How to be a domestic porn star

Or: Why the American critics who dismissed Nigella's new show as 'gastroporn' were missing the point
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Moist. Firm. Resilient. Hot. Steaming. Dripping. Syrupy. Lick. Suck. Swallow. Sigh. Sleep. I think we make our point, do we not? So let's hear no more questions about gastroporn, as the Americans have decided to call Nigella Lawson's television programme. But what were they expecting? What else is there? Food as food is mostly about the gratification of senses that are not fed – or even titillated – by television: smell, taste, texture. True, people who are familiar with food – the handling of it, its preparation, the ways its scents and textures blend – can reconstruct in their minds its proper sensuality from the flat image on the screen. But otherwise, it's just another picture; just something else to goggle at.

If television can't give us food as food, it must be giving us food as something else; and what else is that something other than sex; or, rather, pornography at one remove. The relationship needs no explanation. Gastroporn is to food what sexoporn is to sex. Both are double-edged; they first create a simulacrum of a desire, then a simulacrum of satisfaction.

But why pick on poor Nigella? Probably because she's a) English, b) posh, c) a food -hygiene slut (bless my soul, she'd never pass Food Tech 101), and d) looks as though she actually eats the stuff instead of just fannying around with it on television. The Americans can't forgive any of that. In their Hollywood-copyrighted collective unconscious, English equals villain, and posh English equals utter villain. Nor can they stand anything as organic as licking your fingers. Theirs is a country where cleanliness is not just next to Godliness, but up there on the podium with Him. Look at their sexoporn. Nobody sweats. Nobody is dishevelled. The rank sweat of an enseamèd bed is not for them, nor the equally rank sweat of a healthy kitchen or a healthy cook. Nor will they have the human body. Again, look at their pornography: anatomically impossible women, like pencils with bosoms, coupling with steroidally pumped men.

But that's their problem. Our problem is something different, and we probably can't be entirely sure what it is. Just as true eccentrics never think that they are eccentric, just as assumptions are the things we don't know we are making, what may strike us as normal may well strike everyone else as ludicrous, absurd, possibly rather sad. And our current obsession with gastroporn – are we obsessed, or are we just told we're obsessed, by producers, schedulers and publishers? – might well be one of those things.

It's not altogether new. The field of gastroporn was first ploughed by that Ur-dominatrix, Fanny Cradock, a sort of snarling transvestite in nylon petticoats, attended by servile acolytes and submissive husband, the aptly named Johnnie. People watched Fanny, not for the food – surely not for the food, the gastronomic equivalent of those frilly-skirted bog-roll covers – but for the cruelty. It was the perfect S&M metaphor: the snarling, whip-tongued domme lashing up complex creations not to delight, but to humiliate her Ganymedes.

Then there was Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet. His food, too, was secondary. We watched Kerr not to see him cook, but to see him (perhaps pretend to) get drunk, on the Groucho Marx principle that if he dressed up as an old lady and fell down a flight of stairs in a wheelchair, it would be funny; but to be really funny, it had to be a real old lady. Kerr would become increasingly benign and relaxed as the show went on and the bottle grew emptier; sometimes, it seemed as if things had got out of hand, and they'd had to reshoot some sections when things had improved, leading to a surrealistic effect whereby Kerr would appear to flicker in and out of a condition of wild illumination as he fried a flounder or cracked an egg.

But now, things have got out of hand. British TV has turned into the equivalent of one of those French hotel channels where, whenever you turn to it, there's something pink plunging into something pinker. And, like sexoporn, gastroporn has something for every taste. Stern Suburban Housewives On The Pull? Delia, of course, not a hair out of place but look at her soufflé tremble. The Cheeky Plumber's Mate Who Stumbles Into The Boudoir? Jamie bloody Oliver, of course, and how many Englishwomen in their riper years, as they toil dutifully beneath Gerald (it being Friday), are, in their dreams, being carefully peeled, gaily diced and slowly softened in melting butter by Jamie – pukkah? You name it, gastroporn has it: Ainsley, Keith, Rick, Raymond... and, of course, the nasty little back-of-the-door effusions, like 50p-in-the-slot 8mm loops, such as Get Stuffed and Can't Cook, Won't Stand A Chance If You Watch Rubbish Like This.

And then there's Nigella. Nigella the Mother. Nigella the Hostess. Nigella the Curve. Nigella the You Don't Stand A Chance But A Man Can Dream, And A Woman Can Dream, Too. The nice girl who won't but does. The perfect post-feminist woman: all those choices and she plumped for the traditional domestic virtues – beauty, motherhood, cooking – and still made a fine living from it. No wonder the woman is iconic. No wonder the Americans can't take it. She undercuts the primary assertion of American ambition – that you can have it all – by demonstrating, quite unequivocally, that you need only bother with some of it, and the rest will follow.

But perhaps the Americans don't need gastroporn? The primary American domestic goddess doesn't actually exist: Betty Crocker, the branded creation of some frightful food-industry conglomerate. And their primary TV cook is a dreadful, efficient woman whose precision and hygiene would look pernickety in an operating theatre. This woman, whose name will not pass my lips (since, later today, they will engulf a particularly fine risotto Milanese and osso bucco – my fingers itching for the 27cm Global knife and the sauté pan even as I write) also has the erotic allure of a pencil, but that doesn't matter, because – and this is the important bit – as far as Americans are concerned, food has nothing to do with sex. Food is about eating. Food is sometimes about family (for example, Thanksgiving, where they gather round to eat an indigestible meal and ventilate all their ill-feeling to clear the air before Christmas). But food is not about sex. Americans are essentialists. Food is about food. Sex is about sex. End of story.

Not so for us. In Britain, everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about embarrassment, pawky little jokes, shame, failure, disgrace. We sublimate sex because we have no option. And, for the time being, where we sublimate it is: food. Not eating food – that would be too close, too dangerous. Not cooking food – that would imply the terrible risk – no, the certainty – of failure; you'll have seen the stories last week about Nigella making us scared to cook for our friends, the impression being that an English person about to give a "dinner party" is in as pitiful a state of fear and performance anxiety as an English person about to ring the doorbell at an orgy.

No, where we sublimate it all is in watching other people cooking food on television. People who like to cook don't watch television; they are, on the whole, cooking, and when they want to try something new they either invent it or look it up in a book. The gastroporn audience is different; the gastroporn is the entire experience, and the man watching Nigella clutching his bag of Walkers Big Eat Tomato Ketchup Flavour Crisps is in exactly the same moral and aesthetic posture as the man watching Debbie Does Dallas clutching...

And the gastroporn manufacturers know this. The main difference between gastroporn and sexoporn is that, on the whole, gastroporn stars love to cook, and, generally, are pretty good at it. (To declare an interest, I have eaten at Nigella's table on many an occasion, long before she was Nigella, and the woman can cook. No question.) Otherwise, it's packaging. A bit like cooking. First choose your main ingredient; sweet and pulpeuse, like Nigella; an unpersuasively oopsie-la variant on a common old staple, like Jamie Oliver, the Shetland Black Potato of chefs; something rich and gamey, like Anthony Worrall-Thompson... you get the picture. Then choose the sauce (finger-licking, getting pissed, shouting at staff) and the accompaniments (a fashionable house, a matey producer), and away you go.

The result? Food Plus. Jamie Oliver? Food Plus Faux-Boyish Charm. Ainsley Harriott? Food Plus Raging Bonhomie. Gordon Ramsay? Food Plus Open Warfare. Delia? Food Plus Nanny Who Won't Let Anything Horrid Happen To Us. And Nigella? Nigella is Food Plus Family Plus Sexual Promise For Afters; the Georgina Spelvin of gastroporn; the nice, clever well-bred woman who doesn't look as if she'd do anything of the sort, but... look! Look! She's Doing it. Look!

It's not about food. It's about watching food, which is why it doesn't suit the Americans, who believe in up-and-doing, and, what's more, doing professionally. Which is also why it suits us: a nation that would much rather watch than do anything at all. Let's just hope we don't go blind.

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