Delia Smith: Cooking up a storm

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The Independent Online

A multi-millionairess writer and television presenter, whose recipes and lifestyle tips are followed slavishly by millions, made a dreadful miscalculation and plummeted spectacularly from grace. That was Martha Stewart, the American incarnation of Delia Smith, who was incarcerated last year for illegally profiting from inside information about share prices. In the United States a certain amount of public glee accompanied Stewart to prison, and the same schadenfreude, swiftly reheated and infused with a peculiarly British flavour (cooking analogies being obligatory in all newspaper profiles of celebrated cooks), this week greeted Delia's outburst at half-time during a Premiership football match between Norwich City - the club where she and her husband Michael Wynn Jones are majority shareholders - and Manchester City.

A multi-millionairess writer and television presenter, whose recipes and lifestyle tips are followed slavishly by millions, made a dreadful miscalculation and plummeted spectacularly from grace. That was Martha Stewart, the American incarnation of Delia Smith, who was incarcerated last year for illegally profiting from inside information about share prices. In the United States a certain amount of public glee accompanied Stewart to prison, and the same schadenfreude, swiftly reheated and infused with a peculiarly British flavour (cooking analogies being obligatory in all newspaper profiles of celebrated cooks), this week greeted Delia's outburst at half-time during a Premiership football match between Norwich City - the club where she and her husband Michael Wynn Jones are majority shareholders - and Manchester City.

Her crime last Monday evening was to appeal to the Norwich fans over the public address system to get behind their relegation-threatened team, which had led 2-0 after 20 minutes but had been pegged back to 2-2. While Man City fans cheerfully chanted "There's only one Jamie Oliver!", Delia, possibly or possibly not under the influence of alcohol, grabbed the microphone and cried: "A message for the best possible football supporters in the world. We need a 12th man here. Where are you? Where are you? Let's be having you! Come on!"

And that was it. She didn't swear or strike anyone - indeed, she called the club's fans the best in the world - yet all week she and various spokespersons for Norwich City have been issuing explanations and rebuttals and apologies. It wasn't as though she did a Martha Stewart, yet every national newspaper made her headline news. Here in The Independent the story took up all of page 3. The Guardian called her appeal to the fans "batty". And a poll quickly conducted for the Norwich Evening News found that 70 per cent of supporters considered her behaviour "embarrassing" rather than "rousing".

Why have we made such a meal of it? American observers must be mystified, just as we were mystified by the shower of fire and brimstone that followed the exposure of Janet Jackson's nipple in the half-time interval during last year's Super Bowl. A singer's breast is fleetingly uncovered on prime-time television and America has a collective nervous breakdown: weird. On the other hand, the female owner of a football club walks on to the pitch, exhorts the fans to be more vocal, and Britain can't stop talking about it. That's pretty weird too. I suppose it shows that on both sides of the Atlantic, albeit in very different ways, it is unforgivable to be a tit in public.

Of course, had it been just about any football club director but Delia, the reports would have been confined to the sports pages. The fact is that, almost 35 years after the publication of her first book, How to Cheat at Cooking, she is still an object of considerable fascination. And a good deal of that fascination concerns the chasm, which really has only come to our attention since her takeover of Norwich City, between her telly persona and her real one.

Let's start with the telly image. It is easy to scoff at her for being bland and faintly schoolmarmish, especially in the age of Jamie Oliver, but it is easy, too, to forget that she started in the age of Fanny Cradock. In fact, she was to Cradock what Oliver is to her, pulling in a younger generation by being refreshingly informal. Not even her greatest fans would argue that she ever radiated charisma, however, as did the Galloping Gourmet Graham Kerr. The sauciest thing she ever said to camera was accidental. "I always have capers in my larder," she once assured her viewers, which apparently resulted in a more interesting postbag than usual.

Unlike Kerr, though, she had staying power, because what she did radiate was dependability. The chef Antony Worrall Thompson has called her "the Volvo of the kitchen", and insists that he means it as a compliment.

As she and her recipes grew in popularity, and her books began to sell by the million, she became the first TV cook with whom the nation was on first-name terms. Nobody had ever dared to call Cradock "Fanny", probably not even her browbeaten husband, Johnnie. But by the mid-1980s, Delia's surname was expendable. And that in turn prompted the observation, which may be unutterably tired now but was novel then, about cookery being the new rock'n'roll.

Until Delia, women known only by one name tended to be pop stars: Cilla, Lulu, Dusty. After Delia, the phenomenon spread to cooks: Nigella, Jamie, Ainsley. At middle-class dinner-parties, a curious conversational trend developed. Nobody asked what they were eating any more. They just said "Delia?" and received a reassuring nod from their hosts. "Yes, Delia."

With this iconic status - which prompted Tony Blair's offer of a peerage, an offer she politely declined - came fabulous wealth. Estimates vary, but she and her husband appear to be worth at least £30m. Their bank account certainly swelled a few weeks ago when they sold their publishing company New Crane, which produces the highly successful Sainsbury's Magazine, for more than £13m. This is likely to be good news for Norwich City into which, since 1996 when they both became directors, they have invested more than £7m, saving the club from almost certain bankruptcy.

Some would say that all this entitles Delia to streak across the Carrow Road pitch if she wants to. After all, rich as Mr and Mrs Wynn Jones are, £7m has proportionately made much greater inroads into their fortune than, for example, the £200m or so that Roman Abramovich has spent on Chelsea has made into his. Moreover, Delia commits more than her chequebook to the club. She spends at least three days a week there and has married her professional expertise with her personal passion, creating six restaurants which are all said to be excellent, and together generate an annual turnover of more than £3m. Football in this country doesn't have much of a culinary tradition, not unless you like gristle, but Delia is doing her utmost to change all that.

For that alone, she deserves that peerage. Also, as one of the Premiership's few female directors, she has shed useful light on the sexism still rampant in the game. When she went to Sunderland's Stadium of Light a couple of years ago and found that women weren't permitted in the boardroom, she raised a marvellous stink. "The Stadium of Dark, I call it," she snorted.

Her passion for Norwich City dates back to 1969. That was the year she started writing a recipe column for the Daily Mirror, and it was there that she met Wynn Jones. He took her to meet his family in Norfolk, and then they went with his father to watch a match at Carrow Road. She caught the bug immediately, and it has been getting stronger ever since.

Inevitably, people have suggested that the football club offers an outlet for her maternal instincts, with the players and other staff providing some kind of substitute for the children she and Wynn Jones weren't able to have. I am inclined to be less dubious about such simplistic psychology in the light of her outburst last Monday, for, by so publicly shrugging off all inhibitions, what was she exhibiting if not the classic behavioural tendencies of a mother seeing her child in trouble? Or maybe she was just pissed.

Whatever, it is football that has shown us the real Delia. Until it emerged that she had the hots for Norwich City, all we really knew about her off-screen life was that she was married, had no children and was a devout Roman Catholic. And that corresponded, or at least did not clash, with her on-screen image as a slightly prim goody-goody.

But those who know Delia say that she's anything but prim. They say that she is enormous fun, has a wicked sense of humour and is inclined to be raucous. She even tried to convey this message herself, insisting in an interview four years ago that she liked a drink and was by no means a saint.

"I am not some prim, Brownie pack leader," she added. "In fact, I'm a bit of a bitch." She can certainly be difficult to please. Plenty of people working on her television series over the years have reported alarming flashes of temper when she felt that they were underperforming. Which was precisely her assessment, of course, of the Carrow Road crowd.

She did not, growing up in Bexleyheath, appear to be the sort of child who would later inspire long newspaper profiles. Her parents did not have high expectations of her, and when she failed her 11-plus, she recalls being the only person who was surprised. She left school at 16 without a single O-level, and tried her hand at hairdressing. Then she became a shop assistant. A career involving food never crossed her mind, but then she acquired a boyfriend who wouldn't stop talking about how good his previous girlfriend had been at cooking.

That was 1962; the year Delia Smith, cookery phenomenon, was born. It is deliciously ironic that Delia, later to pour scorn on the Sunderland directors for not admitting women into their inner sanctum, started cooking purely to please a man. But her motives quickly evolved, and in the Reading Room of the British Museum she consulted every book she could find on English cooking, intent on learning why English food had such a bad reputation, while French food was so venerated. Soon afterwards, she got a job doing the washing up in a tiny restaurant in Paddington called The Singing Chef. Then she became a waitress, and finally was allowed to do some of the cooking.

The rest of the story we already know, although it seems to be that she now intends to grow old disgracefully, in which case the best part of the story may be yet to come.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 18 June 1941, in Woking, Surrey, to Harold Bartlett Smith, an RAF wireless operator, and Etty Jones Lewis.

Family: Married to journalist Michael Wynn Jones, 11 September 1971; no children.

Education: Upland Nursery School, Bexleyheath; then Bexleyheath School, which she left with no qualifications.

Career: Cookery writer, began at The Mirror Magazine in 1969; first book: How to Cheat at Cooking (1971). Television cookery: began with Family Fayre (BBC, 1973-75). A director of Norwich City FC since 1996.

She says...: 'When I go to football matches, I am at my most misbehaved. I sing rude songs about the opposition, like "Stand up, if you hate the scum!" '

They say...: 'I find her quite attractive, actually, especially as she gets older.' - Antony Worrall Thompson, chef, in reply to her describing him as 'repulsive'.

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