Mum's the word

Food - Bee Wilson on the secret recipes that unfleshed a former Chancellor

I recently heard the story of a group of first-year politics undergraduates taking a class on the Thatcher years. Tentatively, given his bitter experience of the sheer depth of what students don't know nowadays, their tutor mentioned Nigel Lawson, expecting the usual round of blank, uncomprehending stares. But this time, their little eyes lit up. Sure, they said, we've heard of him. "He's Nigella's dad." "Anything else?" The shutters came down again. "There's something else?"

There are many famous sons who eventually eclipse their famous fathers; fewer daughters. A side effect of Nigella's star burning so bright is that she has also outshone her step-mother. Two years ago, Therese Lawson published The Nigel Lawson Diet Cookbook, containing all the recipes that helped Nigel shed five stone of corpulence, to emerge unrecognisably slenderer. Now the book has all but vanished from the shelves, while Nigella's How to Be a Domestic Goddess gleams triumphant from every window display and bestseller list.

In the light of Nigella's success, it is fascinating to return to Therese's book, as a document of a pre-Nigella era. It's not just the pictures of Nigel eating fish and chips and Therese all candyfloss-haired on Budget Day that make it seem dated. Nor is it merely the Pooterish culinary anecdotes about outmoded politicians - for example, the tale of the pheasant with calvados that Therese cooked for Denis and Margaret, the spring greens eaten by Nicholas Ridley, or the disastrous angel-hair pasta for John Major, which looked like "the nastiest congealed lumps of worms". It is really the whole ethos of the food that seems out of time. Spinach soup comes topped with fake soya "bacon" bits. Heart-shaped moulds of low-fat "quark" are served with a blackcurrant coulis, sweetened not with sugar, but with "Slite".

For those accustomed to the pancetta orgy of How to Eat and the icing-sugar bonanza of Nigella's Goddess book, such caution looks peculiar. Where Nigella abhors "prinking" and individual portions, Therese rolls mozzarella into tiny pinwheels and decorates the plate with teardrops of tomato coulis. Where Nigella mixes abundant quantities of hot linguini, parmesan, butter and egg yolks, in imitation of a Roman housewife, Therese cooks "tricolour pasta" before arranging coyly in the middle a separate sauce made with Worcester sauce, Tabasco, "Slite" and mushroom ketchup, and some (optional) ham, prawns or Peperami on top. This Lawson definitely belongs in the Eighties.

On one page of the book, the two worlds meet. Before a recipe for blinis, Therese observes: "My stepdaughter, Nigella, who is extremely knowledgeable about food, got me some buckwheat flour and a blini pan and helped me make the pancakes from scratch." The faint tone of condescension, written before Nigella was a superstar, now seems glaringly misplaced. Gone are the days when this wife of a former Chancellor could patronise a goddess. In the course of her own blini recipe, Nigella does not trouble to mention her stepmother.

It's not that there aren't any good ideas in Therese Lawson's book. There is a refreshing-looking elderflower jelly and an ingenious egg-and-lemon sauce baked in the oven, as a low-fat replacement for mayonnaise or hollandaise. Evidently, too, the recipes really are slimming. Excessively so, perhaps. If it doesn't sound too cruel to say so, sometimes it's difficult to remember that Nigel Lawson is still alive, so effectively has he unfleshed himself. By contrast, it's almost impossible to forget Nigella's existence, so effectively are she and her divine apple kuchen promoted.

It is hard to remember now that Nigella's name once sounded like a faintly absurd garnish for an important man.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Mandelson