Nigella and the Mackerel-Colored Sea: A Love Story


Readers, it is grim January out there, and we’ve got to keep our spirits bolstered until spring, so step inside the salon and have a warming shot of my Granny Fitzmaurice’s Hot Whiskey with Lemon. That, and an afternoon visit with Rhapsody, will knock the winter blues sideways.

Feeling better? Me too. (The burning goes away in a minute.)

Sometimes, I combat these seasonal doldrums by paging through lavishly photographed cookbooks, losing myself a while in glossy summer produce spilling over countertops, or popping coquettishly out of wicker baskets. Nigella Lawson, British celebrity chef extraordinaire, is perfect for weather like this. She excels at making the stuff or our ordinary lives— daily trips to the cheesemonger, coffee and coronetti beside a Venetian canal, or just a plain old case of shingles—seem like lolls in paradise. You just have to put on your Nigella goggles and, as they say on the airplane, secure the straps until they fit nice and tight.

I’ll let Nigella work the magic herself, with this description of her recent get-away in Cornwall.

“Last summer I gave up on going abroad and took a staycation in Cornwall…. it rained and blustered and blew, and I loved it. There I was, with a fire burning inside, the mackerel-colored sea swirling outside, living off the fat—that is to say, the rich, thick, clotted cream- of the land.” (“Nigella Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home,” 2010)

Can’t you picture us there, Readers! Cooking by the roar of the peat fire, eating clot after clot of cream, gazing at the mackerel-waves, so glad we’re done with all that stupid Going Abroad. Nigella’s books are like a big slumber party that’s moved into the kitchen—at least, I think that’s what is supposed to be going on. I can’t always figure out what Nigella is trying to sell me, but I am buying it in quantity, whatever it is: there’s a kind of revolving door in my life for Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks. I buy another, I cook a few of her absolute, hands-down favorites (everything, is her favorite, she has no un-favorites), I get uncomfortable with the oiliness of her prose, I give the book to the library—and we start all over again.

Nigella is the Queen of Food Porn, and she is serious about her brand. To wit: In “Nigella Kitchen” she presents pasta alla putanesca as “Slut’s Spaghetti” and is pictured on the facing page in silky red pajamas, twirling a large forkful and giving us a naughty grin. (Italian hookers, take note: Nigella Lawson is stealing your recipes and luxurious lifestyle!)

I’ve owned—and given away—”How To Eat,” having recognized that I did already know how. For several years I owned a copy if “Nigella Fresh,” but I gave it to the library, too, because I am simply uncomfortable with some of the photography. I couldn’t look at the things she does to ice cream cones without wanting to say exactly what I have been saying to Miley Cyrus and my four-year-old this year: For God’s sake, stop licking everything. You’ll get germs. To be fair, I kept the recipe for chocolate raspberry pavlova from “Nigella Fresh” and it is, in fact, very good. Send me your email and I’ll give you the recipe without Nigella’s heavy breathing all over it. I haven’t seen any of her television programs, but in her YouTube clips there is a lot of seductive whispering at both food and viewer—just don’t watch them at work, Readers, or it will sound like there is something very illicit going on in your cubicle.

Throughout Nigella Kitchen tells us that she is Not Going to Apologize for recipes like Rice Krispie Brownies or Pigs in Blankets. There is so much non-apologeticness that one begins to suspect a little plot. Which is to say, I think Nigella is careless in a very, very careful way. “Is it dreadful to say I prefer this?” she asks, about her peanut butter humus. Not dreadful enough apparently, for here it is, photo and all, on page 434. She is always at pains to tell us how shamefully lazy, greedy, and cheap she is. If these are efforts to befriend me, I must say I am a little offended. I’m fairly clean and restrained, thank you. My kitchen would not shock you. And when I was a lady of the night, we hardly ever made pasta.

* * * *

Nigella is having a pretty bad year, as you might have heard. An awful year, actually. So, for the record: cocaine, nasty divorce, and spousal abuse are not funny, and not our subject today. I don’t think it’s nice to repeat any of it, except, well… we do need to talk about a few matters of public record concerning Nigella’s lifestyle and spending habits, because they relate to her cookbook persona as a harried slob.

Court documents apparently reveal that she spent £55,000—a bit over $90,000—on Donna Karan clothes in the course of four years. Your money, Nigella, but let’s not have anymore of this ordinary slob routine. The Telegraph has it that a member of Lawson’s staff “went to New York with one or other of the children three times between 2008 and 2011” staying in lavish hotels, as well as, “to Los Angeles twice, staying at the Beverley Hills Hotel.” There were also “regular trips to France, including a visit to Paris in 2009 when [Lawson’s daughter] Cosima took 12 friends with her, and visits to Cannes, St Tropez, Berlin and Amsterdam.”

Lets go over that again, with highlighters in hand, shall we? Cosima took more friends with her to Cannes than I allowed Brioche to host in this house on her last birthday. Nigella may be loving the mackerel-colored sea in Cornwall, but the kids don’t appear to be nearby, bugging her to make them snacks. Given that she’s always leveling with us about how rough it is to rush home from a long working day to cook dinner for hungry, impatient children, I have two observations:

  1. You job is writing about food that you have cooked and appearing on t.v., to cook food. Why not eat some of that?
  2. Your children are in France/Greece/New York. When they get hungry, the nanny will just feed them some cake and drugs.

“I am no kind of chef, proper or otherwise” she says in Nigella Kitchen, and at least every other page she offers something that she protests is not really a recipe at all, just a handful of lovely this, and a gorgeous wad of that all flung together and stirred, unceasingly for 16 hours, with a darling wooden spoon she found in a shop that was tucked under a bridge in Corsica. There are certainly cases in which I have to agree. This, for example:

sausage bowl

You’re right. That is not a recipe. That is a war crime.

* * * *

The question really isn’t, “Why is Nigella trying to sell me this load of Cornish mackerel?” That’s obvious: because you can buy a whole lot of Donna Karan and trips to Cannes with the profit, and who in her right mind would refuse? Not I, said the Little Red Hen! The question is, why am I so eager to buy it? Repeatedly? How can I be simultaneously bewitched by these chimera dreams of perfect roast chicken and the idea that Nigella is such a pathetic slob she can hardly open a can of soup?

Because—I posit—she is kind of like that wonderful/awful friend that most of us have whom we love to hate, and secretly– or not so secretly– want to be. She’s fun and vivacious and witty. Being near her feels like getting a little closer to all of those qualities for ourselves, and she can be disarming, sometimes. “No, no,” she coos, “I am not inaccessible, vain and impossibly wealthy. I’m like you! An absolutely disgusting mess! Why just look at the way I cook pasta: in an ordinary pot, slattern that I am!!”

[British slang decoder: a slattern is an untidy woman and an easy lay, who also makes a kicky pasta sauce.]

My Nigella fascination is probably same impulse that draws me back to Goop and Gwyneth Paltrow—a true fool for all seasons. Feeling superior to these women is a safe, natural high. And there’s a certain frisson that comes with being upset by every little thing. If one is paying attention even a little bit, it’s unavoidable. “Being offended,” as Fran Leibowitz has wisely noted, “is the natural consequence of leaving one’s home.”

* * * *

In Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” which I assure you I have not read one word of, the floodgates of memory are opened by a single bite of a madeline cookie. Where am I going with that? No where. I made madelines for today’s salon snack, that’s all. Try one! They’re Nigella’s favorite.

Look, I’m not going to tell you what to read, what to cook, or where to send the children and Mary Poppins on their next junket. But if you like to cook and to read and British food writers are making you feel bloated, you could find a copy of John Thorne’s Outlaw Cook. His prose is like an alka setlzer after too many pages of Nigella. In Outlaw, he tells of teaching himself to flip omelettes in a tiny, crappy New York apartment, and of flipping one omelette with such flair that it fell into the dark crevice behind a clawfoot bathtub and was never seen again. “One omlette,” he says, “delivered straight to hell.”

Would that the Peanut Butter Humus could find its way there, too.

Readers, I have to get back to the kitchen and baste the Cornish hens –Brioche and Tannery are always ravenous when they get back from skiing in Switzerland—but before I go, I want to share two pieces of good news:

  1. January is almost over, and
  2. It seems Nigella isn’t a domestic goddess after all—British tabloids never lie.



Photo credit: Please note those are ACTUAL CORNISH MACKEREL on sale at Borough Market, London. By Jessica By Jessica (originally posted to Flickr as Shiny mackerel) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.



4 thoughts on “Nigella and the Mackerel-Colored Sea: A Love Story

  1. Now that I’ve had to look up the meaning (and delicious French pronunciation) of the word “frisson” I’m enjoying ten times my usual feeling of superiority over these women. Thank you, Rhapsody!

  2. Just two comments:
    1. Nigella Lawson may not be a goddess, but John Thorne is definitely a god. I love his books.
    2. Burough Market is close to heaven on earth.

    • I keep all of John and Matt Thorne’s books right next to the kitchen table so I can read them while I’m eating. I mean, unless I’m paying close attention to Brioche and Tannery, which I always do.

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