Comment

By promoting pleasure over perfection, Nigella Lawson made every woman feel like a domestic goddess

20 years after it was published, the legacy of Lawson's book is still felt among bakers around the country

Nigella: At My Table
Nigella proved that the enjoyment of food was more important than getting it just so Credit: Jay Brooks

I clearly remember my mum bringing home a copy of Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess – which was published 20 years ago this month – simply because I couldn’t believe it.

While my mother was – and is – a goddess in my eyes, domestic she most certainly wasn’t: we had a clean house and clean clothes and food on the table, but her pride and joy (apart from her children) was her career. She was still wearing her sharp suit dress as she leafed through the book.

At 12 years old I wasn’t au fait with the finer points of feminism but even then the title struck me as retrograde, conjuring images of gingham-aproned housewives beaming with a batch of oven-fresh cookies.

Only in adulthood have I come to appreciate the book’s profoundly feminist nature, and its appeal to women like my mother.

“This is a book about baking, but not a baking book,” Lawson writes in her introduction. “I neither want to confine you to kitchen quarters nor even suggest that it might be desirable. But I do think that many of us have become alienated from the domestic sphere.”

Lawson appeals to men but she writes, cooks and eats for women; for the “post-modern, post-feminist, overstretched woman” for whom the pressure of ‘having it all’ had, in the course of the 1980s and 90s, stripped cooking of its pleasure.

“We’d had a period of people getting out of baking. We’d lost confidence in the kitchen, and there were more shop-bought cakes,” reflects food historian and writer Angela Clutton. “With How to Be A Domestic Goddess, Nigella brought in this great freedom.” She gave us cakes that looked impressive but were easy to execute. Most importantly, she reassured us that ‘easy’ wasn’t just acceptable; it was to be admired.

For women like my mother, who slaved over high-concept Jane Asher creations for birthdays, this was revolutionary.

“Until Nigella, baking had been quite serious,” Clutton continues. Then along came Lawson, with her brains and her beauty and her bohemian north London home, and she didn’t just take shortcuts; she celebrated them.

“I remember watching in shock as she passed shop-bought hummus off as her own,” laughs Maggie Andrews, Professor of Cultural History at the University of Worcester. “She reminded us that it was the sharing and enjoyment of food that mattered, more than perfection.”

Where Jane Asher sold fairy castles and space rockets and Delia Smith spelled out the classics, “Nigella said you don’t even have to do a whole cake, you could just do cupcakes,” says Clutton – “and if they sink in the middle, just use lots of icing to cover it up.”

Few, if any, food writers walk the line between aspirational and accessible with as much poise.

“You expect her to sell you something unattainable because she's beautiful,” comments Charlotte Druckman, journalist, author and editor of the Women on Food collection, “but she is identifying with home cooks and working women more than anything else.”

Consider the book's full title, says Druckman: How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. "She sets the joke up there,” Druckman continues. “When we think of a goddess, comfort is certainly not something we'd associate with her. We're meant to think of perfection, but this isn’t perfect, fussy, ornate stuff, and Nigella doesn't ever pretend it is."

'Lawson appeals to men but she writes, cooks and eats for women' Credit: Getty Images Europe

As the book's introduction explained, Lawson was talking not about "being a domestic goddess exactly, but feeling like one.” 

She wasn’t suggesting that women reclaim their kitchens as wives or mothers or harried hostesses, but as themselves, for themselves. Knock out a batch of muffins in 25 minutes, she writes, and "the returns are high: you feel disproportionately good about yourself afterwards.”

Lawson was part of what Professor Andrews describes as “a whole movement towards elevating certain areas of domesticity as leisure pursuits. At this time, in the early noughties, work was becoming increasingly pervasive, with emails and mobile phones increasing working hours and stress levels.” Against this backdrop, the idea of whipping up a batch of blueberry muffins appealed.

READ MORE: 60 things we've learned from Nigella Lawson

“Nigella made cooking a way of expressing yourself and your creativity," says Andrews, "and she broke down those divides between woman who are sexy and who are maternal; woman who cook, and woman who have a career.”

The significance of this last point cannot be overstated. Even just 20 years ago, these binaries were insidious. In yet another iteration of the Madonna-whore divide, women were either housewives or career women.

But Nigella Lawson “wasn’t ‘just’ – in big inverted commas – a housewife,” says Clutton. “She was a successful journalist who had fought hard for her career.”

Her writing makes that clear; “she doesn't cook or write like a lady of leisure. She isn't one, clearly,” Druckman points out. “If you look at any of her cookbooks, what you see is that Nigella consistently prioritizes practicality and considers the reality of working women. Let's not forget that she, too, although privileged on many levels, is very much a working mother.”

It is quite easy to forget Lawson’s privilege. Her warm and witty way of writing, the honest, relaxed nature of her recipes makes one feel as if she could be a friend or cool, fun family member; not an heiress.

Yet whilst she was and remains highly accessible, the reality is that her version of domesticity could only really be accessed by those women for whom the hard labour of housework had been outsourced. Without the drudgery of these chores, women could ‘opt in’ to domesticity as much as they chose to – “and it was money only that afforded them that choice.”

Of course, the same is true of gardening, DIY and needlework, and systemic inequality is hardly Lawson’s fault. Besides, for all this country’s abiding obsession with class, very few people mind her privilege.

“She is taken at face value” says Claudia Fox, founder and owner of Green Fox Bakery in South London and a great admirer. “She is posh. She is well spoken.” She is herself – but she doesn’t take herself seriously, something that comes across in her cakes as much as in her writing.

“There’s a coconut cake with Malibu in [How to be a Domestic Goddess], and baby bundt cakes,” says Clutton. “It was kitsch, and she felt free to own that aspect of her.” Where Mary Berry, Prue Leith and even Delia Smith might have struggled to carry off such whimsy, Lawson could sprinkle some jazzies over a butterfly cake and make it look sexy. “She did it with such ironic wit and style – and class.”

Coming, as How to Be A Domestic Goddess and her TV series, Nigella Bites, did, at a time when prime time cookery shows were dominated by male chefs, this was significant. As for the spoon-licking, the silken dressing gown, the surreal sexiness of it all? “It’s performative,” laughs Andrews. “It’s not supposed to be taken seriously.”

If it was, most women would loathe her; as it is, they simply love her more. “They’re in on the joke. They know it’s not a natural thing.” At no point in her life on paper, on screen or off it, has Lawson implied she ‘just woke up like this.’

Which is why How to be a Domestic Goddess is the consummate Nigella Lawson cookbook. As Druckman notes, it is all in the title: it is cool and indulgent, sensuous and reassuring, direct and ironic all at once.

For all that she demurs at the label, The Domestic Goddess is Lawson, with all the flaws and fun and beauty.

It is in that inimitable spirit that she has made domestic goddesses out of every woman, including my mum.