The sound of a half-watched cookery programme is the score for my childhood. My mum – a keen cook – always had them on in the background when she was in the kitchen, Rick Stein or Gary Rhodes providing warm white noise as she peeled and stirred and poured, like the babbling hum of voices of Radio 4.
The first time I remember sitting on the sofa with her and watching a cookery programme was when I was 11 years old – the first episode of Nigella Bites. Nigella Lawson was not only the original domestic goddess, she was a domestic fucking rock star. It’s easy to forget now, in the age of clean-eating pin-up-girl chefs and Instagram food porn, just how much of a meteor landing on British culture Nigella Lawson was. This was a woman who looked like Ava Gardner but cooked like Antonio Carluccio, who made wry jokes to camera with her soft, can’t-be-arsed cut-glass voice. Team that with a glamorous background in newspapers, a famous father in politics, a razor-sharp journalist husband, two gorgeous jam-smeared children and a huge house in Shepherd’s Bush stacked with thousands of books – and my obsession with TV cookery programmes began.
I had to teach myself that food didn’t hate me; it wasn’t out to get me, it didn’t have any feelings about me. Food is an inanimate thing of which I am the boss
In that first episode alone, she fetishised and glamourised domesticity in a way I’d never seen, picking up ingredients from a chi-chi local deli, bathing her giggling children and breezily talking about “having friends round for a midweek supper”, all while wearing a sexy denim jacket a size too small. She made lemon linguine with a sauce of four ingredients: lemon, eggs, cream and cheese. “It’s a rather wonderful feeling as it goes through your fingers,” she said, slipping the egg whites away from the yolk in her hand and chucking the shells into the sink.
Back then, watching Nigella’s show was like going to a gig. This was before social media allowed a joint viewing experience and conversation. I remember my mum frantically scribbling everything down in her notepad as she watched, my auntie calling in every ad break to discuss what had just been cooked. There was one episode in which the phone didn’t stop ringing because Auntie Sue could swear she kept spotting dirt under her fingernails.
Throughout my teens, I spent hours in front of cookery programmes, getting an extended education in food that supplemented the core syllabus my mum had taught to me. Mum gave me white sauce, Victoria sponge and roast chicken. Head-tilting, Irish-lilting Rachel Allen taught me about precise and complex baking, I watched Keith Floyd throw half-finished glasses of wine into rich French stews and Delia provided an endless supply of fussy 80s classics: piedmont peppers laced with anchovies or fudgey chocolate cake made with liquid glucose that looked like it belonged in a chemistry lesson.
In 2009, there was big news in our house when the Food Network UK channel launched and my mum and I discovered Ina Garten AKA The Barefoot Contessa – a plump, pretty, preppy Hamptons chef with a doting husband called Geoffrey, a harem of stylish gay friends in floristry and showbusiness and an outlook so sunny it could rival Shirley Temple’s. Ina was obsessed with birthdays, beach picnics, “table centrepieces” and people being surprised. All she ever did was cook things with the hope that people would be surprised – whether it was raspberries in the pavlova instead of strawberries, or serving two vegetable side dishes instead of just one. “They’re all going to be so surprised when they come for dinner!” she said over and over again in every episode, grinning manically at the camera.
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But, shortly after I fell in love with Ina Garten, I fell out of love with food. A bad break-up lead to a loss of appetite which lead to a period of starvation for nearly two years to try and claw back some control. At first, I carried on watching cookery programmes with my mum, lying on the sofa with my feet propped up on her lap like always, hoping that I could somehow be fed by images in lieu of eating. But watching them inevitably became an act of torture, so I started saying no when my mum asked if I fancied watching the new Jamie Oliver series or Ina re-runs, and instead went and sat in a bath so scalding hot it would burn my skin to try and thaw my body that had suddenly turned permanently cold.
I couldn’t be reminded of the pleasure of eating. I couldn’t be reminded of food at all. I had to switch off my appetite – the part of the brain so ancient and primitive that, according to AA Gill, we share it with lizards. It was an act that defied biology and, thankfully, my need to eat eventually outweighed my need to be thin.
The road back to normality was long and difficult, paved with hundreds of different stones, of which cookery programmes was just one. In the period where my stomach was so war-torn I could only handle certain foods eaten in tiny portions, I flicked The Food Network Channel back on and reignited my love of cooking and rematched those old episodes of Nigella Bites on YouTube. I had to teach myself that food didn’t hate me, it wasn’t out to get me, it didn’t have any feelings about me. Food is an inanimate thing of which I am the boss. There’s magic chemistry to be made with it, tables surrounded by friends to be laid with it, countries to visit to eat it. As the old platitude goes, it is not the enemy. Only I was.
Cookery shows are a salve for my soul, be it the squawk of Fanny Craddock or the dad jokes of The Hairy Bikers. They remind us that food is about pleasure as well as survival; not punishment or reward but nourishment and kindness. A cookery show is a friend peering out from the screen and into your home, telling you that no matter how complicated life gets, there is always a simple, reliable formula for a small slither, scoop or slice of joy.