2000s Archive

England’s It Girl

Originally Published April 2001
She cooks. She writes. She looks like a movie star. It’s no wonder Nigella Lawson has the whole country talking.

In Britain, food is the new sex. Culinary magazines photograph food so intimately, you feel as if you’re almost up inside that fleshy pepper. Each month, a new cookbook is born, or a new television program with a new food star. Londoners used to define themselves by which designers they wore or which music they listened to; today, it’s which restaurants they frequent, whose recipes they’re trying. Last year, food spawned two especially attractive headliners—both with plump, kissable lips—who command the same adulation Mick Jagger once did.

Okay, maybe food isn’t quite as exciting as sex, and maybe Mick still draws a bigger crowd. But food is causing a stir in this country, where until recently eating was considered an ordeal and a vine-ripened tomato an exotic delicacy. It’s one way of explaining the 300 people lined up on a Sunday afternoon to have a cookbook autographed by its author, Nigella Lawson.

As the two of us descend the escalator into the books department at Selfridges, we are greeted by a beaming Trevor Corfield, the store’s book buyer. “I’ve had relationships that haven’t lasted as long as this queue,” he says, nodding at the men and women, young and old, jamming the floor. Nigella takes a seat at a large table and rolls up her sleeves, baring six oven burns on her forearms. After about ten minutes, she squirms in her chair, then reaches for a silk pillow from a display and smushes it beneath her much-discussed bottom.

“That cushion sells for 500 pounds,” Corfield tells me. “But she’s worth it. She’s our best seller this season. The only other people who attract such a crowd are sports stars and Jamie.” That’s Jamie Oliver, the season’s other headliner, a.k.a. the Naked Chef. The queue for Jamie’s signing, Corfield tells me, was more rambunctious, filled with overexcited girls screaming his name in true Britpop fashion. “This crowd is more serious.”

Given the crush, the mood on line is polite, respectful. Each face is full of admiration.

“You’re as beautiful as you are on the telly,” one woman tells Nigella. “Is your husband well? We think of you all the time.”

A rotund woman bounds toward the table, two books in hand. “What I like about you is that you eat. I know you enjoy food, because you’re not like those other cooks who never touch it. You eat and you enjoy it and I believe you!”

After two hours, 400 books have sold. I ask Corfield how he explains this outpouring of goodwill. “The television series,” he says. “People were instantly talking about it. You know, most people feel guilty about raiding the fridge. Nigella gives them permission to enjoy themselves.”

“So, she’s hit the zeitgeist?” I ask.

“I prefer to think she is the zeitgeist.”

When I first met Nigella, about four years ago, she was a journalist who wrote about a postmodern mix of topics including the arts, social issues, and food. She had two kids, Cosima and Bruno, and a husband who had just been diagnosed with throat cancer. She was articulate, beautiful, shy, concerned about her weight, and burdened. I sensed there was a star inside of her, but as with many women caught up in the swirl of trying to have it all, that star would probably never find a means of escape.

I got that wrong. Today, Nigella is an icon: a smart, sexy woman who promulgates the idea that it might be fun or even relaxing to make time to cook again. Her two books, How to Eat and How to Be a Domestic Goddess, are both best-sellers, and her television show, Nigella Bites, was such a smash that a follow-up series is already in the works. Her face appears on the front pages of newspapers nearly every day; Martha Stewart attended her U.S. book launch; Julia Child sends her mash notes. While women may love her approach to food, men also love her, perhaps for different reasons. “Nice bit o’ crumpet,” the immigration official at Gatwick Airport remarks when I explain that she is my reason for entering the U.K. “But she’s crumpet with brains.”

Unlike most modern media stars, Nigella is not an overnight sensation. Peculiar though her first name may be, her surname indicates to her countrymen that she was born to the media purple. As the daughter of Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and the second most powerful person in her government, Nigella was pressed into the spotlight as an adolescent. Her parents separated early on, so she, an outspoken leftist even then, was often seen on the arm of her archconservative father. She remembers herself as a moody, depressive adolescent and characterizes her relationship with her father as difficult, which it remains to this day.

After studying modern languages at Oxford and a brief stint in book publishing, Nigella began writing a restaurant review column for The Spectator while on staff at The Sunday Times, where she later became deputy literary editor. Many thought restaurant reviewing a frivolous career move for such a promising young talent, but Nigella’s ripe prose style drew a devoted following. “She described food in a sensual, touch-it, feel-it way,” says Jonathan Burnham, president and editor in chief of Talk Miramax Books and her former editor and Oxford pal. “It was slightly pretentious, but it was the kind of pretentiousness that could be defended as evocative and oddly subversive. It is unusual for a restaurant review to get lip-smacking enthrallment to a nubbly piece of cheese or the smell of a sauce.”

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