• I watch the boxset of Nigella Feasts and I inevitably feel better. (SBS Food)Source: SBS Food
The catchcry, “I’m trying to eat less carbs,” defined my 20’s. Yet, I never seem satisfied...Enter into this maelstrom of self-loathing: Nigella Lawson.
By
Daniel Nour

31 Mar 2021 - 9:06 AM  UPDATED 23 Apr 2021 - 9:00 AM

In gym-bro sub-culture, strength and muscularity equal moral virtue. I hear phrases like: “Bro, do you even lift?” or “Don’t eat that bro, trust me, I’m doing you a favour!” or “Why weren’t you at the gym this morning?” The fat on my body becomes, not just the evidence of a healthy appetite, but a sign of laziness. The little rolls around my tummy, my thick thighs and substantial bottom are not the template of masculine physical perfection celebrated by gym-bros.

While food is a big part of Arab migrant culture, it’s not a joyful experience for millennial gym-bros. It’s not a means of bonding, or a means of sharing pleasure with a partner or friend. It is a unit of currency which you can employ in the pursuit of the perfect body. It is ‘high quality protein’ or ‘empty calories’ and nothing else.

While food is a big part of Arab migrant culture, it’s not a joyful experience for millennial gym-bros

As a result, I have worked my whole life to broaden out my shoulders, flatten my stomach with sit-ups and long bouts of deprivation, firm up my butt with endless squats. The catchcry, “I’m trying to eat less carbs,” defined my 20’s. Yet, I never seem satisfied. My body is simply never ‘good enough,’ never where it needs to be.

Enter into this maelstrom of self-loathing: Nigella Lawson. I watch the boxset of Nigella Feasts and I inevitably feel better. In her 2010 series, Nigella's Kitchen, Lawson comes down the steps of her grand inner-city London brownstone, bakes a peanut butter cheesecake in a black satin nightgown, gently unwraps the baking paper around the edges, shakes the cake and says, “It should have the merest hint of inner thigh wibble.” The extravagance of a cake made entirely of cream cheese, peanut butter and chocolate, so different from the functional tea cakes of my childhood, crumbly with butter, flour and vanilla, always makes me smile.

Solitary Sensations has Nigella eating a spaghetti carbonara straight from the pan. Spiced Up is a sumptuous feast where she serves a full array of ‘exotic foods’ in little ceramic bowls, including a creamy Mughlai chicken curry and a buff-coloured baba ghanoush. There were 14 episodes in total and each one drew me in deeper and deeper to Nigella-world. She enjoyed food for its own sake. There was no need for qualifications with her.

Lawson is the campest woman on television. For me, she inhabits a mythical status, far removed from the struggles and challenges of my everyday life in Western Sydney. Here I live, not with the breezy airs and graces of wealth and privilege, but within the modest walls of my apartment and in the even smaller confines of my conservative community.  

Lawson is daughter of Nigel Lawson, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who burdened middle class British working people, including migrants, with Thatcherite economic sanctions. She repurposes recipes from other cultures with irreverence – her Mexican food is, she admits, “inauthentically gringo”. Her hummus has peanut butter in it and her Italian is more, ‘Anglo-Italian’ than anything else. 

Lawson is the campest woman on television. For me, she inhabits a mythical status, far removed from the struggles and challenges of my everyday life in Western Sydney.

Why should a 30-year-old Egyptian man like me have such an avowed interest in this problematic figure?

It’s more than escapism. It goes right to the heart of my uncertainty around identity and body image.

I was a fat boy growing up. In a culture where love is conveyed through food, I ate for comfort. Makarona beshamel (a traybake of penne swathed in a cream sauce, interlaced with minced beef), ta3mia (Egyptian falafel), fera5 with batates (chicken and potato baked on the stove in a tomato sauce usually in one of my mum’s big red Bessemer pots) – I relished it all and left nothing on my plate, ever. 

Even now, walking home on an Autumn night past the timber fences of houses in Sydney’s West, I’m reminded, with a pang of nostalgic longing, of those monthly childhood barbecues with family and friends. I’m hungry still for the good food and that childhood certainty of being cared for, of being safe. The air was redolent with the smell of smoky lamb fat rendering out of bony cuts from the Lebanese butcher dad visited in Punchbowl and thick with the cumin and coriander wafting out of frying, torpedo-shaped kofta.

Over the years, the calories began to add up. My sedentary lifestyle – I watched TV and read, rather than run or play footy – left me tipping the scales at 5 foot seven and 78 kilograms by the time I was in Year 11.

I didn’t like myself. I started to run every night with assiduous, almost obsessive self-discipline. I pulled weights at the gym, cut treats and most carbs from my diet. This approach bore results, and I was applauded for it by my friends, my church and family.

“Daniel is so disciplined to have lost all that weight,” I heard or, “Daniel has really changed for the better.”

The positive reinforcement cemented what was essentially a self-destructive cycle. I began to see myself merely in terms of my weight. I tried to make myself vomit a couple of times when I had eaten too much. I hated seeing pictures of the old, fat me. These days, my capacity to enjoy food for its own sake, and of all the other pleasures life has to offer, is a work in progress. When in need, I still turn to Nigella. Her strong, no-nonsense approach to taking pleasure still bolsters me and over the years I have bought almost every single one of her tomes. Nigellisima, How to Eat, Simply Nigella, Nigella Kitchen

When in need, I still turn to Nigella. Her strong, no-nonsense approach to taking pleasure still bolsters me and over the years I have bought almost every single one of her tomes. NigellisimaHow to EatSimply NigellaNigella Kitchen

In three lifetimes, I could never cook all these recipes and don’t often have space to get to the kitchen anyway because of my Arab mother. Moving out of home has been a source of liberation: cooking and eating Nigella’s recipes on my own schedule and returning to my parent’s place for the comfort of a dish Mum makes with her own hands.

It’s strange that I should require a middle-aged British woman to validate me and tell me that taking pleasure isn’t weakness--to tell me that I’m ok. Yet when I feel depressed, when work is too hard, or a relationship has gone awry, I still curl up on the couch, usually with too much chocolate, and watch the full season of Nigella Feasts.

Those seeking support can contact the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673.

Daniel Nour is an Egyptian-Australian journalist and writer. He has been published in the New York Times and Meanjin and the Sweatshop anthologies, This Little Red Thing and Racism. In 2020, Daniel won "Young Journalist of the Year" in the Premier's Multicultural Communications Awards. He tweets at @daniel_nour.

This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.

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