Recently, I was away in a sort of ‘cabin in the woods’ in Mt Macedon, about an hour’s drive from Melbourne. We had our own cottage with a fireplace, a TV and a DVD player – something which was a huge novelty for me as someone who has lived in television-less sharehouses for a long time. On the second night we were there, there was a terrific storm. The wind was howling as I imagined it would on the moors where Wuthering Heights takes place. The rain, pouring in sheets across the roof, made it hard to hear. But no, this is not setting the scene for a passionate Cathy and Heathcliff-style tryst but rather, to demonstrate the conditions in which my partner and I watched the whole series 1 DVD of Nigella Bites, one of the assorted Sunday-night movie style DVDs provided by our B‘n’B host. (Feel free to get in touch if you want the name of the place we stayed).
Nigella Bites was the first food show that now-famed food writer, cook and media personality Nigella Lawson launched in 1999. Previous to this, Lawson had made a career in journalism, attaining the position of deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times and then going on to work as a freelance writer before writing her first book, How to Eat. Her vivid aptitude for description comes through very clearly in her writing as well as her television work. Unlike other food writers and celebrity chefs however, Lawson’s eloquence has often taken a backseat to her famed looks. A woman whose changes in weight and appearance have often been the preoccupation of tabloid fascination, Lawson is credited with making the term ‘food p0rn’ mainstream.
However, the thing that really struck me on that rainy, stormy night was the intense comfort that watching this food show gave me. Though I tend to not eat meat and Lawson’s calm but firm dismemberment of a whole chicken did give me goosebumps, so to speak, it was highly gratifying hearing Lawson speak from the perspective of a home cook. In particular, Lawson’s emphasis on pleasure, minimising effort and being unafraid of humble food items such as tinned creamed corn and Coca-Cola really spoke to me in a way that her contemporaries often can’t.
I think this is because Lawson, particularly in her earlier writing, has always primarily spoken to her audience without downplaying the often unglamorous and laborious parts of preparing food for others. In this way, she has particularly spoken to gendered concerns around labour. The subject of some feminist debate particularly following her book ‘How to be a domestic goddess’, Lawson is known for selling the idea that one can ‘feel like a domestic goddess’ rather than be one. Joanne Hollows writes that Lawson is sensitive to the time scarcity that faces women in a contemporary working environment, where women usually must engage in paid work but where the amount of domestic work they perform has remained relatively stable. Lawson offers a fantasy of what it might feel like to have an abundance of time in invoking the domestic goddess. Though Lawson’s language may presume that women can simply ‘choose’ to feel less harried, it still displays a sensitivity to the mundane and to the small everyday struggles of women’s lives. This in itself is significant.
As Arlie Hochschild has argued in relation to ‘women’s work’ which has been preoccupied with the domestic and caring spheres of life, a key component of such work has been emotional labour. Women have been long been required to use their emotions to placate, soothe others’ egos, console and please as a condition of feminine normalcy. This in more recent times has also been extended to food; in Masterchef-style soundbites as well as food shows more generally, preparing food has now been portrayed in gender-neutral fashion as something which one does to show love to one’s family. However, under these new food standards, love cannot be shown by putting something in the microwave. Food is not simply sustenance but something which must also be healthy, delicious, maybe retro but only ironically; the preparation of good food has become a new domain of perfectionism signalling love, contentment and the fulfilment of responsibility. For some, like me growing up, the investment of time and labour into food has been a major signifier of parental care. For others, it may have not. For time-scarce carers, I am sure, the preparation of food to standards praised by food critics has not always been a pleasurable form of showing affection.
The explosion in food and lifestyle shows now can be arguably seen as a reflection of new forms of what Pierre Bourdieu has called ‘distinction’. One’s ‘taste’ in food and culinary skills are now forms of social capital, which appear neutral but rely on a particular middle class position. Freezer dinners thus are poorly looked upon, under the rubric of health; but this judgment can sometimes overlook the way that the requirement to provide something considered healthy and delicious is an additional form of labour which is performed unevenly, depending on gender and class position.
To return to Nigella Lawson. She may not canvass all potential issues to do with food production; for those who have spoken up about pressing issues like sustainability and the need to reposition animals not simply as creatures to use but to whom we have responsibilities of care, there may not be much to like here – as with many food, lifestyle and cooking shows. I do think however, whilst Jamie Oliver has now frenetically upped the ante on making good, rapid food in his 30 and 15 Minute Meals, it is important to give some credit where it’s due. Lawson’s fantasy of feeling like a domestic goddess, whilst not solving problems to do with the gendered division of labour, provides a bit of relief from it. In a time when it is easy to self-admonish for being lazy as daily labour becomes part of the performance of ‘love’, Lawson permits self-indulgence without censure. Final thoughts: Nigella Bites – for me on this weekend, perfectly suited for staying in and being a couch potato, which let’s face it, is pretty nice when winter has not let loosened its grip on wet and windy Melbourne.
 Feeling like a Domestic Goddess: Postfeminism and Cooking. In: Brunsdon C and Spigel L (eds) Feminist Television Criticism: A Reader. Maidenhead: Open University Press, 154-173
 See also the work of Lindsay, J.M., Maher, J.M., 2013, Consuming Families: Buying, Making, Producing Family Life in the 21st Century, Routledge, New York USA.
 Human Animal Research Network Editorial Collective, 2015, Animals in the Anthropocene: critical perspectives on non-human futures, Sydney, Sydney University Press