I was a middle schooler in the late '90s. Most of my energy was devoted to organizing my collection of Got Milk? ads and fully creating and producing a student newspaper with my best friend that we felt was crucial and breaking news but that truly no one but our writing teacher read. I have absolutely no idea how or why as a suburban preteen living in a tiny little world I had any awareness of British cooking personality Nigella Lawson. But I had somehow found out about her cooking show, probably on some weird pocket of the internet. Whatever I had seen was such a glowing review that one weekend I decided to take a pass on One Saturday Morning to tune into Nigella Bites.
The theme of the first episode I ever watched was “TV dinners,” something I was deeply familiar with at that time. In middle school, most of my meals came from the microwave or a takeout bag. Because like many kids of the '90s, my three younger siblings and I were left home alone a lot, an 11-year old me deemed responsible enough to be left in charge. My caretaking mostly consisted of microwaving Bagel Bites and dictating which TV shows we were watching, but in my head I was basically an adult with responsibilities.
Watching Nigella mirror my own eating pattern confirmed this grown-up version I had of myself. But the idea that a viewing of Mystery Files of Shelby Woo could be accompanied by more than a Hot Pocket never really occurred to me. I was intrigued watching her put together mozzarella en carozza—fresh mozzarella squashed between two slices of white bread, dragged through milk, egg, and flour, then fried. Sort of grilled cheese meets savory French toast, with a fancy Italian name. It was a pizza-adjacent sandwich that was fast and felt familiar, but made with care and intention. Watching Nigella made me realize I was putting an enormous amount of thought into everything I did except what I was eating at the time.
Nigella’s city kitchen and vignettes of her home life was unlike any professional cooking I had seen before. I was very familiar with the characters on old Martin Yan episodes and the newly introduced Emeril Lagasse. But they were professionals in front of their studio audiences. Martha Stewart may have purported to be for the woman at home, but her television persona was a performance of its own kind. Nigella invited me into her home, teaching and taking care of me as only a mother can.
I didn’t always eat processed food growing up. Not unlike Nigella, my mother was, and is, an excellent home cook. Despite the steady diet of Michelina’s frozen fettuccine alfredo and Jumbo Jacks I existed on in the late '90s, I was very familiar with a home-cooked meal. My youngest years were full of just-because Tuesday cookies and delicious dinners as my mother navigated her place in the kitchen as a young stay at home mom. But like the beeping of Tamagotchis and the smell of Teen Spirit, divorce is one of those things that just filled the air of the '90s. As soon as middle school hit, my parents split up. My younger siblings and I all stayed with my dad while my mom looked for new footing elsewhere. Meals ended up being whatever microwaveable frozen foods were on sale that week.
Watching Nigella made me realize what I was missing. However well intentioned the adults in my life may have thought they were, my coming-of-age was precarious. Going through divorce as a kid is one of those experiences that happens to you. No one asked me if I wanted to be involved in this mess. So I controlled as much as I could. My identity was constantly repeated over to me by family members, parents, and teachers—old soul, capital-P-Perfectionist. I basked in living up to a label that I considered to be high praise.
"Nigella invited me into her home, teaching and taking care of me as only a mother can."
But 12-year old me didn’t need a picture-perfect family dinner. What I needed was the stability of a confident adult. Nigella frying a cheese sandwich wasn’t domestic perfection, but that wasn’t the point. It was fearless, deeply personal, unapologetically feminine. A woman feeding her family while still indulging in her own personal wants and needs. At a time when everything from my family to my body to the century was changing, it was mind blowing to watch someone so casually comfortable with herself and her place in life.
That single episode of television pushed me to give myself what I needed. As I got older I bought her books with babysitting money. They lived both at my bedside and my kitchen counter, her chatty narrative my constant companion. I made cut out cookies with the kids I babysat for, baked pastas and churned ice creams to impress boys, roasted chickens for dinner parties before any of my friends or I even owned a full set of dishes, playing at being an adult.
"At a time when everything from my family to my body to the century was changing, it was mind blowing to watch someone so casually comfortable with herself and her place in life."
All that play and practice eventually turned into legitimate skill. I’m now fully settled into my 30s with two kids at that very stage of life I was back then. Nigella taught me that despite my very best intentions, I can’t always plan for the unexpected. I realized my perfectionism was just a pet name for anxiety. I haven’t grown out of all of my ingrained tendencies, but an older me strives for a bit more balance. Rather than just producing perfection, I find pleasure in the process and ritual of caring for my friends and family with food. A labor of love for others can still be a personal indulgence. And in the end, it’s just dinner. If it fails spectacularly, and sometimes it will, there’s always cereal. You can always try again tomorrow.