Nigella Lawson – Britain’s only true “surname unnecessary” global celebrity since Princess Diana – is feeding everyone. Well, of course she is: the only thing that would be more on brand would be if she were suggestively licking a spoon. But all that cookery-porn nonsense was always just for the TV shows; feeding actual people is a different matter. She has been talking about her love of that, and her abject terror that someone in her vicinity might be slightly peckish, for three decades now, ever since the publication of her first cookbook, 1998’s How To Eat. “I’ve brought the Guinness crisps that you like. I ordered so many they sent a box!” she tells her publicist, Mark. Even in a black jumpsuit (“I’m the sucker who buys things from Instagram ads”) and Birkenstocks (“the only shoes I’ve worn for months”) she has a slightly regal air that brings to mind a queen distributing food to the masses.
We are in a London studio, where Lawson has just been photographed for the Guardian, and the stylist mentions that she could do with a snack. Lawson is on the case like the fifth emergency service. “Do you want some Twiglets? I’ve brought three bags! And what are you going to eat for lunch? I have a Vegemite sandwich if you want it,” she asks, returning to Mark. I tell her I admire her preparedness. “Well, it’s a bit of a Jewish thing, isn’t it?” she says quietly, knowing we are both Jewish. And then she raises her throaty voice a little, which she does when she’s playing to the gallery: “Also, I’m just really greedy.”
The only thing that keeps me going at the theatre is thinking about what I’ll eat afterwards
Lawson knows how people see her: Lady Bountiful, a sensualist celebrator of appetite. But she is also very aware of the risks of teetering into self-parody, a line she has arguably crossed in the past on TV (see previously mentioned spoon-licking, and the many, many “Nigella does sexy cooking” mashups on YouTube). She adds: “Everybody likes to think cooks are nurturing, but maybe we’re just controlling – controlling what people eat.”
She zeroes in on me: “Have you had lunch?” I say I had some matzos and hummus earlier, and tell her my theory that matzos is the perfect lunchtime carbohydrate because it doesn’t make you tired. She looks a little nonplussed by my joyless take.
“I just think matzos is a really good vehicle for other things, like butter with Maldon salt, or Roquefort,” she says.
The usual explanation for Lawson’s enormous success in the late 1990s is that she reassured an anxious public that cooking at home needn’t be like cooking in a restaurant. But the truth is, Delia Smith already had that covered. Instead, Lawson – like Nigel Slater, who gained prominence in the mid-90s – offers beautiful writing that makes you want to read her books as much as cook from them. Where Slater connects food with the shifts of life – the seasons and one’s own maturation – Lawson roots it in pleasure: the pleasures of cooking, feeding, eating.
“The trouble with modern cooking is that the mood it induces in the cook is one of skin-of-the-teeth efficiency, all briskness and little pleasure,” she writes in 2000’s How To Be A Domestic Goddess. It’s more fun, she adds, to be “trailing nutmeggy fumes of baking pie in our languorous wake… winning adoring glances and endless approbation”. Also, she is funny, an underrated quality in cookbooks. I often think about a line in How To Cook, about saving ham bones to flavour future soups: “It may make your freezer look like Dennis Nilsen’s, but that’s a small price to pay.” In her new book, Cook, Eat, Repeat, Lawson’s first in three years, she says that she so often puts reminders into her phone about chicken that whenever she writes “‘Ta’ the phone autocompletes it as ‘Take chicken out of fridge’, no matter if what I actually intended was ‘Tax return’”.
“Sometimes I think food preoccupies me too much,” she tells me, sitting on a sofa. “The only thing that keeps me going at the theatre is thinking about what I’ll eat afterwards, although now I bring sandwiches because I can’t bear it.” She’s chummy but faintly imperious, although I suspect that this is nervousness, as this is the first interview she has agreed to do in several years. An established journalist before becoming a celebrity cook, she prefers to write her own articles; after all, when you write your own copy you are in control.
Cook, Eat, Repeat is Lawson’s most writerly book yet, the recipes interspersed with long essays on subjects such as A Loving Defence Of Brown Food, and (of course) Pleasures, the point being that there is no such thing as a guilty one. It is a delight to read, the kind of book you want to hunker down in bed with on a wintry afternoon. But there is a gently melancholic air, with references to the kitchen as a safe space in turbulent times, and solitary suppers.
This is at least partly because Lawson wrote much of it during lockdown, which necessitated her doing a handbrake turn in the middle of one essay, originally about how to throw a dinner party without hating your guests, and making it instead about the importance of dinner. As well as the book, she has a new TV series, filmed with largely the same crew she has worked with since the early 2000s. She has also kept much of the same team on her books throughout her career; she likes, she says, to have “a work family”.
Both the show and the book feel brilliantly, though accidentally, well-timed; what else are we all going to do this winter but stay home and read, cook and watch TV? But it must have been odd to be writing recipes in April when people were queueing to get into supermarkets, I say.
“It was hard. But I suppose that survival thing kicked in, and it felt important to think about food because it became clear [during lockdown] that it gave structure, sustenance and pleasure,” she says. Lawson was entirely on her own – her children are now in their 20s – and says she found the enforced pause “wonderful, which I know sounds awful. But I’m very happy not having to fill up my life going to things. I very much like having no public life.” One of her greatest pleasures during the long stretch of solitude was to stop writing at the end of the afternoon and relax on her sofa with a Campari and soda, and “that fantastically retro thing of putting crisps in a bowl. It’s so great! Taking pleasure in food is not just about cooking – it’s about thinking, ‘I’ve got myself something delicious’.”
It’s easy to assume that we know Lawson. She has been around for so long, letting us into her own kitchen (in the first TV series) and then simulacrums thereon afterwards, her face perfectly lit by the glow of her giant refrigerator, or the fairy lights decked around her elegant garden. So much of her personal life has been played out in public, from her parents ensuring everyone would know who her famous father is whenever she introduced herself; to her first husband, John Diamond, charting the last years of his life with her and their two small children, Cosima and Bruno, before he died of throat cancer at the age of 47; to her second marriage to Charles Saatchi, which ended in a brutally public manner in 2013, when Saatchi was photographed grabbing her by the throat and holding her nose outside the London restaurant Scott’s.
I hated childhood, the lack of autonomy. I hated family meals. Maybe what I’ve done is make it into something I can enjoy
Lawson divorced him shortly afterwards, but her private life was laid more bare than ever just a few months later, when the couple’s former assistants, Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo, were taken to court, accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of pounds using the household’s credit cards. They countered that Lawson had allowed them to spend the money in return for staying shtum about what they claimed was her abuse of cocaine and prescription drugs. Lawson wasn’t on trial, although it was easy to forget that, as both the Grillo sisters and Saatchi gave lurid testimonies about her on the stand. Asked to give evidence, Lawson admitted that she had used drugs in order to make “an intolerable situation bearable”, describing her former husband of almost a decade as “a brilliant but brutal man” who had subjected her to “intimate terrorism”. The jury found the Grillos not guilty, but as the two women (rightly) said afterwards: “We have won the court case but definitely [Lawson] had the most support from the public.”
I first met Lawson in 2014, a few months after the end of the case, and about a year after I’d written about the photos taken in front of Scott’s. Like the whole of Britain, I had followed the Grillos’ trial, and in particular the photos of Lawson arriving at it every day: hair blow-dried to perfection, chin always up; she looked gloriously defiant, even as she went through what was obviously a horrific ordeal. So when she emailed, suggesting a drink, I piled on the makeup, expecting a fearsome glamazon.
I was naively gobsmacked by the gap between the image and the reality: Lawson was shy, vulnerable and so anxious she seemed to quiver in her seat. “Nigella has always been very shy and private – people never get that about her, and they think it’s haughtiness. She can hide behind that whole public persona,” says her friend, the actor Maria McErlane. On top of any natural shyness, Lawson was clearly, it seemed, traumatised by the court case. I’d gone to meet her that night expecting to glean some fabulous life lessons; I came away worried about her, and we stayed in occasional email contact. “Nigella has a very maternal spirit, but she’s both mother and child: you want to take care of her,” says the journalist Fiona Golfar, her best friend of 40 years.
I was warned before this interview by Lawson’s team not to ask about Saatchi. So, instead, we talk about the aftermath of the divorce and court case, and she says she is much happier now than the night we met. “And that really does surprise me, because I didn’t think [happiness] was one of my gifts,” she says. Would she have believed back then that she’d be happy in six years’ time? She hesitates and then says, “I’m not sure I would have thought I’d be a mended person, which I am.”
Did she feel under pressure to maintain a strong image during the trial? “It’s not an image, it’s an armour. And that’s how I feel about everything: you plough on. It’s not a choice, it’s the person I am. When people say, ‘How is so-and-so coping?’ I always think, ‘How do you feel they’re coping? They’re not coping on the inside and they’re coping on the outside’.”
But sometimes people don’t cope on the outside, either. “I know, and I used to feel, what a luxury, to not cope on the outside. I never thought I had that freedom. But now I think, maybe it’s fortunate to be the way I am.” she says. When Diamond died of cancer, she took just two weeks off from filming her show, although she later said she had depression afterwards. “Believe me, I spent a lot of time under a duvet. But if you feel you would stay there for ever, you have to push on,” she says.
I ask her why, back in 2014, she wanted to meet me. “That’s the point of life, isn’t it? Reaching out, making connections,” she says. Also, I think, despite the shyness and public masks, Lawson wanted at least someone who had written about her ordeal to understand who she really is. Friends say Lawson’s love of food and sharing it with others is the key to her true character. As a child, food was “a horror”. “I hated childhood, the lack of autonomy, and the only thing you have control over [at that age] is whether you eat or not. I didn’t have an eating disorder, but I really hated family mealtimes. And maybe what I’ve done now is make it into something I can enjoy.”
Her father was a journalist then, and her mother, Vanessa Salmon, an heiress. The couple had a fraught relationship. “She was one of those people who was full of stress and anxiety,” Lawson says. “You know, if you knock something over it will be difficult, and I’m clumsy… ” Her mother liked to cook, but didn’t really allow herself to eat what she liked until she was dying, at the age of 48, from liver cancer. “My attitude towards food is such a repudiation of her, a triumph over her, thinking, ‘I’m not going to play that game. I’m not going to be that thin,’” Lawson says.
She was one of four: a brother, Dominic, now a journalist, and two sisters, Thomasina and Horatia. Did she ever resent her father for lumbering her with what was essentially his name? “When I was really young, I hated being saddled with such a distinctive name. It’s tiresome, and it’s tiresome now, but what can you do?” Why did her parents give all their daughters girlified boys’ names? “I think it became a pattern. Once you’ve given one girl the female version of a male name, why not carry on with the others?”
Photographed in the society magazines while at Oxford University, I assumed Lawson enjoyed something of a golden youth. But she laughs when I ask if she was raised to be ambitious or self-confident: “Is anyone?” She still looks like a Botticelli come to life, with the skin of a 25-year-old. Is it genetic? “I don’t know, my mother died at 48,” she replies briskly. (Instead she credits her complexion to “no sun and eating lots of fats”.) Years later, no matter how bad things got in adulthood, she knew they would improve, because “nothing could be as bad as childhood”. But what was so bad about hers? “Various things that I can’t… I don’t think any of us [siblings] would regard it as a childhood we would want to return to.” In a 2012 interview, she said her mother would shout at the children, “I’m going to hit you until you cry.” “She just didn’t like me,” Lawson told Simon Schama, “maybe because I came after Dominic the princeling and I was my father’s girl, she was jealous, I don’t know.”
The losses she has endured in adulthood verge on the gothic. After losing her mother at 25, Lawson’s sister Thomasina, to whom she was especially close, died at the age of 31 from breast cancer, when Lawson was nine months pregnant with her first child. To this day, she often imagines she’s telling Thomasina her recipes when she’s writing her books. And then there was Diamond.
The couple met on the Sunday Times, where she was the deputy literary editor and he was a writer, and fell deeply in love. By all accounts, they made an endearing couple: he the naughty East End Jewish boy, she the quiet society beauty. “He had this sense of ease in himself, and that made the air around him comfortable,” Lawson says. Friends recall cosy dinners round theirs with Diamond, the ebullient host, and Lawson quietly enjoying herself by his side, learning from him how to be comfortable in herself. He was diagnosed with cancer at 43, when their children were still babies, and his first thought was for Lawson, who had already been through so much. When he lost his voice, Lawson had to be his translator to the world. “He was her gregarious side and she was his calm, and then those roles had to switch,” McErlane says. It was at this point, when Diamond could no longer swallow food, that Lawson wrote, at her husband’s suggestion, How To Eat.
“Writing about food when you’re married to someone who can’t eat – that was odd. But I suppose it was about clutching on to life, really,” she says. When life is taking away your happiness, you hold on to the few pleasures you can control. Lawson recently recorded the audiobook for How To Eat, to mark its 20th anniversary, returning to many little references to her home life with Diamond, and found it “incredibly exhausting, all the quick denial and blocking of emotions. I think it’s very hard [looking back on that time] without feeling that thing in your throat, because it was taken away, so it’s quite hard to locate the happiness.” Diamond died in 2001.
Two years later, Lawson married Saatchi. After four years of nursing her husband, who could blame her for falling into the arms of a wealthy man who promised, her friends say, that he’d look after everything? He even resembled her father, which, surely, even if only on a subliminal level, compounded the sense of being taken care of. “With John, you used to see her at dinner parties and things. But then she married Saatchi and she disappeared behind the fortress, the way the super-rich do,” says a former Times colleague. Another friend of Lawson’s, who stayed close throughout her marriage to Saatchi, concurs: “Let’s just say there weren’t cosy dinners in the kitchen any more.” Saatchi is a gazillionaire, and yet, throughout their marriage, Lawson continued to work. Did she think about stopping?
“Well, who knows whether someone needs to carry on working financially?” she says with a pointed laugh. “I think it’s about keeping a bit of yourself there.” When she divorced Saatchi, she asked for no money, only the contents of the kitchen.
I don’t know if it was the calm of lockdown, or getting older, but I’ve stopped looking back on the past an awful lot
When we think of Lawson, we think of her hosting those lovely dinner parties on her show, surrounded by people and noise. But that’s not how she sees herself. “I do find a lot of the stuff that is considered normal takes a lot of emotional effort for me,” she says. It hasn’t, she says, always been that way. Her friends talk about how she has developed “coping mechanisms” over the years, a term Lawson scoffs at, but I suspect at least one of these involves conserving her emotional energy and staying in with a bowl of crisps when she can. When she talks about the importance of hearth and home, it isn’t because her domestic situation is naturally blissful; it’s because she’s had to fight against circumstances and her own tendencies to make it so. Few know better than her the importance of controlling your environment when you can’t control anything else.
Lawson turned 60 this year and that, combined with lockdown has brought some changes. She doesn’t worry so much about how she looks and now often wears jumpsuits, even though they are, she says (wrongly), “very unflattering on me. But I’ve decided I don’t care.” I ask if she’s seeing anyone now and she laughs. “I’m not going to answer that!” Most pleasing to her, she’s stopped being “a ruminator”. “I don’t know if it was the calm of lockdown, or getting older, but I’ve stopped looking back on the past an awful lot. And after 60 years of being a ruminator, it’s an amazing thing. I guess,” she says. “I’m very happy at last.”
• Nigella Lawson’s book Cook, Eat, Repeat is published by Chatto & Windus on 29 October, at £26. To order a copy for £22.62, visit the Guardian Bookshop. Nigella’s Cook, Eat, Repeat will be on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer in November.