The first time I heard of Clarissa Dickson Wright was her appearance, along with the late Jennifer Paterson, on the t.v. cookery programme ‘Two Fat Ladies’. While the 1980s and 1990s had an explosion of cookery programmes as entertainment; Two Fat Ladies stood out amongst them and became a much loved show. It was a little unusual to have two mature female presenters with Received Pronunciation English accents, reminiscent of the early days of the BBC. It was clear the pair worked well as a double act and revelled in expressing some very strongly held beliefs about food and cooking.
Clarissa Dickson Wright (or CDW as she tends to be initialised) has been a food writer for years but this is the first time I’ve read one of her non-recipe books.
A History of English Food sounded interesting to me as I’ve not read much previously on food history. One thing I did know was the idea of English people eating nothing but giant-sized roast meats in times of yore was an overblown image, if not an outright myth.
The period covered in this book is from the medieval age up to the 2000s. It’s not only about the food of the day either; here you’ll find wider contexts relating to agriculture, politics, cultural changes, wars, European and American history, the Kings and Queens of England and snippets of poetry and songs.
CDW gets off to a strong start covering the High Middle Ages to the late 1500s with particular interest in Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, a rare example of a wealthy and powerful ruling woman in that time period. The writing has a clearly passionate tone; explaining some of the earliest use of heavily spiced dishes and the general lifestyle of both the rich and poor presents a vivid picture of England under the Plantagenet and Tudor reigns.
This section also has an instance of less than clear detail. The use of galingale is claimed as being present in English cooking since 1130. I took this to mean galangal more commonly seen in S.E Asian cooking, as it’s mentioned alongside ginger. The text doesn’t say that the word galingale is also used for the rhizome of some sedges – which are not related to the ginger family, so it’s confusing as to which galingale was included in recipes.
As the book starts to cover the Stuart period it does show some signs of becoming a little less well-organised. Passages jump back and forth from the early 1600s to the 1700s. This makes the social and cultural changes difficult to track in a linear fashion. It is also where one of the drawbacks to CDW’s writing style becomes apparent. There’s an awful lot of hypothesis, personal anecdote and creative imaginings that have more to do with the author’s own opinions. This can be highly entertaining and colourful reading. Factually it is on shaky ground because there’s no evidence to support the theories.
For the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the flow of the narrative becomes smoother although CDW seems to have a harder time engaging with the subject matter and writing with the same level of enthusiasm. The writing picks up when covering one of the author’s favourite historical cooks; Hannah Glasse. Elsewhere there tends to be heavy use of literary quotes from Samuel Johnson to Jane Austen and William Thackeray to illustrate changes in culture. It’s interesting and does make a valid point about food in literature, however, it can read as padding where there isn’t much else to say.
The chapters that also detail agricultural improvements, such as stock breeding, are perhaps not the most fascinating to read unless you have a specific interest in cattle. They do attempt to offer a context on how agriculture turned into agribusiness over generations and that the judicious use of scientific discoveries improved the diets of a great many people.
Sadly, the writing does bring up some unsavoury social snobbery. Two separate mentions of ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher make it clear that Clarissa Dickson Wright is no fan of hers. Fair enough, if not having a lot to do with food. Sniping at Mrs. Thatcher’s social manners due to being the daughter of a middle-class grocer says something entirely different from political disagreement.
The closing chapters, which do have some good writing about more modern food trends, includes mentions of famous cookery writers and programmes, including her own appearance on Two Fat Ladies. While well known t.v. names appear – Graham Kerr, Fanny Craddock, Delia Smith, Keith Floyd and influential writers such as Elizabeth David, the total absence of Jamie Oliver is noteworthy. For people aware that CDW has a long-standing dislike of Mr. Oliver this will not be a surprise. Whether he is personally liked or not; it’s undeniable he has had a very popular impact on food culture in the U.K from the 1990s to the current day. It does indicate a rigid determination to ignore that entirely.
A selection of recipes dating from medieval times to 18th century are included for the reader to try. For me; some seem rather pedestrian when compared to other, grander, recipes that are mentioned in the main text.
The essential conclusion: Clarissa Dickson Wright certainly has a wide, even consummate, experience of English food, cooking and farming. Whilst recognising she’s no shrinking violet; it’s disappointing to find that CDW’s views consistently get in the way of a more fact-based perspective. Food history, much like any other historical work, does not work quite so well when it becomes all about the author and their biographical details. Taken as a personal journey through English food this can be a lively read; as historical writing I’m uncertain of its overall accuracy.