Cooks and chefs always seem to be in the news these days. We’ve had Jamie Oliver campaigning to bring about an improvement in school dinners. Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant openings continue to make the papers, as do his reality TV shows – peppered, of course, with his famously brutal management style and expletives. And my personal bugbear, Delia, can guarantee massive sales of a food item or kitchen utensil just by using it on one of her shows (remember how suddenly everyone was using sun-dried tomatoes?), although these days she’s almost as famous for her antics at Norwich City FC.
One of my favourites, though, is about as far removed from this type of celebrity chef as you could imagine. Healthy eating’s anathema to her – she uses prodigious amounts of lard and butter in her recipes, and she admits to a pathological hatred of carrots because her father used to feed them to her with slugs on them. She’s not a woman of the people – her father was surgeon to the Royal Family, and her mother was an Australian heiress. Where Gordon Ramsay started his career as a footballer before reinventing himself, she initially trained as a barrister before she turned to her career in food. She’s not the director of a football club, but she’s got enough first names for an entire football team. Step forward, Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright!
What’s so great about her? It’s not the recipes as such. Many of them are a bit too eccentric to ever be part of most households’ menus. And I wouldn’t hold her up as a paragon of kitchen virtue either – I used to wince every time I saw her and her partner in Two Fat Ladies, Jennifer Paterson, put their hands into a mixing bowl because I knew they’d still be wearing all their rings!
I think her blunt, no-nonsense attitude has a lot to do with it. (For those of you who’ve never seen her, think Peggy Mount in all her dragon lady roles.) Where all the other TV chefs are doing their best to set trends or at least go along with them, she cheerfully bucks them. Calorie-counting and vitamin RDAs are for others to worry about; if it tastes good and looks good, that’s what counts for her – although presentation takes a back seat to taste, as it should. And she’s got no truck with PC; it’s no surprise to find that she’s an active campaigner for the Countryside Alliance.
But most of all, you get a feeling with Clarissa Dickson Wright that this is someone who’s lived their life to the full. In spite of the privileged background (her BBC profile describes the Dickson Wright household as one “where eating caviar and pheasant shooting were the norm and pigeons were flown in from Cairo for supper”) she’s not always had it easy. Although she won a place at Oxford, her father (who was a violent alcoholic) refused to support her unless she studied medicine; so she went to University College, London instead and studied law. She became an alcoholic for 12 years after her mother’s death and has been bankrupted twice. So she’s been through the mill. But she’s also thrown herself energetically into whatever she’s done. She was the youngest ever woman called to the Bar, at just 21 years old. Her keen interest in food writing (she worked for several years at the “Books For Cooks” bookshop in London before starting her own shop in Edinburgh) led her to be described as “the world’s leading authority on cookery books”. Her anthology Food is superb reading. And she continues to make some of the most marvellously eccentric TV programmes around, even after Jennifer Paterson’s death.
And now, among her many other activities, she’s a motivational speaker. A very good one, I don’t doubt – but I can’t help thinking of the stereotypical girls’ boarding school games mistress: “Get some BALL, you bunch of soft nellies!”…
What we eat and how we eat
Clarissa Dickson Wright
Hardback, 320 pages
1999, Ebury Press