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Nigella Lawson on the Male Gaze, "I Want Never Gets," and Not Being a Chef

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Nigella Lawson takes pictures of all she eats.
Nigella Lawson takes pictures of all she eats.
Photo: David Stein

One can see Nigella Lawson a mile away. She's a big woman – in spirit and stature — and travels with an entourage of assistants and publicists, many of whom carry assorted folders and rollerboards. These are stuffed with Lawson's oeuvre: cookbooks, thousands of recipes, and DVD screeners of her Food Network show. I recently spoke with Lawson in the food court at 30 Rock, moments after she appeared on The Today Show and shortly before she launched a national book tour for her latest book, Nigella Kitchen.

How was the segment?
It was okay. It passes so incredibly quickly. Nice food though so I was pleased.

You and Matt Lauer have a good rapport.
Yes and that makes a difference really. He's always quite good at really going with it.

Have you ever had notably bad rapports with people in the past where you're thinking, "This is the longest four minutes ever."
No I haven't at all, but I sometimes find that my English sense of humor does come across as rudeness to some people. Matt doesn't mind. I find I tease him mercilessly and he doesn't mind it.

He eats it up.
He knows it's a joke. Whereas sometimes I think, yes, there's a slightly poker faced dryness the English have that comes across as you're being incredibly rude and you don't mean to.

Right well if you are incredibly rude to me during this interview, I'll assume you're just being English.
No I won't be. I'll let you know if I mean it or not.

Okay, to get down to business, basically Eaterrogations are a series of interviews we do with...
I'm familiar with them. I read the one with Ferran Adria. Funnily enough that seemed to be in the slightly English style meaning that it had a bit of edge.

Thank you.
I thought it was funny.

[An assistant nears.]
Assistant: Do you want something to eat?
Nigella Lawson: No I'm fine. I ate there. I'm ready to go now. I could do with a bit of coffee though. Espresso, please.
[Assistant scampers across the food court to 'wichcraft.]

It's a very odd thing because [what Ferran does] is very much the opposite of everything I do and believe in. And yet I think in a way it comes off as such a genuine passion. I feel so relieved in a way that not being a chef there's no obligation to be original or embrace novelty on the whole.

Why do you shirk the title of chef?
I'm not a chef.

Well, what does a chef mean that you aren't?
Chef means a degree of professionalism either because you've got the qualification or because you've worked in a restaurant kitchen. I have done neither. My only qualification is in Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford. A chef means in some sense that you are a professional and I feel like I am a passionate amateur. It's partly because I feel that the age we live in is the great age of the expert.

You mean people abdicate their own thoughts or outsource their common sense to a class of professionals?
Yes, there are experts on how to raise your children, experts on how to eat, experts on everything. Really you don't need to be an expert. There is something disenfranchising in making people feel they need a qualification or a great level of expertise before they are allowed in the kitchen.

It's ironic then that you've become a sort of expert in anti-expertise.
I know. It's very difficult. There are many things that are paradoxical. It's absurd for someone who writes food books to say this but in a way I will have done my job if I make myself redundant. I want to give people the enthusiasm and some modicum of confidence that they can cook. I always feel if I suggest doing something, I don't care if somebody does it my way or not. I just want them to do it. When I had my first book translated for America, How to Eat, the person doing the Americanization asked, "When you say garnish with parsley, how much parsley do you mean?" And I said, "What business of mine is it how much parsley you should use?"

Would you say that is a uniquely American trait?
Now it is the same in England.

We exported our neediness.
Yes. Well, neediness is a universal human trait. Urban Anglo-American culture is probably quite divorced from the food cultures of Europe. The more we become distant from the everydayness of food, the more it becomes a hobby or part of the cult of status, the needier we get.

Which is something you mention in the introduction of your latest book. You say explicitly you are not interested in making there be a moral component to cooking. But at the same time you seem to attach an underlying morality to the idea of cooking your own food.
I find it a source of comfort. I think it helps to feel connected in some way to the world. I find that through the kitchen. It may be that if I had a more manual job I might need that. But I'm with Oscar Wilde. There are very few moral components in life. The only other moral component is how you treat other people. Otherwise, I think there's such a desire to attribute virtue or moral rectitude to people who cook a lot but actually I do it for quite selfish reasons. It makes me feel good. For me it is a form of hedonism.

[Assistant nears, bearing small paper cup of espresso.]

Lawson: Thank you. That is very very dinky and sweet. Sorry to be a real bore, Jenny, but I feel espresso needs a bit of sugar.
Jenny, the Assistant: Do you want sugar? Do you want raw sugar?
Lawson: Doesn't matter to me what kind of sugar. It's all the same in the end. And a stirrer if I may.

In New York, there is an explicit morality associated with locavorism.
Now I get that. I understand it entirely but I don't buy into it. In the Victorian age the peasants just ate local and in season and the aristocracy spent fortunes building greenhouses and growing pineapples. It was a class issue. It was about the elite. Now suddenly because of supermarkets and air travel, the masses — if you want to talk in class terms — can get out of season produce. So what do the elite do? They say If it is not seasonal, if it is not local, it isn't good. So although there is probably in and of its self there is moral value in it, I distrust elitist attitudes in food.

You mentioned class. Clearly you have a very privileged background growing up, how do you negotiate that aspect of your upbringing with cooking for a less privileged audience.
Funny enough, I've noticed the whole class thing comes up with journalists and critics. When I go on a book signing tour, it's absolutely irrelevant. What I represent to people is a woman who allows herself to eat. That trumps the class or background card.

Moving from class to gender, you are a pioneer in bringing flirtation into the kitchen.
I know it is said but my honest opinion is that I have quite an intense and honest rapport with the camera. I don't think I'm flirtatious. That makes me cringe. However I can see I'm not a skinny woman and the male gaze is such that whatever is there is seen to be there for their benefit. The fact that I'm fleshy looks somehow as if I am trying to display myself. But that is my shape. It goes right back to Scarlett O'Hara having to eat before she went out because it wasn't ladylike. If you see a woman showing any appetite it is seen as wanton. I don't think I'm flirtatious but I do think food is very seductive.

But there's that cover of Nigella Bites. Come on, that's ridiculous.
That wasn't meant to be like that. My sister calls that — this can't be on tape — the [REDACTED] doing [REDACTED]. My point is, I wasn't even looking at the camera.

Yes, you were avoiding the male gaze.
I think luckily — and this is something I quite envy — men are quite confident. Say I'm sitting at a restaurant and I'm looking at a clock over your head and I do that twice. I know that man is thinking, "She really likes me." I'm looking at the time. I wish women were more like that. To me that is an incredibly attractive quality. To me making a show of insecurity is a discourtesy and it's as self-obsessed as confidence. If anything it is much more wearing. On the other hand, though I don't think I am particularly trying to be lascivious, it is certainly true I have a flirtatious manner. I flirt with men, women, dogs, parrots. I like making contact with people. I feel intimate but not in a silk underwear-type of way, but intimate in terms of intensity.

So you're on the Food Network and the Food Network also has a well known stable of women who, I think more than you, embrace the flirtatious decolletage kitchen vixen persona.
That's all television. If you watch 24, the women seem to be in cocktail dresses to go to work.

But it's especially fraught when the woman is engaging in an activity which is so stereotypically domestic, one that has all that baggage?
You're right. If you do cook in a domestic sphere and that is hallowed by cameras, it does look a bit like you're saying this is the female specimen. I feel it is quite important that for me when I cook in my programs, I'm not cooking for men the whole time. Sometime I'm cooking for my girlfriends. Sometimes I'm cooking for myself. For me cooking is an act of independence. I don't feel entirely comfortable handing over the means of sustenance and survival to someone else. It's empowering. However if I lived my life with someone who said, I want my tea on the table at 4:30 every afternoon, then I wouldn't.

Last year you took a tour of the South. You are taking a book tour to Milwaukee, New Jersey? What do you see as the big differences between Americans and the English?
There's a difference first in how I am perceived. In England, I have my home readership, they have known me through many different careers. They know me not as being a food person. Therefore they don't expect me to write a straightforward cookbook, It gives me more freedom. I'm allowed just to do my own thing. I think here people think I'm a chef. You're right, it's silly to spend the whole time saying, "I'm not a chef, I'm not a chef" so I think I'm looked at as perhaps as more as an expert or in narrower a focus. But in truth, the distinction between American and the English doesn't exist as much. I would say, there's a book crowd and there's a TV crowd. But perhaps I've got more people who've come to me through TV here than in England.

You used to be a journalist, what are the stories you would follow now?
Well I wasn't a reporter. I was an Op-Ed columnist. This is what I would write about now and it's something we have imported from the States. America has always been this great can-do society. We've always been a moan, moan, moan society and we've had it slapped out of us. When I was brought up, if you said, "I want something" your mother or grandmother would say, "I want never gets." You weren't allowed to say, "I want" or really to boast. Sometimes when I'm asked, "Why should people get your book?" I say, "Please don't make me do this. I wasn't brought up this way." Though I find confidence great, now I find it so difficult. I watch something called X-Factor [the British television singing competition television series]. And when people say why should you do this? People think — this is what I would write about! — by simply saying "I want this so bad." That itself justifies everything. Well, so what? We all might want a lot of things.

· All Eaterrogations on Eater [-E-]
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