Nigella Lawson: Food/Lifestyle Porn

Curator's Note

Nigella Lawson is an ideal representative of today’s celebrity chef. She’s a journalist and food writer who doesn’t even play a chef on TV. We no longer expect our cooking show hosts to be experts. From the producers’ point of view, she fits the requirements: an attractive host with an appealing personality. As viewers we need to be able to relate to a host in some way (e.g. Nigella loves food; I love food), and we need to believe she is worth watching and listening to (e.g. Nigella is a famous person, and that’s authority enough for me). She’s really just combining ingredients here. A student to whom I showed this recently astutely noted that she probably added the peanut butter so it would seem more like actual cooking.

Today’s food shows are entertainment first and practical information further down the line. Nigella’s flirtatious relationship with the camera and emphasis on sensuality fit the bill: Her red shirt frames her décolletage, food is shot in close ups offset by a blurred background, the sweetened condensed milk pours viscously into the pan, the chocolate chips clink together with exaggerated sound. She elongates adjectival descriptions: “Cool, smooth ice cream. Hot, grainy, fudgy sauce.” We’re not just fed eye candy via food and host but also the trappings of Nigella’s home, “casually” visible in most shots. Her tastefully appointed kitchen, book-lined walls, stocked pantry, and her glass “pitcherette” are the epitome of aspirational. What ice cream and peanut butter brands is she using? The labels are coyly turned just enough to avoid blatant product placement, but you can tell which ones to buy. “Crisis, delectably averted” she pronounces, with, it seems, a wink. She knows this is all fun and games and frivolous and that unannounced friends popping around is a first-world problem. She fetches the ice cream, saying – either as a self-description or takeaway tip, which are effectively equivalent – “Always have a good supply.” The final scene with her diverse group of friends feasting on their dessert adds the cherry on top, displaying the cachet of her urbane European lifestyle. Et voilà!


Thanks, Kathleen, for starting us off with this great post. You set the right note for our discussion when you (and your student) point out that not only do we not expect our celebrity chefs to be experts, we don't even expect them to cook. Mixing a few peanuts into processed food more than suffices as an excuse for us to enjoy the other pleasures these chefs offer up, such an entering into the food/lifestyle fantasy Nigella and her sweater embody. You're also right that the whole experience takes place under a wink. Nigella knows we're not really watching for cooking instructions, and she lets us know she knows, and that awareness becomes, I think, part of the pleasure or maybe a permission for it: the object of our desire enjoys being objectified. She toys with it and with us, down to serving Freudian cigars. She's in on the fun, and isn't that fun?

So true! In almost all of her episodes she's encouraging indulgence, giving us permission, for instance, to sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night to eat leftovers standing in front of the fridge. This is one of the ways she becomes intimate with us, letting us know that she, too, lacks self-control, but it's ok because pleasure is good for us.

Thanks, Kathleen! I'd never actually seen Nigella Lawson in the flesh, and I'm sort of shocked at how sexy she makes this "cooking" of chocolate sauce. And indeed, I love the question you pose: Is this really cooking? Your comment about the peanut butter reminds me of something I first encountered in Laura Shapiro's great book, "Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America." In the 1950s, when companies like Betty Crocker were introducing ready-bake cake mixes in a box, housewives--of course, women are always referred to as housewives in the food lit of the era--soundly rejected them. Why? Because they were too easy. Food companies had already added dried eggs and milk---all a baker needed to do was add water, and presto: cake! But what companies didn't bargain on was how superfluous this made women feel. Even if they weren't actually cooking---even if there was no creativity in the process---they wanted to FEEL like they were cooking. So, Betty Crocker, for one, tweaked their recipes so that a woman would have to add eggs, oil, and water herself. Evidently, we haven't progressed as far as we thought, if Nigella can spend THREE MINUTES showing us how to, essentially, melt chocolate chips in a saucepan.

Hi, Megan! I had the same association with the cake mix history (after my student made the astute comment). Maybe part of the intention of this imitation cooking trope is to be democratic and bring everybody into the joy of "cooking." Whereas yesteryear the food companies thought they'd sell more products by making housewives' lives easier, today, advertisers and cable companies - who also want more consumers - have to sell the idea of cooking to begin with. So, if you can melt chocolate chips (heck, use your microwave when no one's looking), then you are a bonafide amateur cook and should come on back and watch more programming made for people like you!

I was less bothered by the slightly obscured labels on the pints of ice cream than the canning jars of premeasured chips and the absurdly named “pitcherette” (a word that Nigella Lawson did not invent, it seems, but that is so obscure that a Google search returns Kathleen’s marvelous “In Media Res” post as one of the top ten hits). It is too easy, too perfect. It sells us a version of domestic bliss that neither Lawson nor the audience can achieve in real life. I am interested in the potential male viewers. A 2010 Harris poll found that 46% of the men studied claimed to watch cooking shows at least occasionally and food television executives have been trying to sell men on these programs for years. In this clip, the food is sexy, the “cook” is sexy, but perhaps the biggest “turn on” is the illusion of the self-sacrificing wife, a “domestic goddess,” who believes that not serving me my daily dose of imaginary food is a “crisis.” Somewhere between the pantry scene and the “hot, grainy, fudgy sauce,” I forgot that we were making sundaes for guests and assumed it was for me. This, I maintain, is not evidence of my suffering from an extraordinary short attention span but rather part of the fantasy. Note the final scene when she is serving the sundae. She has moved from the kitchen to the dining room but nearly twenty seconds pass before the guests appear on the screen (even though Lawson is talking to them). The peculiar camera work helps prolong the fantasy that I am the lucky man who she has been cooking for.

You mean Nigella isn't selling "pitcherettes" in her product line? (I actually own a Nigella mezzaluna). I enjoyed your take very much, Andrew, and have also been interested in her gender appeal for some time. I think of her as that rare bird who is both a woman's woman (aforementioned fridge bingeing) and a man's woman (aforementioned sex appeal). This only furthers the intimacy and ensures that every viewer gets sucked in (kids, too, I'm sure) and believes momentarily that Nigella is preparing this sinful treat just for us. No doubt about it, this clip is selling just about everything (chips to nuts!) but cooking instruction.

Sorry to be chiming in a little late to this great discussion; lots of good points made already. I've long been fascinated by this sense of "permission" that Kathleen alludes to: how Nigella somehow makes it OK to raid the fridge alone at night - an activity which in any other circumstance would generally *not* be recommended (and which some may even find to be "disordered", if not just "unhealthy" behaviour). There is a rather sad irony to the fact that the main publicity Nigella is getting these days is as the humiliated and battered wife, after the world has seen pictures of her husband with his hands around her neck. And so it is confirmed that the "domestic goddess" was ever an illusion...

The timing of this post is a bit eerie, isn't it? And it does accentuate the fact that all that delicious perfection is likely a sham, covering up a far from perfect reality. I think one of the great lures of food television and its sparkly hosts is that we can escape into that more perfect contained universe for a while - even if it's just 20 seconds.

Kathleen: You pinpointed exactly Nigella's media format: the exaggerated sensuality in closeup mode, the luscious and well-turned phraseology, the aspirational mis-en-scene, the mammalian comforts of her upper-middle-class cocoon. All of it is why, in my History of Design class, I show old episodes of her show to explain to them the concept of media format. Sound on and off. You are deft to make the connection of this to easiness and to give this some historical context . She is a powerful fantasy/archetype!

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