Nigella Lawson, in town Sunday for book signing, finds a happy medium between ease and indulgence in new cookbook.
Ten years ago, Nigella Lawson hit the food scene as a "domestic goddess." Now with her seventh cookbook, she is no less pagan about her identity, calling herself a "domestic druid," nor any less direct about setting a tone of celebratory indulgence in "Nigella Christmas: Food, Family, Friends, Festivities" (Hyperion, $35).
In fact, the brunette Brit goes on at some length in her introduction about her "heathen" bent, suggesting that "the Christmas we celebrate in our kitchens is not the Christmas that is celebrated in church." There's overlap, of course, but she notes how the feasting, lights and gift-giving of Christmas are rooted in traditions much older than Jesus' birth.
"Indeed," she wrote, "one of the great geniuses of Christianity has been its sage piggybacking of pre-existing feasts and festivals. If you want to encourage the heathens to adopt your faith, how very sensible to reassure them that their fun is not going to be taken away."
It all sounds like classic Nigella cheekiness, but in a phone conversation, Lawson demurred. "It sounds much more alarming than I mean it to be, because I certainly adhere to the Judeo-Christian morality," she said in luscious, plum-pudding tones. "I'm not an anarchist." What she is, then, is someone who thinks beyond Christmas in favor of the whole "bleak midwinter" thing and finds joy within the months-long season.
"We think paradise on Earth is some tropical island, when actually we're much better off reveling in the blanket of darkness that we can make cozy with lights," she said.
For her, Christmas is really about "bringing light and fire and warmth into the chill of darkness. I feel the Christmas rituals of the home are, even if not based around faith, essentially an act of good faith."
And -- yes, we're finally getting to it -- good food.
In "Nigella Christmas," Lawson continues her trademark ability to stitch a common seam between indulgence and ease.
"So much of life is a struggle now, so we must work very hard not to turn things that should be a delight into a punishment," she said, hence her reliance on throwaway foil trays to ease cleanup. Menu-planning consists of writing down all the dishes she wants to serve, then crossing off half of the items.
"Otherwise, I have to ask myself, 'Am I mad?'" she said. "Remember: Appetite makes the best sauce."
Lawson has a similar "less is more" attitude toward "this modern obsession with perfection. It's paralyzing people and making things that should be a pleasure not at all pleasurable," she said.
"Reality TV has people thinking that when they cook, people will come in their home and mark their food or something, and if it's not perfect, it's no good. So many recipes I cook have come about because I made some mistake and, by putting it right, it got better."
Likewise, she added, cooks have to muzzle themselves about airing their shortcomings, such as saying that the potatoes are a little underdone or the gravy is salty.
"It puts people in a difficult position," she said. "They either feel that they have to console the hostess or feel bad that they hadn't noticed it themselves."
Among Lawson's own holiday memories is a reminiscence of how her mother cried every Christmas "because she'd always done too much."
Little wonder, then, at her contention that a host's most important duty is creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere, then letting the food be "good enough," plentiful and served with a generous heart.
As she wrote in the chapter "The Main Event," overseeing a less-structured celebration with a less-frazzled demeanor actually can be the hostess' best gift to her guests.
"Think how threatened they'd feel if you'd upstaged them."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185