It was to be my 15 minutes. A pundit invitation to Radio 4 is the Holy Grail for any specialist journalist, their Mastermind moment, and I was ready. The programme: Profile. The subject: Nigella.
Now, I’ve been writing about Nigella since 2005 when I was invited to write my very first biography, a book serialised in the Mail on Sunday and given enough column inches to make my parents proud. They didn’t mind that the Telegraph described it as a hagiography. I did.
So, when I started teaching students of TV and Radio (and later, Podcasting) at the University of Brighton how to really say something, I began to re-examine Nigella in the context of the influence of the TV chef. My book, Taste and the TV Chef became the story of how TV taught Britain to eat, unpacking the motivations of the producers and, in particular, the then Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, an unusually early cool-hunter in food. With his commissioning editor, Jane Root and super food producer, Pat Llewellyn, both equally obsessed with the story of what we eat and why, he made food the Next Big Thing, something that said so much more than what was on the plate.
For me, back in the late 20 teens, it was a story about storytelling which could teach us so much about how to change the narrative again, and perhaps even save the planet.
Fast forward to 2022 and the ping of an email grabs my attention. A producer from Radio 4's Profile has read my 2005 Nigella biography and wants me to talk about her for a show that will go out on Christmas Eve. I tell her that I’ve written a much more interesting book called Taste and the TV Chef, and instantly we’re talking about the performance of Nigellissima and the post-feminism of the Domestic Goddess.
Food has to be about love and pleasure rather than how to cook, I tell the producer. Lifestyle TV is about aspiration. People want food to be a social thing, drinking a glass of wine with your best friends while cooking a risotto. I gave her some historical context: Two Fat Ladies was the first to sell an idea of British food to the world. It was about quirk, character and sex, essential caricatures of Britishness. Nigella Bites and The Naked Chef would follow and reinvent British food all over the world. With no stable food culture of our own, TV producers had a blank page to draw upon.
But more than that, I tell her, Nigella performed a glamour aesthetic to deliberately cast a spell over the fact that we couldn't cook and didn't really like food much in Britain. She played with the performance that TV allowed and made us want to eat like she did, like her friends did. Nigella would tell me for the delicious podcast that the real measure of glamour is that it doesn’t exist. 'The enchantment of cooking lies in its ordinariness', she told me. 'It’s a bit like a spell: you’re making a potion.'
In terms of her legacy, she reclaimed the kitchen from the idea of the enslaved wife and became a pastiche of the domestic goddess. Her recipes are from her grandmother and sisters - they're full of story and memory. And just look at the trend for books about food and identity now which I discuss almost every week on Cooking the Books.
'Fascinating', says the producer. I’m in.
Now, I’ve made more TV and radio programmes than I can remember and I know the score. So, when Youngest and I sneaked out for 15 minutes on Christmas Eve leaving my 10 guests cracking open the Prosecco, I wasn’t surprised to find that the programme was much more interested in my use of goose fat on my roast potatoes. You may remember that Nigella’s introduction of goose fat led to a run on the stuff that we hadn’t seen since Delia first mentioned cranberries at Christmas in 1994.
But hey, 15 minutes on Radio 4 is 15 minutes on Radio 4. If you'd like to read much more about Nigella and the TV chefs who taught Britain to Eat and how TV storytelling could change the way we eat and save the planet, Taste and the TV Chef is available from all good book shops. 😏