Profile: Delia Smith

Simmer gently. Do not boil

Wednesday 21 September 2011 15:38

Once again, we are about to succumb to Deliamania. Another book of hers came out this week ( How to Cook: Book Two), as seasonally tied to our palates as Dickens once was to our souls: it wouldn't be Christmas without Delia (even though she spends her Christmases in the West Indies). The book will hop to the top of the bestseller lists and just stay there. If she mentions an ingredient not already in abundant supply in the supermarkets, you will not be able to get hold of it for months.

Once again, we are about to succumb to Deliamania. Another book of hers came out this week ( How to Cook: Book Two), as seasonally tied to our palates as Dickens once was to our souls: it wouldn't be Christmas without Delia (even though she spends her Christmases in the West Indies). The book will hop to the top of the bestseller lists and just stay there. If she mentions an ingredient not already in abundant supply in the supermarkets, you will not be able to get hold of it for months.

Delia Smith. The words might roll beautifully off the tongue - a dactyl followed by an accented syllable - but, really, when you know who they stand for, are there four more prosaic syllables in the language? Is there anyone who appears duller than Delia Smith? Maybe not; but I would suspect that there are millions of people who are precisely as dull as her: us.

Last year, I was entertained by Lisa Chaney's biography of Elizabeth David, the woman who is said to have done more than anyone to change the culinary habits of a nation. (If only.) David's was a story worth telling. Promiscuous, maybe even - who knows? - bisexual, difficult, solipsistic, a heavy drinker and smoker, morose, impetuous, intensely charismatic, posh, but with a penchant for ne'er-do-wells, male homosexuals and déclassés chancers, scornful of food writers ("who wants to be the doyenne of them?" she once acidly asked; the image that stuck in many reviewers' minds was that of the ash from her fag dropping into the paella as she swayed, half-cut, over the pan. The book might not have been thrillingly written, but it told a tale or two. It turns out that it wasn't even the official biography; that's out now. But as I read its unofficial precursor, I thought: well, at least no one's going to be writing a biography of Delia Smith.

I was wrong. Not only does everyone have a story; even Delia Smith, that blankest and most unassuming of our "personalities" has one. It has been joked that the prerequisite for being a TV personality is not to have one to speak of; but few have made a career from as ostensibly, even provocatively, sparse a personality as Delia's.

Well, no one's that dull, even if she comes, as if she were straight out of central casting, from Bexleyheath. Her biography, by Alison Bowyer (published in October by Andre Deutsch) begins not with her date of birth (1941) but with the announcement that she turned down a peerage offered by Tony Blair. Baroness Smith? It doesn't feel right; and not just because she has entered that state of hyper-celebrity whereby we can dispense with her last name.

Her cookery, it turns out, was not a vocation she felt in her bones. It was born out of pique at the culinary talents of the woman with whom she felt she was competing, for the hand of one Louis Alexander, who later - and temporarily, as it turned out - spurned all women in order to become a Catholic priest. Delia resolved to become, like Louis's ex-, a cook.

She also became a Catholic herself. It makes one wonder how easy it once was to make an impression on the soft butter of Delia's spirit.

She arrived in London in 1960, after a childhood marked, it would appear, by a complete lack of appreciation (she poured her heart out about this much later, in starkly incongruous circumstances, on the children's TV programme, Swap Shop). In 1962, while working for a travel agency, she posed in a bathing-suit for a company promotion. One night, that same year, she went to a restaurant called The Singing Chef, in Connaught Street, and was entranced not only by the food in general but in particular by the chef's speciality, the omelette-soufflé flambé.

She became a washer-up at the restaurant, owned by Ken Toye (a chef who, yes, sang). Moving up the hierarchy of preparation, she drifted into other cookery work; as an assistant on a TV food ad she saved the day when someone dropped a pie just before a shoot. "I can make that," she said, and did. Word got around.

She became interested in trying to revive an interest in British food, probably in reaction to Elizabeth David's championing of French and Mediterranean cuisine; she met literary agent Deborah Owen in 1969, to whom she gave tips on how to cook a nice poached egg for her husband, a young doctor and politician-to-be called David; and through her she got a job at the Daily Mirror. Her rise since then has been inevitable, and prodigious. She sold her two-millionth book 15 years ago.

She eventually settled down with Michael Wynn Jones, an Oxford-educated bon viveur and talented journalist. From the biography: "As a committed Catholic, it must have been hard for Delia to contemplate falling in love with someone who not only wasn't a Catholic, but who didn't even believe in God. Michael Wynn Jones's lack of belief could have served to put Delia off him, and the fact that it didn't probably owes a lot to Louis Alexander's treatment of her. No doubt having been jilted by her first love, not for another woman but for God, a relationship with a non-believer must have seemed an attractive proposition to Delia. Here at last was a man who would put her first and love her above all else."

Indeed; and it also seems that, with her marriage, here was a woman who had exhausted herself from her many attempts at self-invention. Her frugality, her nervousness in front of the cameras all attest to this. One recent anecdote from her biography will haunt me for the rest of my days. Filming the How to Cook series at her Suffolk home this year, Delia decided that she did not want the crew using her toilet. I mean, the idea. So she ordered that a Portaloo be erected. But as it was lowered off the truck, it squashed one of her cats quite flat. Now, while it is awful to laugh in the face of tragedy - and I am more than usually devoted to cats myself, and so, in Clinton- speak, Feel Her Pain -- it is impossible to contemplate this story without at least one appalled fit of the giggles. Was this not some kind of perfect retribution, an awful warning against being too fastidious, the kind of person who would prefer to be thought prissy rather than charitable?

She used to infuriate me: with her mimsiness, her chilly relationship to the very stuff she was cooking with, the suffocatingly utilitarian nature of her prose. There are those for whom cookery is not simply a matter of getting people fed, but a kind of camp act in itself, the selfish person's way of being both the cynosure and - for once - the performer of useful acts; such people (and I suppose I'm one), if they take themselves too literally, have a problem with Delia, who on the surface not so much represents as embodies the conventionality they abhor. I would, for example, turn the spines of her recipe books towards the wall when visitors I wished to impress came round.

Still, you can tell she doesn't like to get her hands dirty: even if this is not in fact the case, the impression you get from her movements in the kitchen is very much one of a woman who would prefer to avoid sensuous contact with the ingredients. And, if we can be allowed to venture some idle and indeed terribly inappropriate speculation, based on not what people are but what they appear to be, you can wonder whether or not this lack of tactility would be transferred intact into other, more private arenas. (Elizabeth David, you suspect, looks like she would have been absolute dynamite in the sack. Am I prompted to such tastelessness by a memory of a remark of Egon Ronay's, to the effect that Delia's approach was "the missionary position" of cookery?)

I think, though, that even those who are reluctant to succumb to the stranglehold she has on the rest of the nation's gorges have come to regard her as unstoppable, a force of nature, as pointless to rail against as English bad weather. Her masterstroke was to embark on a back-to-basics cookery course: how to boil an egg, how to make toast. People scoffed. Gary Rhodes scorned. Yet how many people did he convert to her cause, or at least stop from laying into her, when he did this? Me, for one. Thousands noticed that, whatever her faults, Smith is not a spiky-haired yo-yo with a Mr Creosote-like appetite for his own personality. And her advice was useful: toast is better if you let it stand for a short while before you butter it, eggs are better when they're fresh, etc. Why not know these things, or make money from telling them?

The awful fact is that cooking, as a demotic art, a cross-country culture, is dead. Dead in these islands in a way that it is not dead in Italy, or France, or indeed pretty much anywhere else in the world with food in it apart from America. A friend of mine told me that his son recently asked his mother what "home-cooked" food was. Those who scratch their heads over such arcane terms as "home-cooked" constitute the overwhelming majority of Britons. A cookery revival is as bogus as a revival of, say, the Cornish language. How could it not be, when Delia Smith's first book, How to Cheat at Cooking, contained recipes for baked fish fingers with tinned mushrooms and tomatoes, or sponge cake (bought) with tinned cherry-pie filling?

For beneath the brash millennial confidence, the Blairite get-up-and-go exhortations we have to suffer, this remains a country where millions still live in fear: fear of being thought foolish, or too clever, or too dowdy, or too flashy; the suburban terror of giving offence, that dislike of "airs" - the polar opposite of Elizabeth David's patrician je m'en foutisme - the kind of quality that makes you wonder whether we live in a gigantic, continuously improvised Mike Leigh film set, fretting anxiously as to whether we fit in or not, passing judgements on the neighbours while, at the same time, subliminally aware that they are passing judgements on us. Which is why Delia is so successful, why so many look up to her; and why she is validated by her success. Those stories which are invariably repeated - the frying pans that sprint from the shops at her word, the nationwide shortage of cranberries that occur five minutes after she says the word "cranberries" on TV - are what we expect, and need.

"Here," she seems to be saying, "is something your neighbours have not yet thought of doing" - and suddenly the world and her dog, or rather, that large portion of Middle Britain whose gladiatorial ring is the dinner table, is doing it, all at once. Her quest was never for an independent authenticity, the kind of "real" cookery which Elizabeth David, or her greatest epigone, Jane Grigson, stood for. No, Delia's aim was, is, to do precisely what the Joneses are doing, or what they think they ought to be doing.

"I'm not a cook," she says, routinely, when wishing to disarm her critics; and we assume she means she's not an artsy-fartsy cordon bleu bighead. But she's right, on the most basic level: she is not a cook - she's a kind of boffin, fiddling with her dishes, helped by assistants, until they come out foolproof. Now even though no recipe is going to work out just so every time, given the right formula, it's that kind of proposed security that ensures she speaks to and for so many people in this country; they're not cooks either.

One does not want to belabour the role religion plays in Delia's life, even if one writer has suggested that she was on "a mission from God" to educate the British about cooking; but you can't help feeling that she's a kind of priestess, her religion having denied her the opportunity to be the real article, the officiator of a rite whose responses we are trying to learn.

Her role, or that of the cookery that she represents, is communal, almost religiously ritual, a way of getting everyone singing from the same hymn sheet; a way of being seasonal.

And, while we're at it, can we think of anyone else, off the top of our heads, who rejoices in the quality of infallibility?

Life Story

Born: 18 June 1941, at the Wynberg Emergency Maternity Hospital in Woking, Surrey.

Family: Father, Harold Bartlett Smith, an RAF wireless operator. Mother, Etty Jones Lewis.

Education: Upland Nursery School, Bexleyheath; then Bexleyheath School, a secondary modern school she attended after failing her 11-plus, and left with no qualifications.

Family: Married to journalist Michael Wynn Jones, 11 September 1971 at the Catholic Church of Our Lady in Stowmarket, Suffolk. No children.

Publications: Cookery writer, began at The Mirror Magazine in 1969. (First menu: kipper pâté, beef in beer and cheesecake). Evening Standard cookery writer, 1972-85. First book: 'How to Cheat at Cooking' (1971). Followed by 26 more, to date, including 'A Journey into God' 1988, 'Delia Smith's Christmas', 1990; 'Delia Smith's Summer Collection' (1993) and 'Winter collection' (1995).

Television: (Selected BBC programmes): 'Family Fayre' (1973-75), 'One is Fun' (1985), 'Delia Smith's Christmas' (1990), 'How to Cook: Part One' (1998).

Directorship: Norwich City FC, since 1996.

She says: 'What's a real treat for me is when I go to evening games at Norwich City with my husband. We have Big Mac picnics in the football car-park. I absolutely love them with fries and loads of ketchup.'

They say: 'Delia got me on track when I was newly married - taught me how to poach an egg and make good soups' - Debbie Owen, literary agent.

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