"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In “Never Say Never Again,” Sean Connery’s last James Bond outing, he faces a new M (Edward Fox) who is out to transform the double O agents into clean-living paragons of physical purity. In other words, he’s the antichrist. Bond finds himself shipped to a health farm where he’s expected to purge the toxins from his system and enjoy the revivifying benefits of high colonics and parsley tea. One night, a comely blond dietitian knocks on Bond’s door bearing some godawful tray of slop. Bond listens to the bill of fare, and then opens a suitcase carefully stocked with caviar, quail eggs, Russian vodka, and foie gras. The dietitian takes one bite of goose liver, her face crumples in happy surrender, and the rest of her body follows.
This is how I see Nigella Lawson, the English cooking voluptuary who may have been the initiator of more sexual fantasies than anyone her country has produced since Diana Rigg donned leathers to play Emma Peel. For sensualists who, in food and in everything else, prize pleasure in life, Lawson is our superhero — gorgeous, sexy, professional, supremely confident and licensed to kill the evil — blandness, sensual deprivation, vegetarianism — that threatens the good things in life.
In the preface to her “How to Eat” Lawson writes, “In writing this book, I wanted to make food and my slavering passion for it the starting point; for me it was the starting point. I have nothing to declare but my greed.” If Lawson had written nothing but that last sentence, she would have won my heart. It’s her declaration of ethics, a pledge of allegiance to the pleasure principle, which is the surest and deepest way there is of responding to the Holy Trinity — food, sex, and art (not necessarily in that order) — and a stand against the truest Original Sin: guilt.
On the page, the sensual appeal of food is paramount for Lawson. The recipe for “Gussied-up Ice Cream” in her “How to Eat” contains this line “Break 4 ounces of the best, most malevolently dark chocolate you can find …” Notice the language. Not “sinfully rich” or “glorious” or any of those other words that try so hard to convey sensual excess and still seem refined. Instead we get “malevolently dark,” the phrase conveying that this might not be good for you but recognizing that the greatest pleasures often contain an element of danger. It calls to mind John Waters’ line about “thanking God I was raised Catholic since sex will be better because it will always be dirty.”
Two English girls I knew once told me that no matter how hungry they were, they would always leave food on their plates when a man took them out to dinner; to eat everything, they thought, would make the man think they were gross. Au contraire. In Nigella Lawson’s love affair with food and eating, there’s no first-date primness. If she couldn’t dig in with her fingers, or sigh in mouth-filled delight after her first bite, it wouldn’t be a date — or a meal — she’d think worth going on.
If her commitment to sensual pleasure comes through on the page, it comes through in spades on her show “Nigella Bites,” broadcast in the U.S. on the Style network. Has television ever given us anything more pornographic? It is, without apology, the most consistently lubricious show on the air. In fact, the title tells only part of the story. To be accurate, the program would have to be renamed “Nigella Bites, Caresses, Kneads, Pounds, Pinches, and Licks.” The slightly raised eyebrow and ironic gleam in Lawson’s brown eyes make it seem she’s certainly aware of the sexual nature of some of her remarks. Let’s just say that a man watching the show and hearing her praise the “woodiness” and “springiness” of shittake mushrooms couldn’t be blamed for suddenly displaying those same characteristics.
But it’s not just men who adore Lawson. The most ardent Nigella fans I know are women and they’re as turned on by her manner as anyone. (In fact it was my friend Sarah who suggested to me that someone needed to write about Nigella for Salon Sex.) There may be all sorts of psychological and sociological reasons for that, having to do with some women’s complicated relations with food and with their own bodies. You could probably write about how the combination of Lawson’s ardent love of gastronomic pleasure and her evident comfort with her own full-figured build (she favors fitted tops that emphasize her magnificent bust) and with the drama of her looks — long brown hair, generous mouth, lively, intelligent eyes — is all of a piece with the post-feminist commitment to sexual pleasure.
Women may claim Nigella for their own, but her appeal is to anyone against prudish asceticism, anyone who believes in the goodness of pleasure. On every show, Lawson runs through three or four recipes based on a theme — “All Day Breakfast,” “Comfort Food,” “Slow-Cook Weekend,” “Rainy Days” and “Trashy” are among the individual episode titles. Those subjects tell the story, a tale of indulgence and pleasure, and a sustained commitment to the sensual.
Lawson is definitely not a food snob. She has never lost her connection to comfort food, and she has no disdain for the lowly dishes some cooks would not even attempt. In the show called “Trashy,” she shows you how to cook Elvis’ beloved fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. In the accompanying book “Nigella Bites” Lawson writes, “This sandwich is a wondrous thing, gloriously exemplifying what cooking is all about: the whole is so much intriguingly, confoundingly more than the sum of its parts.”
That genuine, unironic appreciation of something so generally derided is the key to her sensibility. It’s a measure of the conservatism of the times in which we live, conservatism that exists across the political divide, that sensualism has become associated with grossness, immaturity. To be thought of as adults, we should appreciate steamed vegetables, but not lovingly prepared fried chicken. We should think more of Nicole Kidman’s drab and pinched Virginia Woolf in “The Hours” than we do of her in spangles and top hat emitting little squeals of pleasure in “Moulin Rouge.” We should think of sex as solely the means to a deeper spiritual connection rather than as just fun.
“The hell with all of it!” is the implicit message of Nigella Lawson. Even when she addresses the restorative food to eat after one binge too many, as she does in the “Nigella Bites” episode “Temple Food,” she cannot suppress her sensual nature. Slicing a duck breast for “Gingery-Hot Duck Salad,” Lawson pours the blood back into the sauce she prepares for dressing the salad. Holding the bloody carving board, she says, “If you weren’t here, I’d be licking this.” Of course she would. It’s the frosting-on-the-beater moment, the quest for the crackling in a pan that’s just held a roast pork, the sucking of bare rib bones to get any stray bits of meat still clinging. It speaks of enjoyment and, I think, of love, not only for the food itself, but for the people you prepare it for, and for your own abilities to savor it.
Lawson is an instinctive, rather than a precise cook, often providing only the barest information about measurements, cooking times, and so forth. I don’t think that’s just a ploy to get you to buy the program’s $35 accompanying volume of “Nigella Bites” for the recipe details. More than one person I know who loves watching Lawson has complained to me that her printed recipes are not always reliable (many of the complaints center on her baking book “How to Be a Domestic Goddess”). I think her watch-and-learn method is an attempt to impart a sense of freedom to her audience. Just as she will not be contained by traditional notions of what constitutes fine cuisine (which, of course, leads to a broader, deeper, more profound appreciation of “fine,” one freed of finickiness), she does not want people to be constrained by the strictures of a recipe. She envisions the kitchen as sexologists have envisioned the bedroom — a place to discover your own way of doing things, a place to be true to what tastes good to you.
That may make her more of a guide for experienced cooks. It’s an oddity of cookbooks that some of the more complex and exact recipes to be found from gifted chefs are often easier for beginning cooks than the “basic” cookbooks they are often given as gifts. God only knows how many beginner chefs, how many sons and daughters going into their own apartments for the first time, have been given “The Joy of Cooking.” It took me years to appreciate that book. Every time I looked up a basic recipe, there were at least two or three of those damn arrows directing me to another recipe I had to learn before embarking on the one I wanted to make. Simplicity is the hardest thing to learn. I’m fairly confident roasting a chicken (or frying it), throwing together biscuits for breakfast or strawberry shortcake (I’m not too modest to say that my biscuits have been praised by Southerners on at least two occasions) or preparing a tomato sauce for pasta. When it comes to chicken soup, the best I can yet hope for is my wife to taste it and say, “It’s almost as good as your mother’s” (and for her to be right). As for salad dressing, that condiment that Julia Child claims is so easy to make she sees no reason for buying it bottled — forget it. I’ve been left with an oily, tasteless mess so often that I thank the cooking gods for Brianna’s Asiago Caesar dressing.
If you have some sense of what you like, and find cooking not just a means to an end but something sustaining in itself, then the freedom Lawson extends can be liberating. Watching her, I often find myself trying to think of things I can substitute for some of her ingredients (particularly her fondness for vile cilantro), and that, I suspect, is the sort of improvisation she hopes to inspire. For instance, her recipe for steak Mirabeau — steak pan-fried in butter and olive oil and then topped with a sauce of reduced red wine and mashed anchovy fillets — calls for the steak to be topped with sliced black olives. I hate the little buggers. So I just leave them off and I’m still left with that steak, the flavor of the meat accompanied by the richness of the wine and given some bite by the salty fishiness of the anchovies.
Every episode of “Nigella Bites” ends with the same coda — Nigella in her pj’s sneaking into her darkened kitchen for a late night run on the fridge. It can be a plate of mini pancakes, one — preferably two — slices of cake, or, when nothing appeals, she might just grab a shade of the nail polish she keeps in there (living with a woman who does the same, I’m used to seeing a selection of tiny, colored bottles at the back of the fridge). It’s the perfect ending, an ode to what spoilsports tell you isn’t good for you — eating late at night — and a stop that leads you, as I think Lawson or any true sensualist would want it, to bed.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)