As television’s dear yet divisive domestic goddess retires from her on-screen duties, we put Delia and her boiled eggs under the spotlight…
So, this month we’ve said goodbye to one of our most famous television cooks – but don’t worry, she’ll still be available at the touch of a button, on the wonderful World Wide Web. Yes, ‘Saint Delia’ as she’s so often been called (her ability to help the completely hapless, and her wholesome image, are unsurpassed) is unchaining herself from her on-screen stove, after a long and successful career, and millions of books sold.
She says she’s relinquishing her long-held position as a mealtime mentor for many simply because she’s been doing it for 30-odd years and has run out of steam with recipe ideas (fair enough), but also because she’s been put off by the shift from education to entertainment when it comes to food television nowadays. Which brings me neatly to the crux of my discussion. Delia has split opinion over the years and here, I think, is why.
Delia is a homely, motherly, no-nonsense figure – a gastronomic guardian if you will – and those are rather nice qualities to have in a British institution. Nice and safe. Indeed, Antony Worrall Thompson called her ‘the safest chef on TV’; though I’m pretty sure this was not meant as a compliment (Egon Ronay went a step further by dubbing her the ‘missionary position of cookery’). Straightforward, reliable, instructional cooking was the name of Delia’s game – which in her own opinion and many others’, was what we actually needed, rather than the flashing lights, big personalities and drama of shows televised in recent years. Food, Glorious Food – the X Factor-style chef show coming soon to ITV – looks set to be a perfect example of this. Delia always maintained that she was a cook rather than a chef.
Delia was direct and undemanding. She didn’t try to promote a certain trendy lifestyle or make you green with envy over her super-stylish, state-of-the-art kitchen and effortless artsy presentation; she didn’t surround herself with a magical, organic wonderland and transport you to an entirely different, Good Life type of world like the lovely Hugh F-W’s River Cottage does, and make you want to cry into your boring old Bolognese.
As for literary efforts, hers were and still are the Penguin Classics of the cookbook world. Published in 1971, the original How to Cheat at Cooking was Delia’s first book and got the nation more hands-on in the kitchen, while her various other volumes sat – dependable saviours – upon shelves for years as much-relied-upon parts of the furniture.
And then there was the Delia Effect – sales of particular supermarket goods would rocket after she’d cooked them up on prime-time TV. She did wonders for a struggling firm in Lancashire too, after she praised their omelette pan – they sold 90,000 in four months instead of their normal 200 a year. I bet they couldn’t believe their luck. And who can forget her foray into the football world? As a Norwich city football majority shareholder, Delia suddenly gained a lot more credibility where some were concerned, especially with reports of her shouting ‘let’s be having you’ to fans, which made her seem a little more down to earth.
On the other hand, those who detest Delia will take your ‘homely’ and ‘motherly’ and replace it with ‘boring’ and ‘matronly’. They will say she’s outdated, stiff as a starched shirt and more than a little patronising. Even fellow chefs such as Gary Rhodes criticised her How to Cook series – which featured step-by-step lessons on making toast and boiling eggs – declaring it an insult to the intelligence of the British viewing public.
It gets worse. A writer for The Times once said she had as much charisma as instant mash, while after hearing some rather scathing comments made about him, Delia’s best mate Mr Worrall Thompson (again) joked by saying he couldn’t be doing too badly to have provoked such a tirade from ‘the coldest woman on television’. Delia herself has confessed to being ‘a bit of a bitch’ as well, in a move that that I can only guess was designed to make her seem more real. Hmm, new PR, perhaps?
But whatever you think of her, there’s one thing this resilient lady has got over many at the moment, and that’s longevity. Delia can sit back and relax now, safe in the knowledge that she’s built a steady fan base on more than snazzy production, dramatic music and staged spats; leaving the youngsters to pander to producers’ whims and prove they’re no flash in the pan. Farewell Delia, we wish you a long and happy retirement.