The Not Elizabeth David
During lockdown: thinking about food, preparing food and making short work of the results, has kept this writer (largely) free of brain fog. Whilst hopefully keeping ‘The Runner’ on course for her next marathon, even as that reality fades further into the distance with each new Covid pronouncement.
Another, blessed, time filler has been dipping into my vast accumulation of food related books, which I use more in the nature of a launch pad for ideas – rather than a grim list of measurements to be slavishly adhered to.
Patience Gray is a particular favourite, remembered for two great cookery books: Plats Du Jour, or Foreign Food, written with Primrose Boyd around 1954, and Honey From A Weed which didn’t see the light of day for a further 30 years.
The first of these guided aspiring hostesses – no men cooking at home in the 1950s it seems – towards the ‘proper execution of French and continental bourgeois cookery’. The first mass marketed cookbook, selling over 100,000 copies on publication, proved more influential than the loudly lauded Elizabeth David.
The second book was a remarkably redolent account of her years living the Mediterranean way of life, most memorably in a remote farmhouse in the Apulia region of Italy – eschewing the normal conveniences of refrigerators, gas cookers, electric light, telephones or running water right up to her death in 2005.
The book reads more like field notes for a primitive, fast vanishing, way of life. And, to my mind, gave birth to the concept of cookery book as autobiography.
She never really settled on a career as such (having two illegitimate children in the 1930s whilst singularly refusing to marry the father probably jarred a bit with potential employers).
However, after the success of Plats du Jour, she ran the Observer’s women’s page – you read that correctly, it does say women’s page – until she was fired for presuming said singular page should be used to inform and educate, rather than advise on the usages and applications of various household gadgets.
I’d love to have met her. According to Tom Jaine, “Encounters with Patience were memorable. She had a way of speaking that was at once Delphic, world-weary and mischievous.”
And too, envy the splendid disconnect that a letter to her sister illustrates. ‘Tuesday… early April… say 4TH… dearest Tania… thanks to the rain we have been living on wild asparagus.’ (I love that ‘say 4TH’.)
An obituary informed us her main interest was ‘the potential richness of minimalism’. In Honey From a Weed she writes: ‘Poverty rather than wealth gives the good things of life their true significance’. And towards the end of her life she was to write: “The study of what human beings can do without us has hardly begun.”
Both of these observations have a striking relevance during these days and from this place where we are now.
What Patience Gray wished for, more than anything else, was to take the cookbook out of its dusty recipe cul-de-sac, out of the ghetto of the humdrum and out of the daily chore, into the helter-skelter business of everyday life.
A singular ambition: and a perfect obituary.
David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster is another good companion for these woebegone days. It pricked my interest in 2003 because I kept a lobster as a pet in my pub in Leith. Which in itself is not exceeding strange, the poet Gérard de Nerval did just that in fin de siècle Paris, going so far as to take Thibault – his crustacean’s name – for daily walks in the Palais Royal, attached to a blue ribbon.
The piece is also available on line. Space here only for two pieces of Wallace reportage: ‘Do lobster have brains? Indeed they do, in the form of a cerebral ganglion connected to the nerve ends. Which could/should mean they are sentient’. And…
‘Americans, in a hurry, poke holes in their carapace and microwave them live’.
Patience Gray and partner at home in Apulia