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February 25, 2008

Nigella Lawson is a joy - she is one of the few people today willing to unabashedly celebrate pleasure, argues David Womersley: Nigella Express - Nigella Lawson

Posted by David Womersley

Nigella Express
by Nigella Lawson
London: Chatto and Windus, 2007
Hardback, 25

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - extols Nigelle Lawson's celebration of pleasure.

How fascinated we currently seem to be by food, and how variously our culture places it before us. For centuries man's preoccupation with food was a matter of survival. Even then, there was always a semiology of food. But since (at least in the West) food became reliably, even criminally, plentiful - probably much more recent an event than one might suppose - the semiological aspect of the purchase, preparation and consumption of food has proliferated to the point where, today, it is everywhere.

In contemporary Britain it has become a lens which focuses our other irrational preoccupations: the desire to live for ever (Gillian McKeith, You Are What You Eat); self-realisation and self-improvement, (Masterchef, every episode of which is prefaced by John Torode's claim that "Whoever wins this competition, it will change their life forever" - quite possibly true, but very probably not in the way they expect); the comic human drama of converting imminent disaster into triumph (Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares); minor and transient celebrity (The F-Word).

And this is before we have even begun to cast an appalled eye over the pools and shallows of the low-budget day-time schedules. Here my particular favourite is a combination between cooking and poker, in which chefs are dealt a hand of ingredients and challenged to create a dish - so next time you are offered hake with custard and an ox-tail reduction, you'll know who to blame.

In bookshops, literature is hustled into the shadows to make way for the latest slew of cookbooks, each one embellished with a puff from another celebrity chef whose own most recent book is a few feet away, itself recommended by a third chef, whose . . . and so the daisy-chain of self-recommendation goes on.

In the universe of the celebrity chefs, Nigella Lawson has been a luminary since 1998 and the publication of her first book, How to Eat (before that she had been restaurant critic of The Spectator). Since then, we've had a steady diet of more or less a book a year (some recipes being ecologically recycled between them), with the occasional TV series "on the side", as it were.

Pleasing to watch, and blessed with a memorably silly first name and a famous surname, her rise to prominence and the conversion of herself into a brand has been pretty much linear, setbacks such as a misjudged series composed of part chat, part cooking, and part (as I recall - but this could just be hysterical false-memory) make-up - on which she also used to write a weekly column - doing little to slow down her onward momentum. During the Nigella decade, some things have remained constant, most obviously of course the exuberantly over-written prose, and its TV counterpart, her flirtatious relationship with the camera.

Other, less important, things have changed: the early emphasis on food as rite and celebration has been jettisoned, and is replaced in Nigella Express by the perhaps more realistic premise that preparing food has for most people to be squeezed in between a myriad of other tasks all of which compete for their attention - a point of view with which the early Nigella might have been rather strict. She has grasped that, today in England, the price of celebrity is to become a cartoon character, and she has accomplished this with gusto and aplomb. One wonders what planet the people who were indignant about the "staged-ness" of some of the sequences in her most recent television series are living on. In the wise words of Michael Winner, "it's a commercial, dear".

But Nigella stands out from the crowd of celebrity chefs for a reason which makes her success on television all the more interesting and admirable. Television as a medium is intrinsically hostile to the display of two things above all else: real expertise, and real enjoyment. Nigella's cooking is at times agreeably slapdash, and she herself makes no bones about not being in the fullest sense a chef, so real expertise is not something she would claim. But real enjoyment - for evincing that she currently has no rival on television, with the possible exception of Jeremy Clarkson.

So, what are the recipes like? Rigorous testing by myself and my daughter suggests that the recipes in Nigella Express are not as reliably good as the recipes in Nigella's earlier Domestic Goddess period. In general the strengths of her approach are still in the areas of baking and comfort food - but comfort food is hard to bring off "the express way". The brownies are wonderful, and after a bit of trial and error my daughter now gets good results with the "lazy loaf" recipe.

At Christmas we followed her suggestions for party food, again with good results. The mirin-glazed salmon is worth experimenting with. But I have tried several times to make the coq au riesling recipe work unbrowned chicken cooked in Riesling with leeks, bacon and oyster mushrooms - and have never managed to succeed with it, at least to my own satisfaction: the sauce is always disappointingly thin, and I suppose as well that the memory of an authentic coq au vin is always there in the background, reminding me of what I could be eating if only I had taken a little more time and trouble.

But to get too worked up about the recipes is to miss the point. Nigella's unabashed embodiment of the view that food is a great pleasure, and an end in itself, is not only a wonderful slap in the face for the health faddists, it is also a welcome corrective to the prevalent mode in England, where food is often finally about something else - about health, celebrity, self-improvement. She is well on the way to becoming a national treasure, and a good thing too, in my opinion.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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