My wife, Jane, and her friend Kim met in Bath at the weekend, and on Saturday decided to have lunch at Jamie Oliver's newly opened restaurant, Jamie's Italian. There are no reservations taken; you just turn up. Unfortunately, the rest of humankind had also turned up. The place was mobbed, but they were advised that they could wait in the bar for 45 minutes. They tried, but breathing space was limited, so they were told they should wait on the pavement outside. They almost did, until the absurdity of the situation dawned on them. Bath is full of nice places to have lunch, and indeed they ended up a few doors down in a perfectly nice, half-empty place called the Moon and Sixpence. Yet for a few mad moments they had unquestioningly bought, like thousands of sentient beings before them, into the cult of Jamie. There is even, I noticed in W H Smith yesterday, a new Jamie Magazine.
All of which brings me to the cult of Nigella, a different thing entirely. Nigella-worshippers don't need to leave their front rooms to pay homage, which is an altogether more comfortable state of affairs. Apart from Robert Carrier, the leading television chefs never used to be restaurateurs. Marguerite Patten, Fanny Cradock, Delia Smith, Graham Kerr... they were just, or just seemed to be, enthusiastic home cooks. But then came the new wave: Gary Rhodes, Keith Floyd, Rick Stein, Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, and with them the quasi-religious stature of the TV chef gained a new dimension: the pilgrimage. With every series, these guys knew that more and more pilgrims would descend on their restaurants, buy a few icons in the form of cookbooks or jars of olives, and go home to spread the gospel. I first went to Stein's Seafood Restaurant in Padstow about a month before his first series aired. We were a party of 16 and we'd booked less than a fortnight beforehand. Try that now and they'd have a laughing stock to go with the fish stock.
This is not to suggest that Nigella does not enjoy considerable commercial benefits from her TV presence: there are the books, of course, and a shapely range of kitchenware. But what pleases me is that she's a home cook, like the rest of us, or like the rest of us would be if we kept bottles of vodka in the freezer wearing red sequin jackets, from which Our Lady of the Adjective, possessed by the "irresistible sparkle" of Christmas, poured a cocktail to keep herself warm in Nigella's Christmas Kitchen.
I watched with my wife and kids, which is the best way to enjoy Nigella. You've got to have someone to giggle with, and to speculate whether she actually knows any of the "friends" with whom she shares her fabulous dishes at the concluding and irreproachably multi-racial dinner-party. She seemed to be chatting to them animatedly enough, but as my daughter suggested, she was probably saying, "And what's your name?" Still, at the end of the day (when Nigella, if we are to believe what we see, habitually raids the fridge and pops into her exquisite mouth a mince pie topped with her own body weight in whipped cream), she adds immensely to the gaiety of the nation. Moreover, if she ever tires of cooking for us, there is a career waiting for her in literary pornography. Last night, she invited us to "look at those plumptious beauties" before rhapsodising over the "gleaming gorgeous redness" and the "luscious Eastern promise". If you'd closed your eyes, you could have been forgiven for thinking you'd tuned in to an Andrew Davies costume drama. It was a treat, the first of the festive season.
There was another treat in the form of Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'Roll: the Sixties Revealed, which also produced a rival to Our Lady of the Adjective. I was rather lukewarm in my review of the first programme of this three-part series, which is constructed around footage of interviews collected by Bernard Braden in 1968, but last night there was some beguiling material, including some real wisdom from Sammy Davis Jr, who proved that there was a good deal more to him than a slightly odd face. He observed to Braden that the British were complacent about race, that it was all very well feeling superior to Americans but where were the black people in the corridors of the BBC? Where were they in the smart hotel he was staying in, except cleaning his room? "In America, we have opportunity without equality," he said. "In Britain you have equality of a kind, without any kind of opportunity."
Better still, though, was one of the best malapropisms I've heard for ages. The artist Caroline Coon, who as one of the leaders of the campaign to legalise marijuana had been arrested and locked up in Holloway Prison in London, confided to Braden that she was "worried women might come and preposition me". Maybe she meant what she said. It was, after all, the era of "Up the Conjunction".Reuse content