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Nigella revels in all her imperfect glory

Domestic goddess's fans forgive the lurid details of her divorce

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It wasn't so long ago that the life of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson seemed like one long round of London premières, leisurely Sunday lunches, and molten chocolate babycakes. Then came the June release of photos of then-husband Charles Saatchi with his hands around Nigella's neck, a quick and terse divorce proceeding, and a "mortifying" cross-examination during the December fraud trial of her two former assistants. Suddenly, pictures of Nigella licking spoons and stirring her spaghetti puttanesca were crowded out with images of an unhappy, abusive marriage and allegations of drug use and runaway spending.

So, Nigella's life is not perfect.

The 54-year-old cookbook writer and TV personality (her show The Taste starts its second season on CTV later this month) will get through this sudden and intense exposure of her private life, mostly because she has never claimed to be perfect. In fact, Nigella's passionate, cashmere-bosomed embrace of imperfection has always been the heart of her appeal.

The celebrity food world operates on a bit of a double standard. There is a gendered divide between the bad-boy chefs, who are expected to have chaotic lives, and the female home cooks, who are generally expected to embody cosy idealized domesticity.

Raffish chef Anthony Bourdain made his reputation with Kitchen Confidential, a gonzo cooking memoir packed with tales of pressure-cooker restaurants where everyone in the kitchen was gambling, snorting cocaine and stealing anything that wasn't nailed down. Gordon Ramsay is known for his salty language and screaming fits. These guys thrive on conflict, crises and controversy. They're like rock stars with knives.

Female-hosted cooking shows often centre on home and hearth. Here, conflict and controversy are to be avoided, except maybe with issues like whether or not to use raw eggs in your Caesar salad dressing. Martha Stewart, the original queen of the domestic divas, has set almost inhuman standards with her slightly stern cooking demonstrations and her magazine images of anxiety-provoking perfection. Delia Smith, who might be considered Martha's British counterpart, also projects an air of infallibility.

Nigella, on the other hand, is upfront about her own imperfections. She may have titled her first baking book How to be a Domestic Goddess, but that was just a typical bit of self-deprecating English irony. Her kitchen is reassuringly messy and cluttered. She has no formal culinary training, and she freely admits she is a slightly impatient and clumsy cook, apt to spill things and burn herself.

Nigella owns her weaknesses: She is "not one of life's gravy-makers," she declares frankly. And she's no food snob, raving about the joys of ham glazed with cherry Coke and fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. She has a fondness for what she calls "damp cakes" that really don't look like much. If she wants some exquisitely decorated, elaborately constructed dessert, she says, she'll go to a restaurant.

She also understands the slightly frazzled nature of modern life. Nigella talks about supper shortcuts "on the days you have to hit that kitchen running." She knows that sometimes you really need to break open the wine while stirring the risotto, that sometimes you can't face the stove at all and just have to order takeout.

All of these attitudes have helped make food and cooking feel enjoyable and, of course, seductive. Nigella talks about salted caramel sauce as if it were sex and eats noodles in bed. Her trick of licking her fingers while giving the camera a come-hither look has made her a hit with male viewers. She's also popular with women, who appreciate how unselfconscious she is about her curvy figure and her "greedy" love of good food.

Nigella's recipes can be a bit vague, a little hit-and-miss. But her overall approach has been important and liberating. She has helped popularize the notions that food isn't about perfection but pleasure, and that a well-used kitchen can be the centre of a happy home.

So, yes, it was a shock when it became clear that Nigella's own household was anything but happy, that it was awash in money but riven by bullying and emotional estrangement. Detractors were eager to suggest that tabloid headlines about drug use and overspending would bring down her brand.

Instead, Nigella supporters have rallied round. This could be, in part, because we always knew, at some level, that her rosy image as an average woman in her average kitchen was an invention. She is, after all, a high-achieving multimillionaire whose professional success and domestic comforts are supported by a team of personal assistants (a new batch, one assumes).

But if her public persona is a pose, it's a good pose -- and one that seems to connect with her hungry audience. We don't want Nigella to be perfect. In fact, we need her to be imperfect. Go Team Nigella.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 D12

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