Nigella’s here in New Zealand promoting her latest book, simply titled Simply Nigella. She’s too busy to be interviewed by The Spinoff, sadly. Instead, Calum Henderson lined up in Newmarket and bought a $65 book – one our cheapskate organisation definitely could not afford – just to spend five seconds in the presence of the culinary legend.
“Excuse me,” called out a lady from of the driver’s side window of a late-model SUV, “what are you lining up for?”
A voice from further back in the queue replied: “Nigella.”
“Ooooooh!” said the lady in the SUV, and carried on driving.
The line snaked down Broadway, around the corner onto Morrow Street, and, after I joined at quarter to 12, around another corner, maybe all the way to the parking building at the end of Bourke Street.
Big week for the unfairly maligned central Auckland shopping hub of Newmarket: last Wednesday American film maestro Quentin Tarantino went to Event Cinemas to watch his own movie; today British food writer and television personality Nigella Lawson sat down in Paper Plus to autograph her own books.
She has written 11 of them now, the latest of which, 2015’s Simply Nigella – the one with a recipe for avocado on toast – was being sold off a trolley by a couple of Paper Plus staff with a mobile Eftpos machine. I bought a copy so that I’d have something to do once I got to the front of the queue.
Directly ahead of me an older lady had brought along one of Nigella’s previous books, and was passing the time carefully studying a recipe for blueberry cornmeal muffins. Behind me a kind, slightly goofy dad and his bright young daughter speculated over the celebrity’s arrival.
“What kind of car do you think she’ll arrive in?” asked the daughter. “Probably something normal so people can’t tell it’s her,” suggested the dad. “You mean like a van?” “Yeah it could be a van.” They both laughed at the shared mental image of glamorous Nigella Lawson pulling up to Paper Plus Newmarket in a crappy old Hiace.
Whatever type of vehicle she arrived in, the queue started moving at the scheduled time of 12 noon – slow at first, then increasingly fast. Nigella was clearly hitting her stride, churning through the autographs. I tried to think of something funny or newsworthy I could ask her to write in my book. Could I go viral if I got her to write down the meaning of life or reveal her One Weird Trick for eternal youth?
I could at the very least get her to sign page 354: avocado on toast – the recipe so widely mocked for its excessive simplicity when she demonstrated it on her TV show, but which perfectly illustrates why Nigella is so well-loved, why she towers above just about any other TV chef on the planet. She gets it: avocado on toast is delicious.
A man standing just outside the entrance quickly put paid to this fanciful notion by insisting that everyone’s books be ready and turned to what in library terms is called the “tp,” or title page. It was the first step in a highly regimented machinery designed to enable Nigella to sign her books as effortlessly and efficiently as possible.
“Nigella’s not doing any personalised inscriptions, only signatures,” another handler further down was tasked with telling everyone. Mistaking my sincere relief for disappointment, she hastened to add: “…but it’s a beautiful signature.”
By then I could see the signee, hunkered down by the office supplies section, signing books and answering questions as if in a hypnotic trance. She wore a leopard-print dress, and was perhaps slightly smaller than I had imagined. She wasn’t licking sauce decadently off a wooden spoon or shovelling a crumbling meringue into her mouth. If she had passed me on the street on my way there I probably wouldn’t have looked twice.
Still, it’s not every day you get to see a genuine international celebrity in Newmarket Paper Plus. I felt a bit like a twitcher, one of those people who travel the world just to catch a glimpse of as many different species of bird as they can find, all for the small satisfaction of ticking them off their list. Nigella… tick.
On request I handed my copy of Simply Nigella to one handler, who then handed it to another handler, who placed it on the table before the woman herself. Nigella decanted a bottle of chilled water into a glass and took a few slow sips. (“We’re just refuelling,” said her primary handler.) She wore the look of someone who didn’t particularly want to be engaged in conversation – like she was on a train or eating lunch in a food court.
What to say? I just stood there and waited for her to sign the book. In the end a woman emerged from the scrum of people who had already had their books signed and were now trying to take selfies with Nigella in the background. “How long are you in New Zealand for?” she blurted out.
Nigella looked up and slowly sighed. “Oh,” she said sadly in her famous vowelly English accent, “about a week.” “Oh OK,” said the woman as she receded back into the scrum. “Thank you very much,” I mumbled as I scooped up my freshly-autographed book.
Nigella, who will be appearing at Invercargill Paper Plus from 2:30pm to 3:30pm on Tuesday afternoon, was already signing the next copy.
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