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Delia Smith: “I was told I was not sexy enough. It was very hurtful”

The no-nonsense guru of home-cooking has published her first book of philosophy. What took her so long?

By Kate Mossman

Five years ago, at the age of 75, Delia Smith downloaded the Apple Typist app and learned to type for the first time. She can’t use all ten fingers, “but what a joy! I could just get on my knees and bow down to it,” she says. Working on a computer after a lifetime of handwriting, Smith no longer has to worry about spelling, as she keeps the dictionary function on all the time. Since she was in her twenties, writing duck-and-cherry recipes for the Daily Mirror, her husband, Michael Wynn Jones, has checked her spelling and punctuation: he was once her editor on that paper, and now softly brings homemade ginger cookies into the conservatory of their cottage in Suffolk. The sun beats in through the window, into a homely but clutter-free space familiar from Smith’s old TV demonstrations. She tells me she has “a dyslexic thing”, but hates being edited. In 2016 she wrote an article for the Daily Mail in support of the Remain campaign (“I may be mocked for my views but, again, bring it on!”) and they wanted to make some changes – so she took it back and gave it to the Guardian instead.

The book for which she learned to type is You Matter, her new manifesto for modern spirituality – chances are you might have heard of it by now. “The emphasis with the cookery was never on me,” she says of her life’s work in the kitchen, which is to instruct. “It was, I want you to be able to cook. And now, I want you to know you’ve got a spiritual life that you might not know you had. Does that make sense?”

You nod fiercely. Nigella Lawson once said that Smith was the home economics teacher whom the nation wanted to please, and it’s true: she activates a powerful pupil-teacher transference somewhere deep inside. Perhaps this explains why her off-piste book, a series of short meditations on love, introspection and human potential, has been taken so seriously by interviewers, pored over as closely as her instructions for the full Christmas roast. No one has made fun (there was an event with Alastair Campbell). There have been few snarky reviews, though you can tell by the way Smith watches you ask your questions that she is half-expecting it. After publication she suffered l’esprit de l’escalier, she tells me, wishing she’d written a note of encouragement to readers on the back: “Remember my recipes always work.”

You Matter was rejected by six publishers – a fact that has been advertised with some pride. “They all wanted more of me in it,” Smith explains. It was eventually taken on by the veteran publisher Richard Charkin, formerly of Bloomsbury and other houses, who set up Mensch publishing at the age of 69 with “no mission statement and no stated editorial strategy”. Charkin tells me that other people missed a trick because they were focusing on the book and not the name: “If I was at Penguin Random House, who’ve sold 20 million copies of Delia’s books, I’d feel very bad about saying no. The thing that makes a difference between failure and success with celebrities is whether you’re liked. Many celebrities are frankly not liked, and their books don’t sell.”

[See also: Lee Child: “I never believed in writer’s block”]

Charkin came to see Smith at the cottage before he signed her up. She told him she didn’t like being edited: he told her he didn’t pay advances, she would get only royalties – but he has reprinted twice already, and there are just 200 or so copies left in his warehouse. Her editor had a tough time; she even wanted to change one word just before the book was sent to the printers. “She is unbelievably stubborn, and sometimes wrong,” says Charkin. “But the book was hers. I felt it was the right time for it. The world is a complete mess, we’re all a bit depressed, and frankly religion isn’t helping. You Matter is perfectly Delia, a straightforward simplification of very complicated things. No one trusts our Prime Minister, but people trust Delia. They know she won’t let them down.” In You Matter, Smith writes that her entire thesis can be summed up in the lyrics of “Within You Without You” by George Harrison. She didn’t realise, until the book was ready to submit, that she couldn’t legally reproduce Beatles lyrics. So – stubbornly perhaps – she paraphrased each verse, one by one, instead.

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Wynn Jones, who is three months younger than his wife, made the biscuits using one of her recipes. Smith likes to say that he does all the cooking these days; it is one of the ways in which she helps to shift the focus away from food. The kitchen door remains closed.

The pink thatched cottage near Stowmarket, which the couple bought in 1971, lies rather far from the high road, so Smith is stuck with any visiting journalists should they miss the hourly train back to London (I do). They have added to the house, extension by extension, so that it has grown like a living thing over the years.

Her focus these days is a luxury shed she bought at the Chelsea Flower Show, positioned near the lake in her landscaped garden: here, she wrote her book from nine to five during the pandemic, with just an apple for lunch. “I don’t ever want to have weight problems. It’s something I can’t cope with,” she explains. “I’ve got to be disciplined, because if you’re in a life of food and you’re not disciplined, you’re enormous.”

On the shed shelves there are reference books: the writing of Hannah Arendt and Socrates, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a controversial Darwinian Jesuit who linked evolution to the salvation of man, and who inspired much of You Matter. In 1997 a charity called the Bible Reading Fellowship approached Smith and asked her whether she would comment on a scripture for every day of Lent. She agreed as long as she could choose her own – “the one thing about me is I know scripture really well” – and some religious books followed. Just as her recipe books turned non-cooks into cooks, they attempted to turn non-believers towards God, with rather refreshing concepts such as “God as mother”, and prayer as “tenderness towards oneself”.

[See also: Angela Rayner interview: “The Tories fear me because I say it how I see it”]

Smith always had “a thirst to know about spiritual things”, she tells me. First came the congregationalist Brownies as a girl growing up in Bexleyheath, south London; then Methodist Sunday School, and Church of England youth groups. And “then, when I was 22, someone took me to a Catholic mass and I thought, ‘That’s authentic.’” That someone was a boyfriend, a charismatic young man raised in Switzerland and the US, with whom she spent the early 1960s in London. He was also her introduction to food, via the swinging restaurant scene. He spoke regularly of a cordon bleu ex-girlfriend whose cooking she became determined to trump. The boyfriend left her to train for the priesthood in Holland, but by then she was a convert. You could say that love introduced her to both food and religion: for years she drove an hour to mass each morning. Does she still pray?

“Well, I don’t know,” she says. “I think there is God in the deepest part of ourselves, but I’ve had a lot of trouble with prayer and now I wouldn’t use the term. I just say be still, be silent. I don’t think you have to say ‘God’. You can say universe, you know?” As with her recipes, she wants to appeal to the broadest audience – but you wonder where she put that little crucifix she used to wear on TV.

Apart from her food and her love of football (she is a majority shareholder in Norwich City), there is one other thing most people know about Delia Smith: that she is a lifelong Labour supporter. But she turned down a peerage from Tony Blair in 1997, saying that she wouldn’t have time to do a good job in the Lords, with all her TV shows. Today she says, “Party politics is finished. It’s dated. Politics isn’t finished, but party politics is.” She describes a turning point: watching a rally for the Remain campaign with politicians from five parties on the stage, all united in one eventually hopeless cause.

Perhaps it is not surprising that someone might turn their back on both organised religion and Westminster in their 80th year: it suggests a certain impatience, or weariness, with the rituals and machinery surrounding the bigger questions in life. In You Matter she doesn’t argue for a creator, but does she believe in one?

“I do, but what I’m saying is that it’s deeper than religion. No religion at the moment is reaching out. They’re not reaching people! We all have a deep spirituality that unifies us but religion is top-down, like governments and party politics. We’re past getting any great gurus or leaders, living in a world of chaos and turmoil. Change has to happen from the bottom up. I have faith in human life, I really do. What we’ve achieved is amazing. What I’m asking is, why can’t we just sit down and understand what we have? We’ve got to grow up!”

At moments like these, Smith seems genuinely concerned that she’s not getting her thoughts across. Her speech is punctuated with “Does that make sense?” and “I’m not sure how to explain it”; she is the nation’s home economics teacher, covering a class in philosophy and finding a new language for her children.

On her 1970s TV show, Delia Smith’s Cookery Course, Smith demonstrated the recipe for a dish called Alpine eggs, originally created by Mrs Beeton. A vast amount of grated cheese is laid in a baking tray – “like a wall-to-wall carpet” – with six eggs cracked on top, followed by another deep layer of grated cheese. It is less the calorie count – 3,000? – that marks this as a moment from another age than the show’s production values: no incidental music, just the buzz of the mic as Smith walks across the floor – clop, clop, clop – to an oven, to take out the dish she prepared earlier. She does not slice her creation open for the camera. And, unlike Lawson, she has always baulked at tasting anything on screen. “What I did was as live, but today they have a very clever way of filming people, their faces, and then filming their hands, so they can do it all separately and cover mistakes,” she says.

She believes that today’s food programmes exclude, rather than invite, people to learn. “If you watch MasterChef, all it’s telling you is, you won’t ever be able to do this. And I can’t do Bake Off. I’m not very keen on people judging people, you know? I’m trying to get people to feel confident, and I think these programmes make people feel, you know…” Bad about themselves? She wrinkles her nose.

If modern cookery shows are consumed less for instruction, more as visual satisfaction and vicarious pleasure, Smith’s first book contained premonitions of the elite culinary age to come. In the opening line of 1971’s How to Cheat at Cooking, she writes: “If you’re one of those dedicated cooks who’s a keen early-morning mushroom gatherer and wouldn’t dream of concocting a salad without using the ‘just-picked’ variety then this book is not for you.”

Canaries fly: Delia Smith and husband Michael Wynn-Jones celebrate after Norwich City win the Sky Bet Championship at Villa Park, Birmingham, 2019. Photo by PA Images

She maintains an aversion to the pretentious. “I mean, food is a subject that lends itself to snobbery,” she tells me. “Food, wine and art lend themselves to being exclusive.” It is hard to believe, but there was a public chef-spat around the turn of the millennium, when Smith’s approach was beginning to look old-fashioned, and Antony Worrall Thompson and the late Gary Rhodes were still on air. Rhodes mocked her for teaching people “how to boil water” (a reference to her instructions on waiting for the rolling boil, when getting an egg just right). Egon Ronay described her methods as the “missionary position” of cooking, while Worrall Thompson said she was “the Volvo of cooks”. Smith responded by saying Worrall Thompson was “just repulsive”, and revealed that after filming, she and her crew liked to sit down and laugh at his show. Apart from Lawson, she was the only female chef on TV at the time.

“But Nigella and I are not chefs,” she corrects me, teacher-like. “So that’s it, really – TV went into the chef era. When I came out of it, it was starting to be cheffy.”

What does that mean?

“Well, kind of a bit precious.”

You were a cook?

“Yes. Definitely a cook, never, never a chef.”

I asked Jamie Oliver, who is arguably both, about this distinction. Does it matter? “Chefs sometimes fail to connect with their audience because they can fall into the trap of thinking like chefs and not like cooks or parents,” he told me. “I’ve learned this from Delia – that the key is to create incredible food that I know my own family would want to eat. There’s something very comforting and maternal about Delia’s food – she always manages to create a feeling of home, and that resonates with the public. She is the queen of cooking in my eyes and I won’t have anyone say anything different.” Then he added, “Viva Delia!”

Did the mockery from Worrall Thompson, Ronay and others hurt Smith?

“I nearly lost it all,” she says, “because a controller at the BBC at the time said, ‘Oh, no, she’s not sexy enough.’ Lovely, it was. Very hurtful. I do think to be criticised the way I was – and I was severely criticised by the glitterati of cooking – was very hurtful, but I didn’t want to change. That’s what I wanted to do. And you see, people really couldn’t understand, ‘Why are all her books selling, when they’re so boring? Why?’”

In her early twenties, Smith worked at a French restaurant at 41 Connaught Street, near Hyde Park, called The Singing Chef. It was a rather happening place: some of the waitresses were models. She would bend down to open a wine bottle between her ankles, wearing a mini-skirt.

Smith began to wonder why most of the food celebrated in the UK was French. A knowledgeable customer told her that England had gradually lost its connection to the land through the Enclosure Acts. “But in the 18th century, he said, we were eating better than any other country in Europe, and if you want to find evidence of that, just look at the cartoons.” Smith had no O-levels, and had failed the 11-plus, but conceived of an (unpublished) book about these 18th-century recipes, and researched them in her spare time in the British Museum Reading Room.

[See also: “I didn’t want anyone to know it was me”: on being Joni Mitchell’s “Carey”]

Fifty years on, her shows and books have become living channels of social history. In 1980 she was joined on Delia Smith’s Cookery Course by Kate Bush. “Quite honestly, I don’t think our future is going to contain as much meat as we’ve been used to,” Bush told her. She had lived off chocolate and tea for a week after giving up meat, not sure how to proceed. How to Cheat (1971) acknowledged the social anxieties of the 1970s dinner party: “Sell on sight” Smith wrote – “no vulgar ‘boats’ and ‘nests’ and ‘baskets’”. And of the labour-saving gadgets beloved of the 1960s, she wrote: “Steer clear of lady demonstrators in department stores. They make it look so easy, but you never see them washing up!”

Smith’s tone – still there today – is an unusual mixture of prim and anarchic. Frugal Food, from 1976, was reissued at the start of the 2008 financial crash with the strap line “Now more relevant than ever”. It had been written after that year’s potato crisis, when blight and drought prompted people to grow their own. Tom and Barbara from The Good Life (1975-78) swim before the mind’s eye, as Smith responds to the new self-sufficiency trends with gentle disdain – “1976 must surely be the year that Britain took to the spade” – before obligingly sharing a recipe for marrow.

Smith recently said that she and Wynn Jones are “too old for money”. She plans to leave all hers not to Catholic charities, which she’s financed in the past, but to the International Rescue Committee, the humanitarian aid organisation headed by David Miliband. Norwich City, meanwhile, remains the couple’s single, unruly child, pulling them up in hope, and dashing them back down to the bottom of the Premier League, with awful regularity.

Wynn Jones, a Norfolk boy, became involved with Norwich City in 1953. Since then, they have poured money into the club. In a 2019 interview, Smith said: “We’ve been through a lot of pain in our time at Norwich, being in debt. Going to a board meeting, all you talk about is how to service the debt. Never-ending debt…”

How does she deal with the emotional chaos?

“I’ve learned,” she tells me. “I feel disappointed and I feel hurt, and sometimes I feel angry, if it’s the referee’s fault.”

Will she ever sell to a wealthy foreign buyer? We are speaking before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, after which Roman Abramovich was forced to give up Chelsea. “Well, you can never say never. We get criticism, you know, when things aren’t going well: ‘They should give up now, let us have a nice rich whatever.’ But I wouldn’t be able to do it without being sanctioned by the supporters. Because I wouldn’t like to go to bed at night and know I’d given it to the wrong ones, and there’s a lot of very, very wrong ones in football.”

As we drove to intercept the London train at Ipswich, Smith and Wynn Jones’s driver told me that in their ninth decade, the pair are at Norwich’s Carrow Road stadium three or four times a week – for board meetings, food and wine workshops at the Yellows restaurant, which Smith oversees – and, of course, for games: they travel 200 miles to away matches and return the same day. When they lose, the journeys back are painfully silent, he says. The pandemic dealt a blow to that routine and Smith recalls, in You Matter, watching the first smattering of fans allowed back into the stadium and feeling a swelling of love – the kind of love that goes beyond an individual.

“Community is where people are at their best, and football is community,” Smith says. “If you’re a football supporter, there’s no chance you could be alone or lonely. Imagine if you could catch a little bit of the fire you feel at a match, and think about humanity.”

She suggests a minimum of half an hour in stillness and silence each day. Could she ever have joined a nunnery?

“No. My teeming mind would be brrrrrr all the time,” she says, making a whirring sound with her lips. “But if you sit down, and be still and silent, then you begin to see a different life. When we know ourselves, then we see other people differently.”

When does she think she first knew herself?

“I’m still learning!”

Delia Smith has two anxiety dreams these days. One is that she is on live TV, cooking, and doesn’t have the right ingredients. The other is that she has left her mother, Etty, somewhere in an airport and is unable to find her. Etty, who lived just up the road, passed away at the age of 100 in November 2020. A tiny and charismatic woman who came to Norwich games and publicly backed Labour in 2015 along with her daughter, she passed on all her culinary skills to Delia. This, Smith points out, is something else that belongs to another age: “The art of cooking was handed down from mother to daughter – we would argue with that now – but it was, it was!” she says, knowing you’re not supposed to say things like that. And as Michael clears away the coffee cups, there’s another gentle history lesson. After the Second World War, Britain had to learn to eat again. “It was chips and margarine, and Woman’s Weekly magazine, doing things with baked beans…”

You Matter: The Human Solution is published by Mensch

[See also: Richard Dawkins interview: “What I say in biology has become pretty much orthodoxy”]

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special