As TV’s sauciest cook removes a sexual slur from one of her recipes, it’s time to admit her arch-flirt persona has run its course.
At what moment in culinary history did we reach Peak Nigella? I’d say the apex was scaled in May 2018 when a fan tweeted the chef asking: “Hi @Nigella_Lawson. My daughter, having studied your recipe books intently, is convinced you are a mad fan of cumin seeds and that they permeate your cooking. Is that correct?” To which the domestic goddess replied: “I certainly love cumin.”
Not since Carry On’s Kenneth Williams has a celebrity so deftly aced the noble British art of innuendo. When the exchange hit the headlines, she claimed: “No double entendre intended in the slightest. What’s wrong with you all?”
Which seemed a tad disingenuous from a woman who once said on her cookery show: “If you would prefer something oozy and sticky to take up to bed with you, well, that’s fine by me.” And of a marmalade pudding: “Ah, look at those gorgeous golden globules.” Not to mention casual mentions of “inner thigh wibble”, “full-frontal guacamole”, “me and Hokey-Pokey” and “luscious juices”.
But the times they are a changin’. Nigella has just announced she’s altering the name of her Slut Red Rasberries in Chardonnay Jelly to Ruby Red Rasberries. This metamorphosis follow’s the cook’s earlier exchange of Slut’s Spaghetti for the less strumpety Slattern’s Spaghetti – although no true Italophile would ever refer to the classic puttanesca recipe that Nigella’s recipe is based on as anything other than “whore’s pasta”.
Her reasoning is that the word “slut” has taken on “a coarser, more cruel connotation” in recent years. It’s true that when I was young someone could call you “a complete slut” without meaning anything more derogatory than your bedroom was a bombsite. Nowadays, the term’s almost always used as a sexual slur and has scant humour when wielded by a man.
I’m usually the first person to leap to the defence of uplifting saucy banter, but I can’t help thinking Nigella is right to turn down her smut setting.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement and websites like the Everyday Sexism Project, the kind of sexual lingo that’s easily wielded as slurs has become less amusing. I first realised this when I was telling a group in their twenties about the teasing exchanges my colleagues and I enjoyed in the Erotic Review magazine’s offices circa 1998. Our MD would walk up to my editorial desk when looking for Sellotape or notepads and would invariably say: “May I rummage through your drawers, Lady Boss?” I was laughing as I recalled this, while my young audience was stony-faced. Likewise, the filthy limericks I used to recite (“There was an old Buddhist from Ware / Who liked buttocks inviting and bare”) go down like a cup of cold sick with Generation Z.
The truth of the matter may well be that Nigella’s arch-flirt personality has run its arousing course and it’s time to return to the domestic one, which first defined her. Or maybe the witty, wise commentator of her pre-TV newspaper columns, before the mantle of fame descended on her milky shoulders. The fact is Nigella has such abundant natural sex appeal, she doesn’t need to channel Jessica Rabbit or, of late, Babs Windsor.
When I asked my sister-in-law – the Pelling family’s best cook and a Lawson devotee – what she loves most the chef, she cited the nurturing mother vibe, saying “I’m totally in tune with her philosophy of showing love through cooking and sharing food with nearest and dearest”. Before adding she felt it was a shame that “the message got a bit lost in all the finger-licking Carry On Cooking sauce”. She cited the end of one programme where Nigella raided her own fridge clad only in a robe “like a sexy pastiche of a R White’s Lemonade ad”.
The fact is flirty, spoon-licking Nigella became a slightly over-rich confection, rather like some of her more wantonly artery-busting recipes. I’ve long remembered lying on a sofa watching her make a post-party, late-night snack of caramel croissant pudding on one of her programmes. As she whisked up a heap of sugar, double cream, bourbon, two large eggs and simmered it all to a sticky mess that she spooned over two pastries, I felt a most unsexy sensation: nausea. My overactive imagination had taken me to the realms of returning home drunk-as-a-skunk from a festive bash, when what I reach for is something plain to mop the booze up – beans on toast or a baked potato. I’m not the world’s most health-conscious person (full-fat cheese rocks my world), but the idea of mainlining a bucket of whisky-soaked caramel made me retch.
The problem is few things are less likely to put you in the mood for lovemaking than a vast sickly-sweet pile of carbs. Unrestrained gourmandising reduces most of us to a state of groaning paralysis like Mr Creosote, the glutton who explodes in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. No one can deny the strong link between lust for food and carnal appetite (or the fact it’s desperately unappealing to exist on a pile of lettuce leaves), but you want to leave room for movement.
That’s why most of the classic aphrodisiacal foods are quite light to consume. It’s still hard to beat oysters, asparagus, figs, strawberries and slithers of fresh sushi when it comes to bedroom fodder. The true sexual sybarite doesn’t make their own supper, they’re too busy canoodling. Several decades ago, I had an architect boyfriend who told me that got a commission from a client to design a block of small flats. But when he got the specifications, he noted that the “flats” would not include kitchens. That’s when he realised the drawings were actually for a brothel, where the preparation of food was not a priority.
Of course, if Nigella tones the TV innuendo down, some fans will be devastated. Her arch comments have long appealed to her sizeable gay following. There’s even a riveting burlesque tribute act performed by “female drag queen” Lolo Brow, who performs a highly athletic striptease to lewd Nigella quotes while whisking cake mix in a bowl (furthermore, she bears a pretty striking resemblance to the cook). Then there’s the army of middle-aged men who hyperventilate whenever Nigella takes a tray out of her fridge with both hands, safe in the knowledge she’ll turn and bump-shut the door with a shimmy of her glorious derrière.
But I suspect the chef herself will be relieved to step away from the nudge-nudge, wink-wink comments. Her national pin-up status hasn’t always been a blessing. In 2016, we learnt Nigella’s team had forbidden interviewers from mentioning her breasts, which leaves the mind boggling about what lines of inquiry had been pursued. And if you followed the “cumin” Twitter thread, there were plenty of uncalled-for, misogynistic comments.
If I were the cookery queen’s adviser I’d suggest she plays to her other strengths: wit, wisdom and the kind of strength that derives from overcoming adversity. Why not dole out advice with her excellent cuisine: the casserole to help you pass your exams, the best dessert for a broken heart? Psychology and gourmandry: a top combination for a nation in recovery.
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