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BOOK REVIEW:

Cooking with the two fat ladies

This is the second series of books that I rediscovered during the early months of COVID lock-down,The Two Fat Ladies. My mind is blank about how I gravitated to this one, maybe because of a book at home, or looking longingly at a collection of VHS tapes, and no longer having a recorder. Thank heavens for the internet where I found snippets and full episodes of the old TV programs with these two remarkable women. Apparently you can also find their programs on the TV Food Network. However, the Los Angeles Public Library owns the complete series on DVDWay back when Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright first appeared in the United States, it was on a PBS cooking program, and they were an immediate sensation for several reasons.  At that time no one would ever refer to themselves as “fat” or wanted to be known that way. The personalities and life experiences of these two women far exceeded their physicality. Lastly, they were themselves: unique, witty, fascinating and unpredictable. In today's TV-land it seems many presenters purposely try to be sensational, whereas Jennifer and Clarissa simply were. In short order, they were on tours of the United States; appeared on late night TV; spoofed on SNL; and in Australia, fans waited in long lines to have books autographed.

The idea for the program came from television producer Patricia Llewellyn, who knew both women and introduced them to each other.

Clarissa’s thoughts about the program’s title:

  • “We don’t mind ‘Two', and there’s nothing wrong with ‘Fat’, but we don’t like ‘Ladies’. It makes us sound like a public convenience.” 

Producer Patricia Llewellyn’s thoughts about the two women:

  • “If anything, they are a little more toned down on screen than they are in the flesh.”

  • “Everyone asks what they are like to work with. It would be dishonest to say that it was always easy … when your crew includes two loud-mouthed, bold-spirited presenters who are rather intolerant of bad cooking and do not believe in that rather English habit of never complaining."

  • “... in an industry where women’s success in front of the camera is mostly defined by youthful good looks and anodyne personalities, Jennifer and Clarissa’s success is an enormous achievement.”

  • Regarding the United States: Clarissa had some very definite ideas about America and was not that eager to visit, but Jennifer had lived in the United States and was a big fan of old American films.

  • In Hollywood, they were booked at the Chateau Marmont. Sitting at the bar, Patricia was excited when she spotted Keanu Reeves across the room. Jennifer had no idea who was. When he was pointed out to Clarissa, she said, “Oh him. He’s the nice young man I’ve been chatting with beside the pool all afternoon. He never mentioned he was an actor. In fact, we talked about vegetables.”

Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dixon Wright did nothing but express themselves, as they tooled around England, Ireland and Scotland, on a black 1996 Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle with sidecar. Jennifer commandeered the bike with Clarissa in the sidecar. They would “drop in” at homes, restaurants, fishing villages, abbeys, churches, castles, embassies, motorcycle ralleys, church fêtes, in order to cook for other people. Neither of these women was formally trained, but each knew a great deal about food, food preparation, cooking and people. They had very definite opinions, some of which they agreed upon, others they did not. They agreed that the Americans and the Dutch had done too much work to make perfect-looking fruits and vegetables that were lacking in flavor and smell. Today, the women would would be aghast at anything that was GMO. To their way of thinking there was no substitute for "proper" (aka real) butter, cream, salt, and other specific ingredients; they had no patience with vegetarians and were adamant about the need for meat; supermarkets were deemed "palaces of hell' because there was nothing like local fish mongers, butchers, bakers, fresh fruit and vegetable stalls. While cooking in Mevagissey, and preparing scallops using local cream, Jennifer said, "There is no substitute for cream. Yogurt is for breakfast or a sick tummy."  In addition to their candid opinions about food, Jennifer might suddenly quote from Shakespeare or Keats, or launch into a song from a musical.  The programs were not long, about 30 to 40 minutes, and by necessity cooking programs must have an agenda. But those spur-of-the moment asides appear to be just that

They were candid with each other and with all of us. Each came from privileged backgrounds, although not necessarily contented families.  Clarissa had been a barrister, and was a recovering alcoholic, overcoming a serious drinking problem. By contrast, Jennifer drank and smoked.  

They promoted flavor, richness, and did not give a hoot about so-called healthy eating.  And, in the end it was not the food that done 'em in, but other factors in their lives, which were done to excess: smoking and drinking. Having lived life on their own terms may have resulted in their somewhat early demises. Jennifer was an avid smoker and in many an episode, when outdoors, or at the end of an episode, she had a ciggy in her bejeweled fingers that had beautifully manicured nails, polished bright red. In 1999, at the age of 71, Jennifer Paterson was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, and as a devout Catholic was ready for whatever came next. She had a very brief stay in hospital, where she was visited by some of the very well-known, with whom she had socialized and/or cooked for.  Prince Charles, for whom she had cooked, sent her "a vat of organic soup and ice cream from his private kitchens along with a hand-written note." In the preface to Two Fat Ladies Obsessions, Patricia Llewellyn recounts Jennifer's escapades and hijinks, which continued in the hospital and to the very end of her life. Jennifer died on August 10, which was the feast day of St. Laurence, patron saint of cooks. Clarissa Dickson Wright was younger than Paterson and soldiered on for about ten more years, writing books about food and lecturing. She was 66 years old, and as a recovering alcoholic had some physical ailments that resulted from her years of heavy drinking.

Something to keep in mind before cooking or baking anything from the books or programs. First came the television programs and then came the books. In doing research for this review, I found an article that was somewhat critical of the reliability of some of the recipes. Although the women were British, the food is not solely British. Jennifer favored Italian cooking and Clarissa's interest was Southeast Asia. On the TV programs, either woman would say add "a slosh" or "a slurp" of something.  I have never baked anything using their recipes, but I have cooked some main dishes and prepared cold foods. So cooks beware before venturing forth with some of these recipes, or "receipts" as Jenifer called them.  Take into consideration Britishisms, e.g.,  faggots are sausages; papals are slipppers. British cooking ingredients that I find intriguing: pickled walnuts and anchovy essence. The terminologies for different types of creams, flours and sugars are different from ours. A good deal of the mixing, especially for baking, was done by hand. Many stoves are the British AGA, but accomodations are noted for regular cooktops. The WI or Women's Institute, a venerable organization, was lauded by Jennifer and Clarissa.

It's all there, in the books and the TV programs. In the evenings, two years ago, they brought a great deal of joyful distraction and still do, for me and others. Recently checking a website, many viewers' comments were made in recent months. Thank you so much: Jennifer and Clarissa, and Patricia who brought them and us together. In the spirit of the endings of most programs, after making some sparkling remarks, they would toast each other, "To your very good health!" which I say to all three of them. 

Each woman wrote books on their own, but The Two Fat Ladies books are attributed to both of them. The following will help: Jennifer Paterson can be found here. Books by Clarissa Dickson Wright can be found here.

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