Delia Smith has sold more than 21m copies of her cookery books and inspired generations of British home cooks. Her first name was included in the Collins English Dictionary in 2001, defined as “recipes in the style of the British cookery writer” and with the highlighted phrase “doing a Delia”. She was appointed a companion of honour to the late Queen for services to cooking in 2017, not long after she featured in Sir Peter Blake’s collage of great British icons in his updated Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album cover.
Delia, now 81, left school at 16, with no formal qualifications, to train as a hairdresser. She got her first job in a restaurant in Paddington in 1962. In 1969, she was taken on by the Daily Mirror as its food writer, and got her break on TV in the 1970s with her own show Family Fare and then food demonstrations on the kid’s programme Multi-Coloured Swap Shop. Within a decade she was a primetime fixture. Her 1995 Winter Collection was the fifth bestselling book of the 1990s and caused a national cranberry shortage. She retired from TV in 2013 to concentrate her energies on Norwich City FC, which she co-owns and chairs with her husband, Michael Wynn-Jones, and on her lifelong interest in meditation and spiritual growth reflected in her recent book, You Matter.
I don’t suppose you feel like an icon, but it must be gratifying to know that there is a generation of younger British chefs – Angela Hartnett, Tom Kerridge – who think of you in those terms?
I don’t, but it is. It’s quite different from how it used to be. These days I help to run the catering at the football club and one of the things I love about that is working a lot with young chefs. They keep me up to date.
Are you quite hands on?
I’m not the type of person who can do anything unless it’s hands on. That might be quite irritating to some people at the club. But that’s how I’m made. It’s too late to change.
You’ve been a big part of – and lived through – at least one revolution in British food and British cooking. When did that begin for you?
I remember a conversation I had in the 60s. I was talking about food to a historian, and I said: “What irritates me is everything is French, all the cookery terms. English cooking doesn’t get a look in.” And he said: “Well, that’s because in France, they had an industrial revolution, like we had. But then people went back to the land.” In England that never happened, so that the art of handing down cooking from mother to daughter was interrupted. The historian also said that in the 18th century, Britain was eating better than any other country, including France. So that got me to go and research the 18th century in books in the British Library. And you only had to look at cartoons of the time to see it was true.
You were growing up during rationing after the war. It seems those years and the decades that followed compounded that disconnection between Brits and their kitchens?
It was a pretty bleak time, food wise. You had women’s magazines showing people how to do things with baked beans and corn flakes. What really changed it was newspapers, like the Observer, with Jane Grigson at the time, writing in colour magazines. But still, for most people, it was very much pressing your nose up against this far-off food culture, without knowing the basics. I just felt, I’d like to do something about that.
Like everything in Britain, it was quite class-based at that point, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was definitely elitist. So, for me, it was a question of trying to take people back to the drawing board. Because I felt if you know the basics of something, then you can move on to the big stuff.
Do you remember the moment in your own cooking where you felt you were developing that sort of mastery?
I don’t think there was a moment. It was gradual. Writing recipes and learning from the people who were using the recipes. When I had a column, people used to write letters: “You said, use skinned tomatoes, but how do you skin a tomato?” I was there for those people.
Looking back at your BBC programmes, was the emphasis really on teaching as much as entertainment?
It wasn’t entertainment at all. Nobody would want to watch me prep stuff if they weren’t interested in learning to cook. It was very boring.
How far do you feel that you succeeded in giving people confidence?
I think I did help for maybe a couple of generations. I worked for a department at the BBC called Further Education. And they had their own slots in the evening. But at some point someone decided you couldn’t teach people at primetime, you needed entertainment. So really good entertainers came along like Keith Floyd. People like my father used to watch Keith, not because he was interested in learning to cook but he just liked Keith.
How do you feel about programmes like MasterChef?
I think they are the opposite of what I was trying to do. All that judging and competition. They make the kitchen seem scary again.
I was looking at your books we have at home and favourite recipes. The tarragon chicken pages in Delia’s Summer Collection can no longer be prized apart…
It’s funny, we do some food workshops at the football club. The first thing I do is tell people: “Bring your old cookery books.” Some of them are absolutely falling apart. And then you’ve got all the sort of gravy-splattered pages, so you get an idea of what they like, and that’s a good place to start.
When you decided to stop doing telly, about a decade ago, did you feel that you’d said all you’d wanted to say?
Exactly that. The BBC asked me to do the Cookery Course again. And we ended up doing something called How to Cook. And although I enjoyed it, I still felt, well, you know, I’ve done this before.
I’m sure you’ve had many offers since, but you’ve stuck to that belief. Any regrets?
Well, never say never. But I wouldn’t be physically capable of doing a series now I don’t think. A book, maybe. I think the key is now directing people towards seasons. There are still cookery programmes that will give a recipe for asparagus in November without thinking twice.
I suppose the thing that’s really changed in the last decade is the greater focus on sustainability. Do you think there’s something more to be said from you in that direction?
Well, I’ve just been reading the most incredible book, a big thick tome called The Great Plant-based Con [by Jayne Buxton]. It’s all about sustainability. I’m going to say something controversial here. But I feel there’s something wrong with this increasingly fashionable idea that all meat is bad. It’d be too complicated to go into it. But, to just put it into one word, it’s all about soil.
You mean the idea that farms should support the numbers of animals that optimise soil quality, and we should eat accordingly? Meat for special occasions.
Exactly. I have always loved vegetarian food and included lots of vegetarian recipes, but how I was brought up was you might have a Sunday roast, then you might have something made out of the leftovers. I did a book called Frugal Food in the 1980s when we were in a similar [political and economic] mess. Part of the message of that was, you know, if you’re going to eat meat, there is a whole animal there. And I tried to explain that cheaper cuts often had more flavour if you knew what to do with them. But again, a lot of that has gone out of the window.
I guess you’ve always been bombarded by lobbyists for different fads over the years. How have you kept those voices quiet?
I’ve often felt I’m in a room full of people, and they’re all standing around trying to tell me things. And I’m on all fours creeping in between them, trying not to be noticed. I remember being told that if you don’t put frozen food in your cookbook, you won’t sell it – or that textured vegetable protein was the greatest thing ever. I had the BBC tell me I had to change all my recipes from butter to margarine. I wasn’t persuaded by any of it.
You wrote a recent self-help book, You Matter, partly about meditation and listening to your inner self. I wonder if the evangelical spirit in your cooking – the need to teach – came from the same place?
Yes, it’s inexplicable but it’s always been there. If things are going wrong, I have to feel I’m doing something about it.
If you’re called upon to rustle up a lunch, what’s your current go-to?
Most of my ideas go into the food at the football club. We do weekly tastings and are always trying new things. It’s well known that my husband now does most of the cooking at home. But if I see something, I will do it. We have a little apricot tree and we got some apricots this summer, so I enjoyed doing things with those.
If you ever lie awake at night, what do you look back on with the most satisfaction?
I think just being able to achieve what I wanted to achieve, which was to try to teach people how not to be afraid of cooking.