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Cooking with Clarissa Dickson Wright

Just in case you think [lard] is unhealthy, don’t be put off by that.

-Clarissa Dickson Wright

The last half of the duo known as The Two Fat Ladies has left the cooking world. Clarissa Dickson Wright came across as the sharper one in the outfit which stormed to television culinary stardom in the 1990s. Jennifer Paterson fronted as the other half, the driver of the celebrated Triumph Thunderbird which took both of them across Britain in a cheery hunt for food. The overwhelming effect of their presence lead to parodies, resentment and a good deal of affection. They were quite simply impossible to ignore.

Their entire persona and physicality was a full frontal assault on anorexic trimness, that tidy, body perfect image of the television world that did more damage to actual health than any fatty meal ever did. The idiot box – at least when it came to programming – would tend to attract a fat free ideal. The Two Fat ladies were the dark knights flaying and rotting the slimmers.

The Cooking Channel runs with that theme, insisting in their introduction to the series that, “The Two Fat Ladies are cooks, not chefs – they reject the pretensions and elaborations of haute cuisine and are aggressively unfashionable, delighting in such ingredients and clotted cream, lard and fatty meats.” Typical dishes include Bubble and Squeak and Beef à la Will Moreland.

Dickson Wright’s life began on June 24 1947 as a linguistic mouthful, jam packed with names. Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright made various noble names seem a tad short. “My parents,” she would explain, “had great trouble deciding what to call me in the first place”. When a name was found, they promptly got sozzled on their way to the church.

Bright as a button, Dickson Wright graduated with law and was called to the bar – the youngest woman in Britain to have attained that honour. Her legal career was cut off amidships – alcohol had begun to take its toll after the death of her mother, whom she adored. Less affection was felt for her autocratic and violent father, whom she fought with defensive savagery. The turn of events propelled her towards a near-lethal abyss of alcoholism. More money, she contends, and she would have been dead. Life continued through cooking – in other people’s houses. “Of course,” she mused wryly, “it’s only the upper classes who will become domestic servants now.” Making food was an act of self-mercy and salvation. It was also powerful.

The partnership with Patterson began in 1994 when television producer Pat Llewellyn hit upon the contrarian combination as a way of running against the healthy food trend that had grabbed the culinary circuit. Their appearance on BB2 was not welcome by some critics. Victor Lewis Smith was one, noting their “uncompromising physical ugliness” and “thoroughly ugly personalities”. As ugly as critics would contend, the duo proved relentless in their vendetta against slimming regimes.

Various foods and ingredients came in for either punishment or praise. Lentils were to be eliminated from the diet. “You have no idea how randy it makes vegetarians – it’s why I always see ripped packets of lentils in health food shops.” On butter meeting a pan: “You really want to get it well-greased. Did you see ‘Last Tango in Paris’? Something like that.” On bacon: “I’m told that more vegetarians relapse on bacon than any other substance.”

Some of this was patent nostalgia, and it showed. Dickson Wright was no marching progressive. She was born, and abused, in privilege. She was the John Betjeman of the kitchen, bringing to life abandoned recipes and an abandoned approach to food. She was seen as a “Tory toff”, a fan of hunting, shooting and fishing. Vegetarians were to be loathed, not encouraged. But Suzanne Moore of The Guardian (Mar 18) would have to concede that her “embrace of life” was laudable. She had “bullish integrity”, notably in exposing the role of domestic violence in the home.

The recipes confounded as much as amused, and there was much to say on keeping what was seen on the screen exactly where they were found. Food critic for the New York Times, Suzanne Hamlin, was particularly puzzled in her attempt to follow recipes from Cooking With the Two Fat Ladies (1998). The edible “hedgehog” – a five-pound meatloaf sporting olives for eyes and almonds for prickles – was one such dish (New York Times, Feb 25, 1998). Hamlin complained about poor research – the provenance of various recipes; little “transcultural editing” for an American audience immune to British pithiness. As “one more sloppy compendium of recipes in a field already so full of carelessness, this book is a standout.”

Hamlin’s attitudes reveal how easily puritanical the world of food – and food criticism – can be. Chefs, certainly those with such mindless baggage as Michelin stars, are more like storm troopers, controlling their staff with authoritarian glee and running kitchens like gastronomic concentration camps. Dickson Wright was an aggressive sort, but not in the storm trooper way. Heartily eccentric individualism was what mattered, the sort that detractors would call “dotty”.

The puritans were certainly having none of her observations and writings on British food. Her History of English Food garnered mixed reviews despite proving prize winning – again, the critics brandished their knives at the casualness, that offensive fact that one might actually be enjoying making and eating food. It seemed lazy – to one critic writing in The Guardian (Oct 28, 2011), it was “flabby and tasteless”, filled with “I’d guess’ and “I’d suspect” expressions. What we had gotten was “the prose version of a supermarket chicken, bred so as not to alarm the weedy tastebuds of the masses.” Forget it, comes the suggestion, and make a dash for such works as Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England (1954). Dickson Wright could hardly have cared one jot. Rich food as love, food as fatty, righteous defiance and blistering fun – that was all that mattered.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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