Remembering Jane

Jane Grigson’s friends and admirers share their personal memories, explain why her work was a source of inspiration and reflect on her legacy.

Diana Henry

The walls of my teenage bedroom were covered in cuttings and bits of paper. There were photographs ripped from magazines – landscapes, whacky portraits, still lives of food – and poems I had copied out as carefully as I could with my leaky fountain pen. Among poetry by Heaney and Wordsworth and Richard Wilbur there was a scattering of verse and prose about food, and most of it had been copied from the two Jane Grigson books I owned, her fruit book and her vegetable book. Right beside my bedside lamp there was a small  illustration of strawberries blu-tacked to the wall, and words Jane had written about them.  “Do you remember the kind and beautiful girl in Grimm’s fairy tales, who is driven out by her stepmother to find strawberries in the snow? How she comes to the dwarves’ house, and shares her crust of bread with them? And how, as she sweeps the snow aside with their broom, she finds there – strawberries? That vivid image of delight, of fruit and snow against forest darkness, is never forgotten. It’s our northern winter longing for summer, a joy of the mind. And yet, in the sudden snow of winter a couple of years ago, I went to sweep our doorway – and found strawberries.”

Until I discovered Jane Grigson, cookbooks were sets of instructions, manuals on the making of things. That in itself was precious, but when I came across her Fruit Book and her Vegetable Book I felt I had discovered someone who was speaking to me. Jane was scholarly and literary and she understood that food was more than just food, it was about memory, the imagination, stories, history. It was connected to everything. She understood, too – as you can see from her writing on strawberries – that food could be magical.

For quite a few years – in my late teens – I would tell people that you could cook for a lifetime just from her vegetable and her fruit book. I composed lists of everything I wanted to make, and I gradually worked my way through them. Before I read Jane I had no idea that the Romans used garum or that broccoli was good with anchovies. When I felt glum I would daydream about making Emperor Claude’s Ribbons from her fruit book, a dish that I thought had the most poetic title in the world.

Eventually I bought every book Jane had ever written. I also pulled out every magazine piece and series she composed; in my study she still has her own box, marked with a label with her name on it.

Jane Grigson exemplifies what a food writer should be. She is cerebral and practical – it’s hard to find practitioners who are both – and she is inclusive. She didn’t just want to tell you about cooking and impart knowledge, she wanted you to cook too. She was neither grand nor snobbish. You knew that if you ever got the chance to cook for her she wouldn’t mind if you produced something less than perfect.

I still have and use all her books, including the editions of the vegetable and fruit books that I bought so many years ago. (I love them more than any of her others). I never met her. Though in a way, I did, time and time again, because in my head we’ve talked about food for years.  She is like an old friend.