Food for thought
Why does the sight of an attractive woman enjoying her food
make us think of sex?
I've read her books, tried her recipes, and devoured the results with lip-smacking delight. I've followed her career from the time she was a food writer at Vogue to now that she has become a global food brand in her own lunchtime.
But through it all, I've never understood all that palaver about her sundry television shows. Why did everyone get their knickers in their twist about what they termed `food porn'? What exactly did Nigella Lawson get up to with a carrot as the camera lovingly panned in for a close-up? What unspeakable acts did she commit with a rack of lamb? To
what evil end did she use dark chocolate?
My mind boggled as I thought of every deviant act that a grown woman behind a kitchen counter could perform on food objects for the delectation of television audiences worldwide.
I finally had the chance to get some answers when channel-surfing idly I came upon a programme titled Nigella Feasts (Discovery Travel and Living). My first thought as I watched the splendidly upholstered Nigella throw in cups of full-fat cream and ladlefuls of butter as she whipped up a humungous quantity of eggs was that the show's title was grossly misleading. It was less Nigella Feasts and more Nigella Serves
up a Heart Attack.
Suddenly, the secret behind that bounteous cleavage was all too evident. It glistened and gleamed, quivered and bounced with such life and verve because of the copious amount of animal fat, red meat and sugar it had been brought up on. Clearly, Nigella took her duties as self-anointed Domestic Goddess seriously enough to gobble up all the
high calorie treats she cooked on her show.
For the life of me, however, I couldn't understand all that fuss about `food porn'. Or `gastro porn' as some of the more literary critics dubbed it. Sure, Nigella has a rather tactile approach to cooking, touching – even caressing – her ingredients, kneading and pounding with feeling and slurping everything up with lip-smacking approval.
And unlike most curvy women who hide behind shapeless dresses, she does this while proudly showing off her assets in a tight sweater.
But `food porn'? Seriously! Anyone who thought that there was anything even remotely pornographic about a full-figured woman enjoying her pudding needed their head examined. And as for that well-worn cliché about how food is like sex, those who believe that cannot have had much experience of either.
I have to say, though, that the show got me thinking. What was it about Nigella that made people immediately think `porn' even if it was in the context of food? Sure, she is sexy in a Mother Earth sort of way, with soft, flowing tresses and a mouth that was made for licking batter off a bowl. And it can't hurt the ratings that her cleavage
shows off to best advantage when she bends over the stove to taste her spoils. But to go from there to pornography is rather a stretch.
Part of the problem may well be that we are simply not used to seeing women of Nigella's shape as sexual beings. The media is flooded with images of stick-thin women with plastic breasts and collagen-enhanced smiles. So the sight of a normal sized woman who (to the best of our knowledge) has not been cosmetically enhanced, looking sexy and
sensual throws us completely.
We see women like this around us every day but they become imbued with a certain fetishistic appeal when they appear in their full-bodied glory on television. There is almost a shock/horror element to seeing them showing off their bits on screen without the slightest trace of embarrassment.
What makes Nigella's performance even more unnerving, I think, is that she doesn't apologise for way she looks – she celebrates it. And instead of dishing out slimming recipes or offering low-fat options, she delights in all manner of fattening foods. As she once wrote, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, "I have nothing to declare but my greed".
And in her persona as foodie femme fatale, her appetites are to be indulged – not dulled by a regimen of sensible eating. Perhaps the reason why people find something sexual in her blatant enjoyment of food is because it implies that she will not shy away from feeding her other senses.
Padma Lakshmi, the former Mrs Salman Rushdie, who also hosts a food show, doesn't evoke quite the same feelings. Even though the former supermodel has a fabled appetite (for food, I hasten to add), you can't help feeling that she had to have thrown up everything she ever ate to look this emaciated. And while her first cookbook, Easy Exotic, listed a model's low-calorie recipes from around the world, Nigella's
How to Eat embraced every food group, no matter how `unhealthy'.
Maybe, that's what accounts for all this nonsense about `food porn'. In our shape-obsessed world, food has become forbidden fruit, a guilty treat best sampled in secret. The act of tucking into a big meal – or looking as if we enjoy it – in public has acquired a tacit taboo at a time when self-deprivation is all the rage. And maybe that's why Nigella's performance smacks of illicit pleasures rather than an honest appreciation of good food.
Which begs the question, food porn anyone?