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.

Geraldene Holt

This is not a manual of cookery, but a book about enjoying food. From the first line of the first page of Good Things (1971),  it was plain that the author herself was a good thing.

I met Jane Grigson soon after my first book was published in 1980. ‘So what is your next book?’ Jane asked. ‘I’m not sure I know enough to write another book,’ I replied. Jane held my arm and laughed, ‘That’s not the right approach, Geraldene. You write about what you care about and research your subject on the way.’

Over the next ten years Jane and I would meet at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, at lectures and parties, and at gatherings of the Guild of Food Writers. Jane was one of the thirty-four founder members and though, as I remember, she was not present at the inaugural meeting in Claridge’s in 1985, she supported all the worthwhile ideas such as the annual lecture and the food campaigns.

In its early years, after the Guild’s AGM and lunch, the current minister responsible for food production was invited to speak about policy and answer questions.

During the salmonella-in-eggs scandal in 1988 a junior minister felt the full force of Jane’s campaigning fervour. ‘How can you stand there and defend this appalling situation, when I can no longer give a young child or an old person a soft boiled egg?’ Jane’s cheeks glowed. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ As she sat down, the rest of us applauded our modern Boadicea. The politician struggled to reply and then, doubtless sensing the animosity of the audience, became speechless.

In a career lasting only twenty-three years, Jane produced 10 major books and contributed regularly to the Observer newspaper. She preferred to write about ‘life beyond the kitchen’, and did so by placing food in its literary and historical context. And at the same time Jane made her views of our present world crystal clear. Her eloquent writing inspires, informs and delights and her recipes are sensibly intended for the home cook. But it is her ethical stance, her defence of the common good, and her trenchant opinions that I treasure most.

The last time I saw Jane was not long after her courageous article ‘Fighting cancer with food’ appeared in the Observer in September 1989. I was driving to London that day so I picked all the ripe fruit – unsprayed and organically grown – in my Devon garden and piled the pears, plums, apples, a punnet of autumn raspberries, and a few late figs into a big basket and delivered it to Broad Town on my way. Jane was as warm and welcoming as ever and Sophie, Jane’s daughter, carried in the basket of fruit. Jane insisted I stay to lunch even though Jancis Robinson and her TV crew were there to film an interview. Sitting around the dining table in the hall, there was a cheerful, carefree atmosphere, Jane shone, and we all enjoyed roast partridge in a dark, reduced sauce enriched with chocolate.

On a grey overcast day six months later, I was back in Broad Town, for Jane’s funeral. Afterwards, as I drove home I had plenty of time to think about how best to remember Jane, how to build some memorial to this most exceptionally talented woman, who had died at the height of her powers on the eve of her 62nd birthday. By the time I reached Devon I had come to a decision: I would found an educational charity and a specialist library in Jane Grigson’s name.