2000s Archive

England’s It Girl

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In 1985, serious illness debuted as a running theme in Nigella’s life when her mother, Vanessa, died of liver cancer at age 48. Five years later, her younger sister, Thomasina, was diagnosed with breast cancer. After three years of struggle, she died in 1993, two weeks before Nigella’s daughter was born. It had fallen to Nigella to break the news to her mother about her diagnosis, and that role was reprised in 1996, when her husband, television host and journalist John Diamond, discovered a lump on his neck.

The lump was woody and fleshy and, the doctor reassured them, nothing to worry about. Still, eight months later they decided to remove it. It was then, in March 1997, that Nigella got The Call. John was watching his favorite evening soap opera, East Enders, she says. “I debated waiting till the end of the program, then decided I couldn’t. So I made a cup of tea and marched in and grabbed John’s hands and told him. His first reaction was, ‘I’m taking an overdose.’ But we stayed up all night drinking gin, and after the dark thoughts, he decided to live with the reality.”

Then the operations, ten at last count. First, the lump was excised. Then, in their search for the primary source of the cancer, surgeons had to cut out bits of John’s tongue. Eventually, he had his entire tongue removed and also underwent a tracheotomy.

The unmistakable irony is that in the four years Nigella has been cooking and writing about it, John has tasted very little of her food. Many presume that the kitchen has provided her with consolation, and that the cooking helps her forget the horror in her life. “That’s not how I would put it,” she says. “It’s true that I wouldn’t have written the first book had my sister and mother been alive. It was my way of continuing our conversation. It’s also this Jewish thing of naming and remembering people, and I think there is a sense of keeping that side of life going. I’m not a good person because John is ill, nor is my life a tragedy. I like my life.”

These days, John is often in pain, but radiation therapy, to every doctor’s astonishment, has controlled the cancer. He pumps out four weekly newspaper columns plus occasional pieces for other publications. He’s looking relatively well: His hair is bleached platinum, and he’s spending tons of money, as he always has, on clothes—this fall he’s featuring roll-neck shirts to obscure the white plastic tracheostomy tube in his throat. He is unable to speak; for those times when he must make himself understood, he carries a pad. Most remarkably, he’s never lost his sense of humor. Having chronicled his illness in a book, C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too, and in a BBC documentary, he calls himself Mr. Celebrity Cancer and refers to his role in Nigella’s career as that of a “bossy showbiz Jewish mother.”

It was just before John’s diagnosis that Nigella dreamed up the idea for How to Eat. At a dinner party, she’d slipped into the kitchen only to find her host in tears because her crème caramel hadn’t set. It was then that she decided that cooking should not be about tears, and that dinner parties shouldn’t be tense, formal rituals. Long an admirer of the writing of Jane Grigson and Claudia Roden, she wrote How to Eat as a series of essays interspersed with clever recipes and hints about preparation (do the pastry the night before), saving time (frozen peas are easier and better than most fresh), and storage (freeze meats in their marinades). In the book, Nigella’s heated prose conveys her passion, or, as she prefers, “her greed,” for food. And though some of her critics would say that her recipes lack inspiration—and in some cases don’t even work—few would deny that the book is a fantastic read.

Last October, Nigella followed up How to Eat with How to Be a Domestic Goddess, a baking book that ensconced her as a modern girl with an old-fashioned touch. “The trouble with much modern cooking is not that the food it produces isn’t good, but that the mood it induces in the cook is one of skin-of-the-teeth efficiency, all briskness and little pleasure. Sometimes ... we don’t want to feel like a post-modern, post-feminist, overstretched woman but, rather, a domestic goddess, trailing nutmeggy fumes of baking pie in our languorous wake.”

Speak for yourself, said certain feminists, castigating her for wanting to send women out of the boardroom and back to kitchen servitude. Others slammed her for portraying herself as Everywoman; one tabloid journalist declared that nothing about her was “as ordinary as she pretends—she has been blessed with looks, money and contacts.”

Few sisters observed that the title or the inside photos of women in forced smiles and aprons in 1950s kitchens might have been intended ironically; they assumed that Nigella was “chasing some dubious ideal of fifties femininity.” (In fact, the only retro aspect about Nigella is the thick black eyeliner she wears.)

In the words of Liberace, her favorite camp icon, Nigella is laughing all the way to the bank. In four months, Goddess has sold 180,000 copies in the U.K. (that’s the equivalent of 900,000 copies in the States), and sales for How to Eat are upwards of a staggering 300,000. Alison Samuel of Chatto & Windus, which published both books, gets giddy when looking at the ballooning numbers. “In my office, you’ll find people stroking and licking the pages,” she says. “Nigella is a wonder.”

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