"(Re)covering" the Spectacular Domestic: Culinary Cultures, the Feminine Mundane, and Brand Nigella
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"(Re)covering" the Spectacular Domestic:
Culinary Cultures, the Feminine Mundane, and Brand Nigella

Introduction

Madonna is the true feminist. She exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode. She has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, aggressive, ambitious and funny—all at the same time.

Camille Paglia1

This paper unpacks the iconicity of brand Nigella. In doing so, we show that the cultural logic of the economic space occupied by this brand springs from signifiying networks of interpenetrating positions generated within discourses, not only of food, family, and cuisine, but of sex, gender, and sexuality. We argue that the core appeal of brand Nigella has as much to do with the recipes it makes available for "thinking" feminine identities,2 as it does the information it provides as a culinary instruction manual about the preparation of food. Indeed, in many respects, the coded instructions on taste and lifestyle norms carry the food recipes within carefully manipulated assemblages of glossy, mediatized treatments of culinary culture. The brand mines a rich seam of contemporary identity politics, "socially anchored consumption norms,"3 and public mood. As a cultural brand, it deliberately exploits persistent lifestyle tensions between the lived and mythical realities of the feminine mundane within such sites of perennial discursive struggle as domesticity and motherhood. Indeed, an atavistic marketplace appeal is partly animated by playing to existential anxieties that tend to accompany liberatory steps taken to resolve such tensions, through pursuing an aspirational gravity towards disinhibiting celebrations of voluptuary feminine appetites: those empowering spaces of transformation, transgression, glamour, and covetousness, where permission is always already available to think and shape other identities, other forms of sociality, other social lives.

As an exemplary celebrity brand within mediatized culinary culture, we claim that brand Nigella, like brand Madonna before it, dares not "transcend sexist identity stereotypes,"4 but rather must manufacture marketplace appeals that draw upon those stereotypes, and "trades in them." To explain how the calculated and inventive constructedness of the brand engenders such marketplace appeal, we consider the cultural logic of celebrity, unpacking the role that celebrity brands play in assuaging the existential doubt of transformative and transgressive identity work for managing insistent anxieties and contradictions that arrive with it. In exploring the cultural meanings that celebrity brands circulate, we employ the work of Holt,5 especially his concepts of cultural branding and identity myths, finding a role for what he refers to as "meaningful stories, myths that work as salves for contradictions in the nation's culture."6 Or as Barthes in his own time preferred: "Myth has an imperative, buttonholing character: stemming from an historical concept, directly springly from contingency…it is I whom it has come to seek."7

The context for our discussion of these analytical notions is the cultural logic of the culinary economy as it is represents itself in cookbooks and related media product, and how it feeds off and enlivens notions of motherhood and domesticity. Appadurai reckons that "we need to view cookbooks in the contemporary world as revealing artifacts of culture in the making."8 Brand Nigella, as we reveal, can thus can be understood as a particular version of culinary cosmopolitanism in the making;9 carefully crafted for its productive potential; carefully crafted to assuage the frustrations and anxieties of a primarily female middle-class audience; carefully crafted to give that audience permission to change; carefully crafted to tease desire out of its domestic closet and to illuminate the emancipatory potential of feminine ambition and aspiration; and carefully crafted to provide the salve to quell existential doubt that can become internalised as guilt. How all this is managed thus forms the substance of this paper.

Home is where the Celebrity Brand Is

Discussions of consumer culture theory10 have little to say on the notions of celebrity, domesticity and motherhood. The authors are curious about this, given that contemporary consumer culture is literally awash with manufactured celebrity product, laboring to help consumers fashion and refashion desiring selves...