanced and measured about stuff!
I know, right? She seems remarkably ‘normal’ despite her global popularity. She says she doesn’t get recognised much in the street, and when she does, it’s usually by people who are lovely and just want to talk food!
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