Nine cookery writers
MALE chefs may still heavily outnumber the female of the species – Angela Hartnett, Monica Galetti, Clare Smyth and our friend and contributor Philippa Davis being honourable exceptions – but when it comes to writing about food, the women surely have it. You may nod to Escoffier and Alan Davidson for classical knowledge, revere Michael Pollan’s passion, and always have a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or Nigel Slater recipe to hand – but from Hannah Glass, whose 310th birthday was acknowledged by Google on 28th March, via Mrs Beeton, Florence White, Marguerite Patten and Julia Child to today’s Anna Jones, Fuschia Dunlop and Diana Henry, the most evocative, mouth-watering, exciting food writing comes from the pens, experience and creativity of women.
As part of our continuing series celebrating the achievements of women in the centenary year of women getting the vote in Britain, here are nine exceptional female food writers whose well-thumbed books all have a place in our crowded cookery book shelves. They are all 20th century writers – some dead, some still writing and inspiring us. They have brought us the cuisines of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the USA and Britain, they tell their stories through food, and their books provide powerful social and cultural histories of our times.
Anna del Conte – Growing up in a well-to-do Milan family, Anna experienced the horrors of the Second World War in Italy, came to grim post-war England, married an Englishman, and through her own family recipes and her natural culinary creativity and gift for writing has broadened our knowledge of Italy’s wonderful, diverse food. She has lived in Dorset for many years. Every book by Anna del Conte is a gem, and her memoir, Risotto with Nettles, is a joy. Her masterpiece, perhaps, is The Gastronomy of Italy, which covers 2,000 years of Italian food from the Romans to the present day.
Elizabeth David – Equally elegant in her writing and her personal style, Elizabeth David was an upper class rebel, who ran away with a married man to Italy in the 1930s. She returned to England in 1946, and was so dismayed by the dull rationed food that she began writing about the simple, delicious food she had enjoyed in Italy, Greece and Egypt. She published A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950. An enemy of the second-rate, she went on to write beautiful and inspirational books on French country cooking, Italian food, and books on English cooking covering bread, salt, spices and aromatics. She is credited with introducing Mediterranean food to Britain, and more than 25 years after her death remains a hugely influential figure.
MFK Fisher – Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, who, like Elizabeth David died in 1992, was the indisputed queen of American food writing, thoughtful, inspirational and passionate. The poet WH Auden said of her: “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.” She was a founder of the Napa Valley Wine Library, and wrote 27 books, including a translation of The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin. Fisher believed that eating well was just one of the “arts of life” and explored this in her writing.
Patience Gray – Another upper class rebel, Patience Gray had her first big success with Plats du Jour, published to acclaim in 1957, introducing a mass readership to the joys of French and Mediterranean food and outselling Elizabeth David. But it is for her unique second book that she deserves to be specially celebrated. Honey From A Weed, published in 1986, is an evocative book of travel, of life with a sculptor who moves from one remote Mediterranean region to another in search of stone, and the food that she discovered being grown and cooked by the often poor inhabitants of Carrara, Catalonia, Naxos and finally Apulia in southern Italy where she and the sculptor (Victor Mommens) lived from 1970.
Jane Grigson – A long-time columnist for The Observer, Jane (who was married to the poet Geoffrey Grigson) was witty and elegant in her writing, and passionate about the quality of the ingredients to be used in cooking. In his obituary, after her death in 1990, Alan Davidson wrote: “Jane Grigson left to the English-speaking world a legacy of fine writing on food and cookery for which no exact parallel exists… She won to herself this wide audience because she was above all a friendly writer… a most companionable presence in the kitchen; often catching the imagination with a deftly chosen fragment of history or poetry, but never failing to explain the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’ of cookery.” Her many books include Good Things, The Mushroom Feast and Fish Cookery.
Valentina Harris – Born into an extraordinary upper-class Italian family, descended from the great Sforza clan, Valentina Harris draws not only on her Italian heritage in her food writing, but in her extensive travels and the international background of her family. Sometimes (unfairly) described as a “celebrity chef”, she is a broadcaster and television presenter, as well as an inspiring teacher and prolific writer. Her television programmes include Italian Regional Cookery for the BBC. For a flavour of her writing, you can’t do better than her memoir, Fiori de Zucca: Recipes and Memories from My Family’s Kitchen Table (2009).
Madhur Jaffrey – Justifiably recognised as the cook who brought real Indian food into our kitchens and on to our dinner tables, Madhur Jaffrey learned from her mother, not at home but by a sort of “correspondence course” when she came to England as a young actress and could find no Indian food worth eating. She has starred in many films, including several Merchant-Ivory productions. Through her television programmes and her books, she has inspired us all to learn about the diverse and delicious cuisines of the sub-continent, and about the cooking, including vegetarian food, of many Asian countries. It’s hard to know which of her many books to recommend, but Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery is a pretty good start.
Claudia Roden – Widely regarded as the doyenne of Middle Eastern food, Claudia Roden was born into a Jewish family living in Egypt, and this exotic background has influenced her writings, broadcasting and teaching. Published in 1968, A Book of Middle Eastern Food introduced a western audience to the astonishing, colourful and vividly flavourful food of the Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, North Africa and Syria. A cultural anthropologist as well as a food writer, Claudia Roden’s books explore many aspects of the life and culture of the region, including Jewish food traditions, Middle Eastern influence on the food of Spain and the cuisines of Italy and Morocco.
Alice Waters – Mention the name of Alice Waters to anyone interested in the recent history of food in the USA and they will instantly acknowledge this diminutive but hugely influential woman as the driving force in the culinary revolution of the past 40 years. Alice is self-taught, to the extent that she learned by watching, eating and experimenting, in France and in California in the 1960s. She is the high priestess of the local food movement and as the founder of Berkeley’s famous Chez Panisse restaurant, she introduced that sophisticated university city to the matchless delights of French food, prepared with love and the finest ingredients available in the fertile fields and orchards of California. She is a tireless campaigner for better food for children and through her Chez Panisse Foundation and the Edible Schoolyard programme she has helped hundreds of young people to grow their own food. Read her recent memoir, Coming To My Senses, for an insight into her life and career.
Pictured: Anna del Conte, Elizabeth David, Patience Gray, Madhur Jaffrey and Alice Waters.