A night with Nigella: Talking grief, growth and gochujang with the Domestic Goddess
Britain's best-known cookbook author shared thoughts on losing her husband when her kids were little and what makes a good dinner party (hint, it's not the food).
Nigella Lawson isn’t afraid to talk about death.
The culinary star was in Austin this week for an event at the Long Center on Tuesday night, where I had the privilege of sitting on stage with her in front of an audience eager to hear tips for the kitchen and thoughts on life from the bestselling author.
As I prepared for the event, I learned more about Nigella than I knew when I booked this gig a few months ago. I didn’t know how much her mother’s and sister’s deaths —at ages 48 and 31, respectively — affected her early career. I didn’t know the story about her late husband, John’s, very public battle with throat cancer.
I certainly had no idea that she insisted on hosting her first TV show at their house because her husband was so sick that she didn’t want to have to be in a studio away from him.
John Diamond, a columnist for the Sunday Times, wrote publicly about his experience with cancer during the years leading up to his death in March of 2001, just as Nigella’s career was taking off and their kids were still quite young.
Would she want to talk about how these loss shaped her writing and her perspective on life?
I wouldn’t know until minutes before the show, when I could read her demeanor and she could read mine. Because grief isn’t something you can talk about with just anybody.
I gingerly brought up the subject during sound check, and she immediately responded: “Absolutely.”
With her permission, I knew the next 90 minutes would be a different kind of conversation. And it was.
We talked about her books and her love of cooking — and how she still talks with her late mother and sister when she’s cooking.
I didn’t record or take notes on stage so I could try to quote her accurately, but here are some of the highlights from my own memory reel.
A 7-year-old member of the audience wrote a simple question — “Why do you love cooking?” — that kicked off the audience Q&A. Her answer, to my surprise and delight, took us into ancestry. Cooking is a link to the past, she said. It’s a chain that connects us to the people who taught the people who taught us how to cook.
She refuses to feel bad about the food that she eats. The idea of guilty pleasures is a remnant of misogynistic times when women were supposed to feel shame about feeling good. Each time she relishes food — planning what to cook, cooking it, eating it, thinking back on the whole experience — she is consciously rejecting that part of society that is threatened by her taking pleasure in her own life.
On hosting: “If people leave your house and the thing they talk about is the food, then the dinner was a failure.” She wants people to leave thinking about the conversations they had with the people at the dinner, not the meal itself.
What are the three pantry staples she wishes more people had in their kitchens: anchovies, gochujang and a Japanese vinegar
whose name I didn’t catch. After reading this post, Nigella chimed in on Twitter/Instagram to let me know that it is called sanbaizu vinegar. She talked for 5 minutes about how to use gochujang to season minced pork, and I think my stomach grumbled loud enough for folks in the audience to hear.
On advice she would give herself: “Nobody likes getting advice. It’s like when you’re cold and you can’t remember what it feels like to be warm. You don’t know what you don’t know. You have to learn it on your own.”
On taking risks and what’s next: Nigella didn’t talk explicitly about what she has planned next, but she shared insights about how everyone has to find their own balance of living a life where they are comfortable and one where they are frightened. Trying new things is terrifying, and it’s that unknown that makes life worth living, she said. To only do things that you already know how to do is no way to live.
We spent every one of those 90 minutes engaged in a conversation that went beyond “What’s your favorite dish to cook?” I’m so grateful for the opportunity to get to know her a little more, and I’m happy to report that I’m now solidly a fan of this woman who set out to redefine a word like “goddess” and make it your own.
And she isn’t afraid to talk about death. And grief. And how much she treasures every day of her life after those terrible losses.
One last thing before I go!
One of my Buy Nothing neighbor friends has a fall tradition. After Halloween, as Thanksgiving approaches, she revives her Pumpkin Catch and Release Program.
That’s her gift, her offering, to the neighborhood this fall. You have pumpkins. She has an oven and a blender. She roasts and purees the pumpkins, diving the bounty into 1 cup servings frozen in plastic bags. She gives pureed pumpkin to anyone who wants pumpkin. Good for babies, ravioli, mac and cheese and so much more.
It was too good of an idea not to share. The gift of the gift economy. It keeps on giving. I am sending you many warm wishes this holiday week.
Thanks for being part of my life through this independent journalism project. Your subscriptions keep the lights on at The Feminist Kitchen, and that is at the top of things I’m grateful for this year.
If you’ve been wanting to upgrade your subscription, now is a great time! I’ve added a 50 percent off button below as a way to say “thanks for reading to the end.”
Sending much love,
(Oh, and thank you to Asher Price for featuring The Feminist Kitchen in this week’s Axios newsletter! I gave him some thoughts on how to keep Thanksgiving interesting this year without stressing yourself out. )
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