by Nigella Lawson
Deep down, I still associate British cuisine with boarding school food, perhaps because of some embedded literary tie between Dickensian orphans and institutions where innocent 15-year-olds are made to eat chipped beef on toast. (This last bit is untrue, however; my boarding school was excessively glossy and nice. I was miserable there for entirely other reasons.)
But British cuisine is no longer a joke, no longer a tossup between meat-and-two-veg and the Galloping Gourmet with his slightly suspect recipes. Now we have Jamie Oliver (the Naked Chef, with his fresh ingredients and sexy lisp) and we have (or rather, had) the Two Fat Ladies with their wacky antics and butter. And we have the latest U.K. addition, Nigella Lawson, who reminds me of Peter Falk's bumbling Columbo, mucking around in the kitchen, all thumbs and self-deprecation, and then turning out mostly lovely dishes.
Lawson is just short of household-word status here in the colonies. For one thing, her cooking show, Nigella Bites, is shown on the Style network (rebroadcast on E!) instead of the frighteningly omnipresent Food Network, which vaults unknown cooks into the celebrity sphere faster than egg whites turn into meringues. But in England, Lawson is a full-fledged phenomenon: the daughter of a politician and an heiress, a socialite, a beauty with a charming overbite voted in England to be the Third Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
This privileged launching pad primed me to hate her. But she won me over almost immediately by including in her new cookbook a recipe from the late Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking, one of the great books about food, written by someone who would never have been caught throwing a tantrum about a collapsed soufflé; someone who, in fact, hated entertaining. It was, oddly enough, the American Colwin who demystified English food and made it slightly more respectable. And now here is Lawson introducing Americans to Colwin, a neat bit of cross-Atlantic symmetry.
The title of Lawson's new cookbook, How to Be a Domestic Goddess, is sheer camp. But the text is sincere, a way of rather gracefully reconciling, with a kind of Bridget Jones feminism, "the familial warmth of the kitchen we fondly imagine used to exist" without becoming enslaved to it. Nigella Bites, similarly, is about creating real food in real time. I have tried, on her recommendation, the daunting task of making jam, because she very sensibly rejects using occult items like sugar thermometers in favor of more common-sense approaches. I have made her cranberry upside-down cake to delicious effect. Some of her suggestions are clumsy, like her "deconstructed pesto": pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and ripped-up basil leaves tossed with pasta. Oily, unintegrated basil is not a lovely thing to encounter in pasta, and we've been making the same mistake for years with sundried tomatoes.
But then you see her sitting on her sofa, watching television by herself and shoveling deconstructed pesto into her mouth, and you realize that Nigella Lawson represents the triumph of the appetite. "I'm a greedy pig," she says directly into the camera.
Well, hardly a pig, but a nice curvaceous girl, Jewish, and a widow (her husband John Diamond died this past March of cancer), who tends to sneak over to the fridge in the middle of the night and scoop up leftover tahini sauce on chips. Defense of the appetite is something she does very well, as in a surprisingly tart and well-written column in The Guardian about the double standard applied to women who drink and fuck people they'd never otherwise speak to.
Recognizing where need and appetite intersect is something Americans don't get--we want and want and want, without understanding the holes we're trying to fill. How interesting that we might learn it from Lawson, who sharply departs from her countrymen's historical sang-froid. Think about this during Christmas, the most greedy and needy of holidays.