Pure oral fantasy. Nigella Lawson, irresistible TV personality and housewife-superstar, seems to have it all. And she has suffered, too. Suzanne Moore on the cult of the domestic goddess

Nigella Bites

Nigella Lawson <em>Chatto & Windus, 254pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0701172878

"Nigella wants her readers and viewers to enjoy the pleasures of eating and cooking. With her, how could anyone resist?" Oh, go on then. I'll have seconds and fork out another £20 for the book of the TV series. Resist? Nigella has us eating out of her hands. Or some of us anyway, because I'm afraid that I detect a bit of a Nigella backlash in the air. Right in the heart of Nigella-land - Crouch End, no less - graffiti has appeared on a Nigella Bites poster, which reads "Nigella Sucks". A tabloid columnist recently called her "the banking man's Jordan" - that's Jordan the siliconed stunner and failed parliamentary candidate. Even worse, there have been rumours that some of her recipes don't work. Can you imagine the sheer horror of it - you want to bake like Nigella, make like Nigella, and all you end up with is a sticky, gooey mess and a short-changed punter?

So here we have it then, another book, this time stuffed with pictures of Nige looking gorgeous as ever, even in hairpins, with her thoughts on eating (it's yummy) and a few recipes, some of which have appeared before. What are we to make of it all? Nigella is now a fully fledged TV personality and housewife-superstar, rather than just a shy girl with an unfeasibly large appetite. She is both a role model and someone we feel terribly sorry for - with a Tory father and a dead husband. She appears to have it all, and yet we know of her awful losses, so there is something truly Diana-ish about her. We like beautiful women to suffer, and we know that she has. This bit of her public persona may well be beyond her control, but other parts are not.

Increasingly, it has to be said, Nigella is complicit in marketing herself in a certain way. Does she have to come over all Flake advert every time a camera is pointed in her direction - so that what we are being sold is pure oral fantasy?

It was Hanif Kureishi who, in his fantastic and cruel book Intimacy, sniped about middle-aged women who read cookbooks in bed at night. Oh yes, but with Nige it's different, you see. It's food and sex all in one hit. These days, food is photographed far more lovingly than the female form, which is merely pumped up, pushed out and splayed - spatchcocked, we might say, whereas real spatchcocked birds (Nigella likes poussin and quail) are lit as though they were actual supermodels. Combine this with all those saucy snaps of Nige herself - naughty in her Playboy T-shirt, Booker-prize judgish in her glasses - and with our knowledge of her grace under pressure while her husband, John Diamond, was ill, and what we have is a quite bizarre lifestyle fantasy.

I'm taking it all far too seriously, because Nige keeps on telling us that she is being "ironic". Anyone who has to tell us all the time that she is being ironic hasn't quite got the hang of it. "I'm hamstrung by my irony," she complains in the Radio Times. She also moans that she is "thought of as more knowing and coquettish than I mean to be". Coquettish? She makes Kylie Minogue look like Michael Buerk.

Certainly, her sense of irony is on display in the "trashy" section of the book in which she slums it. Don't worry too much, though. There is no chicken tikka masala or anything really nasty, as I suspect that Nige knows as much about what the common people eat as I know about what it's like to be the offspring of a Thatcherite chancellor. But it's witty, isn't it, the idea of Nige and her super friends eating deep-fried Bounties? And slumming it with watermelon daiquiris? Maybe it's funny if you are not a member of Class War; but then, we class warriors often find ourselves hamstrung by our own sense of irony.

And despite her chummy and often sensible remarks about the food she cooks, I can't quite stomach her suggestion that an easy after-work supper involves home-made ice cream. She is aware of this, however, and says that she is not going "into deranged-superwoman overdrive". But deranged-superwoman overdrive is, I feel, precisely what we want in her. Because, at her best, she is passionate about food and, I think, quite mad. How To Eat was a lovely book and contains her best writing. Strangely enough, when Nige is writing not about food but about, say, current affairs, her opinions range from the insipid to the reasonable and she says nothing out of the ordinary. However, as soon as food is involved, she goes into drool mode and provides a knowledgeable and chatty commentary about food culture. She comes across as a fan, which is always endearing.

Her madness, though, was confirmed for me when, on one of her programmes, she went round after one of her dos collecting leftover wine and freezing it in tiny plastic bags. Does the woman ever relax? And what kind of dinners are they, when so much wine is left? But I do mean mad in a caring sort of way, because all these TV cooks are mad. Delia is pathologically normal, while Gary Rhodes is an anorexic, whispering serial killer who worries about being overpowered by a teaspoonful of chocolate mousse. In this scheme of things, Nige is relatively human - and her own fantasies of domestic goddess status and super-motherhood are just the particular territory she has carved out for herself. Who else could have made baking trendy? Or even desirable?

Who could argue with her advice, on inviting friends over for dinner, to "remember that it is not a test of your worth and acceptability: it's just dinner"? Yet the very presence of Nigella and her ilk means, I'm afraid, that it is indeed a test of one's worth and acceptability, which is why we need all these lifestyle recipe books in the first place. Denial is the name of the game here. Deny that all this cooking is hard work and call it "unwinding". Deny that eating all this food will make you look more like Ann Widdecombe than the divine Nigella Lawson. Deny that part of you believes that, if you do as she tells you, you will get to be as well connected and successful as she is. Nigella knows all about denial. That is why she gets to have her cupcakes and eat them. And before anyone says that I'm just jealous because of how she looks as well as of how she cooks, let me just say, well pardon me madam, isn't that the whole bloody point?

Suzanne Moore is a columnist on the Mail on Sunday

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The slow death of Tory England