By Clarissa Dickson Wright Ebury Press 1999
I was saddened to learn of the death of Clarissa Dickson Wright. As part of the Two Fat Ladies, she and Jennifer Paterson were a hoot to watch riding around the English countryside by motorcycle and sidecar, cooking in improbable locations including boarding schools and army barracks, and quipping bons mots as they basted everything in butter and lard.
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Though they were criticized for their liberal use of fat, I found it historically accurate considering the origins of many of their recipes. They relished the old ways of cooking, of grand dinners, and hunt breakfasts, and the more obscure bits of game cookery. No one cooks like that anymore, though you can see echoes of it in the nose-to-tail trend of today.
It was also refreshing to see two such real, earthy characters on television. This was back in the day when the Food Network was an upstart channel that would throw just about anything on and see if it would stick. A far cry from the slick package we see today--including a show that shows the selecting and packaging of the next food "star." I'm sorry, but I don't think you can manufacture personality.
And Dickson Wright was a personality. Many of the obituaries called her a real English eccentric. And maybe she was, but I think that is reductive. I think she was in on the game and well knew her entertainment value. But she always came across as genuine, intelligent, and witty. I would have loved to have had a meal with her.
Surprisingly, I don't have a Fat Ladies cookbook. But I do have Dickson Wright's anthology Food: What We Eat and How We Eat. It is a collection of favorite food writings in an A-to-Z format (the librarian in me approves). Each entry is introduced by Dickson Wright and you can hear her rich voice by turns informative, amused, vitriolic, and nostalgic.
The cover is pleasant but a bit bland, with no hint of the quirky visual collection inside. The images include standard photos, of course, but also many period illustrations from advertisements, books, paintings, cartoons, etc.
The entries range over the 20th century and include the expected: breakfast; junk food; haute cuisine and the unexpected: iguana; pong (as in odors not as in Atari); and ubiquitous. By covering the century, the reader gets a sense of the massive changes that occurred in food and cooking during that time, especially from the upheaval of the World Wars, with its changes to the class structure, the role of women, and the shrinking of the British Empire.
I'll end with this passage from the introduction:
"I have tried to capture here all these rites of passage. Food has become the new rock 'n' roll, and is commemorated in song, humour and wit, if not on the table. When I was young people spoke of food being replaced by a pill--and so far they have got that very wrong."
Thank goodness, Clarissa. And thank you for your writing, cooking, and spirit.