Stop asking Nigella about her “guilty pleasures”
It’s sexist, classist, and moralistic.
Nigella Lawson is sometimes called the “Goddess of Cooking” both because one of her dozen or so best-selling books was titled “How To Be A Domestic Goddess,” AND because she is plainly, and enduringly gorgeous. She’s also a brilliant writer, TV star, entrepreneur, and generally among the better regarded thinkers on all things food among people who know what they’re talking about.
In every single interview of Nigella — and I have seen plenty — she’s asked the same question: “So what are your guilty pleasures?” It’s a question that always struck me as wrong. It never sat right with me, for some reason, though I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was.
It’s hard to notice it’s not a question, say, Mario Batali gets, and not just because it seems Mario’s response would too often have been the names of employees. The truth is women’s, and especially beautiful women’s, food intake is more actively policed in the world we live in, while that of excessively rotund and horny Italian chefs is more often indulged. The latter is even celebrated, as some kind of elite gourmand merit badge.
Setting aside the casually sexist overtones for a moment, there’s something a little snobby about it as well. Branding something a “guilty pleasure” seems to relegate it to lower class status. I’m a foodie, and the sad truth is I love an occasional Quarter Pounder, because that is a damn good sandwich. Maybe it’s my lower class upbringing showing through, but that’s the truth.
Who’s to say what’s low food, and what’s high? As an Italian-American, I’ve noticed a lot of what we used to eat when money was tight — pasta, polenta, and frittata, for example — are all 18 bucks a throw at Boston’s finer Trattoria’s. You know the difference between cold cuts and charcuterie? About 12 dollars, and an olivewood cutting board.
Caviar, lobster, and oysters all began as peasant delicacies, found among the discards after the elites had their fill. I’ve long held that if you want the best food in almost any culture, it’s way better to hit the street vendor with the longest line than is to call in every local favor you have for a reservation at only place with two Michelin stars.
Anyway, there’s something a little micro-aggressive about always asking Nigella about her guilty pleasures, and while I’d welcome an opportunity to rise to her defense, it always seemed she had it more than under control. I didn’t even know if it bothered her in the same way it bugged me, until I read this passage from her great new book, Cook, Eat, Repeat: Ingredients, Recipes, and Stories.
If I could ban any phrase, it would without doubt be that overused, viscerally irritating, and far from innocent term itself, the Guilty Pleasure. I don’t think I actually groan out loud when I’m asked every time I’m interviewed “What are your guilty pleasures!” but from deep within the cacophonous orchestra of my mind, the woodwind section starts up a searing wail, the cellos come in with their melancholy sob, only giving way to the brass section to end with the Wa Wa Wa Waaaa of the sad trombone. I may be smiling, but I’m keening on the inside. My answer to that question is always the same, and while I worry that I repeat it so often it may be beginning to sound glib, I have to say that I feel it profoundly, and it is this: no one should feel guilty about what they eat, or the pleasure they get from eating it. The only thing to feel guilty about, and even then I don’t recommend it, is the failure to be grateful for that privilege. I am very aware that the joy I celebrate in food is a privilege.
Goddess, indeed. Might grab myself a Quarter Pounder tomorrow, and finish it listening to Nigella’s audio book in my truck.
For more read Cook, Eat, Repeat: Ingredients, Recipes, and Stories, by Nigella Lawson.