Nigella's Nigellissima: kitsch fantasy or ironic work of art?
Nigella–baiting from mainly male critics overlooks the complexities that make us keep watching
BEFORE sitting down to watch the second episode of Nigellissima on BBC2 tonight, have a look at American artist Martha Rosler's 1975 film, Semiotics of the Kitchen. Part of the women's movement of that period, the film [see clip below] shows Rosler wearing a dowdy apron and standing in front of a kitchen counter in a mock-up of the classic TV cookery formula.
Instead of doling out helpful tips on the best way to achieve stiff peaks when whisking egg-whites for a meringue à la the celebrity chefs of the time – Julia Child in the US or Fanny Cradock in the UK – Rosler is sour-faced and violent.
I is for Ice-pick, she indicates, as though the latter were a perfectly normal part of a housewife's armoury. K is for Knife: she stabs at the air. N is for Nutcracker: she opens and closes the implement in a menacing gesture. The message is clear: domesticity is a form of enslavement for women.
Nearly 40 years on, and domesticity is a form of retro fetishism. Cupcakes are iced in the colours of the Union Jack, knitting is fun, burlesque is a way to wind down after work. These trends were precipitated by Nigella Bites (2000), which introduced TV audiences to Nigella's luminous beauty, as well as her propensity for sexualising even the most hum-drum of cooking processes. Nigella is part of a relatively recent historical shift whereby "[women of the upper-classes] actually began to cook themselves, instead of employing other people to do it for them."
These words are borrowed from the late novelist Angela Carter's 1977 review of a book called Food In Vogue, a collection of columns from the magazine. Nigella too would later become a Vogue food columnist. If the 1930s were fraught with a recession akin to our own, that decade also witnessed a blossoming of upper-class foodie obsessives. The columns were devoured by readers, "as if something of the mana of ladies and gentlemen of wealth, birth, and distinction may be absorbed via the ingestion of dishes".
Carter is referring to the mystical power of aspiration. Simply by reading about "pheasant with gin and juniper... as elegant in its excess as Cole Porter," those without the financial means could imagine themselves to be part of a more glamorous reality. Food has always been a symbol of status; "the heartless innocence of style" is exemplified by recipes that include exotic and expensive ingredients beyond the reach of the majority.
Following the first episode of Nigellissima last week, there has been much Nigella-baiting by mostly male critics. Their desire for her seems tinged with contempt. Nigella has built a career on conflating two of the oldest feminine archetypes: the wife and the mistress. Domesticity and sex combine to affirm her as a flawless male fantasy: giving, nurturing, mothering, on the one hand, and suggestive, salacious, and finger-sucking, on the other.
The series begins [see clip below] with Nigella throwing open the blinds of the Florentine hotel where she worked as a chambermaid at the age of 19 during her gap year. She is celestially lit, but she is wearing a Wednesday Adams style black top and white collar. Nigella has often commented on the irony with which she licks her spoon, so to speak, and though that irony is difficult for the viewer to detect, there is a definite Hammer Horror edge, which throws the whole seductress act off-balance. Nigella has something macabre about her: that unreal, china-white skin, those staring, smiling eyes. As she herself has explained: "I've got a dark underbelly."
This is Nigella's saving grace. Her otherworldly performance of perfection is too excessive to convince. For this reason, it is fascinating. Her love of food is clearly authentic, but her claim to be only accidentally alluring is disingenuous. Why bother to pretend that you're not trying to titillate when you're happy to pose for a photo-shoot with salted caramel dribbling down your face like an internet porno (Stylist cover, 2010)?
Unlike the chirpy and empty personas of Lorraine Pascale and Rachel Khoo, Nigella possesses a siren-like gravitas more appropriate to 1950s Hollywood than lifestyle TV. Her charm is undercut by pathos. Her purple prose is defiant, even confrontational, in the context of a culture that reviles pretension of any kind.
Although she shares none of Rosler's choreographed rage, Nigella is aggressive in an obscure way. She proclaimed on Desert Island Discs in 2003 that she had chosen Eminem's Cleanin' Out My Closet, a song which graphically details the rapper's wish for his mother to burn in hell, because: "I love the mixture of beautiful music and hate." Similarly, she said in a 2010 interview: "Often people think I'm jollier than I am because they presume that someone who likes cooking and baking would have a merry temperament, which I don't at all."
From Smack The Pony's sketch of a hysterical female chef in a busy restaurant kitchen (2002) to Julia Davis's brilliant rendition of Fanny Cradock in the biopic Fear of Fanny (2006), the conventions of TV cookery have been mocked by feminist comedy. Nigella's hyperbolic femininity is a parody of itself, but she never lapses into natural laughter. By aping the figure of the ideal woman, she exposes its absurdities. Her shows are ravishing, grotesque and erotic. In a different light, they might be performance art.
- Zoe Pilger is an art critic for The Independent and is writing a PhD on sadomasochism and romantic love at Goldsmiths, University of London.