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Iconic TV Cook Delia Smith On Spirituality, The Need For Silence And Not Being Afraid To Fail

She may have turned 80, but cookery legend Delia Smith is showing no signs of slowing down.

“I still have a great zest for life,” she says. “If everybody did what I do they’d all be the same.

“If you keep yourself occupied it’s much better for you than thinking, ‘I’m going to put my feet up and watch the six o’clock news every day’.”

Long before Nigella Lawson, Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver became famous, Delia was the go-to TV cook of choice, teaching people easy-to-follow practical skills on all aspects of cooking, from how to make toast to organising delicious Christmas fare and even cheating at cooking.

Her ability to boost the sales of products she recommended became known as ‘the Delia effect’. Supermarkets ran out of cranberries in 1995 when she used them in her Winter Collection. Delia’s How to Cook TV series in 1998 led to a reported 10% increase in sales of eggs.

Smith’s mantra was that anyone could do it, as budding cooks followed her easy-to-follow, reliable recipes. When serving up a mouth-watering dish to their guests, dinner party hosts would announce with confidence, ‘It’s a Delia’.

Away from the kitchen, Smith still cheers on her team every week at Norwich City (she is joint majority shareholder of the club with her husband, Michael Wynn-Jones), never misses a match and her famous ‘Let’s Be ‘Avin’ You’ rallying cry on the pitch to supporters in 2005 remains one of the most memorable Premier League rants. Her current goal is to stop her team being relegated.

delia smith wearing norwich scarf
(Joe Giddens/PA)

To keep trim and healthy, she regularly cycles around the meadow which backs on to their home in Suffolk and only has one main meal a day.

Now, Smith is serving up a new book on spirituality, You Matter: The Human Solution.

Despite selling more than 21 million cookbooks, she was turned down by six publishers before she clinched a book deal – but she’s been following spirituality for years.

“It’s a lifetime of thought, and being fascinated by the subject. It took me five years to write it but all I can say is that what lockdown did is got it finished. The Covid pandemic became very relevant to it.”

Jacket of You Matter by Delia Smith (Mensch/PA)
(Mensch/PA)

While there is much information from philosophers, as well as a nod to cultural figures including Jimmy McGovern and Paul Simon, at the heart of the book is the need for us to unite in community and take care of our spiritual selves to help overcome life’s many problems. It examines consciousness, reflection and building a worldwide community. It’s a timely message.

“People say to me, ‘You can’t get the world together because you’d never get Russia, you’d never get China or North Korea’. I’m saying if the world did get together and we had [effective] world politics and world leadership, they wouldn’t be able to refuse.

“I’m an 80-year-old lady and I can’t do it, but I hope some of the seeds I’m sowing here will get to younger people because the younger generations can do something about it and they already are.

If you look in Myanmar, Belarus, Hong Kong, there have been tremendous outpourings of young people saying ‘We don’t want to live like this, we don’t want dictators’.”

She notes the need for quiet time, the peaceful silence needed to calm fears and provide reassurance and personally gets up early to have an hour of quiet time every day.

“It’s quite banal in a way because that’s all it takes for human beings to get in touch with the deeper part of themselves by having stillness and silence in their lives.

It’s not meditation because you are not going to ever empty your mind. It’s just giving yourself time to think. We have to come away from the noise.”

Delia Smith in 1979 (PA Archive)
Delia Smith in 1979 (PA Archive)

She also explores the importance of not wasting time, of reconnecting with a disconnected world and of finding hope in humanity to help secure our destiny.

There is still some time for cooking, as she is involved with the football club’s catering, her recipe website (deliaonline.com) and online cookery school. Her husband does the cooking at home when she’s working.

Does he follow her recipes? “He’s supposed to,” she chuckles.

As her cookbooks are passed through generations, Smith’s reliable mantra lives on.

She says she doesn’t miss TV cooking and rarely watches food programmes, but remains a teaching influence through her online cookery school.

“A child of 12 can learn to make an omelette on their way to school on the bus if it’s on their phone. People are now giving my book, the Cookery Course to their kids when they go to university so there’s a new lot of people using it,” she says.

But she doesn’t follow TV cookery shows these days and hasn’t got much to say about them.

“Cookery shows are 10 a penny,” she observes. “I still find that young people don’t know how to cook. Sometimes if they are watching certain programmes it makes it look like nobody can do it anyway.”

Food Dinner GIF by Masterchef - Find & Share on GIPHY

Being willing to fail is one of the topics she explores in the book and it’s something she has experienced herself.

As a child, she failed the 11-plus and left school with no O-levels, and when her TV and book career launched, there were times when she also had to face her fears.

She recalls being at a book signing in Boots in Leeds when literally no one bought her book, although every now and again someone would ask her if she knew where the corn plasters were.

“I still giggle when I remember the time a bookshop hired the same bodyguard for me that they had used to protect Gordon Ramsay, only for the poor man to watch me sign copies for six people and a dog!“ she writes.

Today, she reflects: “We could teach children from an early age that it’s OK to fail but instead we are pushing them to say they’ve got to get this many qualifications and be the best you can.

Obviously do your best, but it doesn’t matter if you fail. We should teach children to grow up without fear of what they can or can’t do.”

She remains optimistic that humanity will get it right in the end, despite war, climate change and all the worries of the world.

While her immediate thoughts are focused on spirituality, there are still times when she is happily reminded of the legacy of her cookery success.

“There’s still a hangover from it. If I go to an away match, a couple of young guys will come up to me and say, ‘My mum loves you’.

“But I’m very grateful that I don’t have to get up in the morning and do a half-hour TV show. It was hard, hard work.”

You Matter: The Human Solution by Delia Smith is published by Mensch Publishing, priced £25 hardback, £14.99 paperback. Available now.