Jane Grigson’s friends and admirers share their personal memories, explain why her work was a source of inspiration and reflect on her legacy.
‘We so often lack piety towards our best things’, wrote Jane Grigson in Good Things (1971). She was writing about kippers, and the sad fact that cured herrings – one of Britain’s ‘worthy contributions to fine food’ – were now of such ‘indifferent’ quality on fish counters.
Grigson herself never lacked piety towards the best seasonal ingredients. Yet she found a way to express her appreciation that was devoid of earnestness or gastronomic pretension. She urged us to buy lobster, occasionally, if we could afford it, because she couldn’t think of anything ‘so sweet, firm and succulent’. But she also insisted, wisely, that, even at the height of midsummer, ‘frozen peas are sometimes the only honest choice’.
Good Things is my favourite of all her books. I used to read it at the kitchen table as a child. A certain greediness in its tone appealed to me then. The title is both an invitation and an injunction. Good Things are what her recipes promise us but also what she wants us to demand: to learn the difference between muddy Fenland celery and the year round ‘flabby’ kind; between a hand-raised meat pie and an ‘assembly line’ horror.
As she explains in the Introduction Good Things – a collection of her Observer columns – is ‘not a manual of cookery but a book about enjoying food’. As a greedy child, I spotted that Grigson’s appetite felt more unbridled than Elizabeth David’s. There’s a wonderful moment where she confesses to nibbling the sprigs of parsley on cold buffets, to the surprise of the waiters. We should use, she insists, as much butter as possible with spinach, given that government subsidies make it so cheap compared to France.
Some of the earliest things I cooked were from Good Things. I remember in particular the walnut biscuits cooked on rice paper with a ‘delightfully chewy texture’; mushrooms cooked with bacon, breadcrumbs and parsley; and a sublimely buttery Crécy soup.
But returning to the book, I am struck not so much by the recipes – though they remain inviting – as by the sheer quality of her prose. Grigson combined virtues that are almost never found together. She was scholarly yet forthright; enthusiastic but not uncritical. When she drew on food history, it was never the ‘potted’ kind; rather the sort that informs the way we cook now. She revived many forgotten British treasures, such as mackerel with gooseberry sauce, not for tradition’s sake, but because the ‘sweet-sour astringency’ of the fruit cut the richness of oily fish. Her breadth of references stretched from Isaac Newton’s baked quinces to the Burgundian snail industry. Yet often Grigson’s sentences are as clear and wise as a children’s picture book: ‘Carrots are sweet. And carrots are a beautiful colour. And they are cheap’.
Grigson taught us that the proper attitude to food may be a kind of secular piety: to ‘prove all things’ and ‘hold fast that which is good’.