Jane Grigson’s friends and admirers share their personal memories, explain why her work was a source of inspiration and reflect on her legacy.
Looking back, it would be impossible to overstate the importance Jane had in my career as a food writer.
It all began with the paperback edition of Good Things. This was the second cookbook I’d bought – I’m looking at it now – and it cost me – £1.10. I liked the sound of the title; flicking through it, loved the way it was organized ‚Äì an eclectic mix of ingredients and techniques, but most of all I loved the way it was written. My hunger to know everything I could about food matched my interest in cooking, and Jane’s effortless scholarly style combined with her ability to make you want to eat everything she talked about had me hooked from the first.
Good Things changed my life. Ironically, despite my fresh-faced enthusiasm, I already knew there were so many things I didn’t particularly want to cook, had no appetite for dinner parties, and much preferred whatever was growing in our garden to anything else, however trendy. It was Good Things that gave me confidence to cook the way I wanted to, and not to worry about the rest.
But that was just the start: Good Things led me to Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, and Summer Food; Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern Food; and Edward Bunyard’s Anatomy of Dessert. Through Good Things I also discovered Eliza Acton, Hannah Glasse, and the history of food, the book whetted my appetite for salting meat, charcuterie and wild mushrooms, and made me wish I’d been to France. Indeed, Jane Grigson and Good Things lit up so many lights in my head I could have serviced the whole of the North East.
I suppose it was inevitable, then, that when, as a naive housewife in Stockton-on-Tees, I decided to have a go and wrote my first piece Basil is Best, I sent it off to Jane Grigson at the Observer, asking sweetly how does a housewife get started?
To my utter amazement,Jane wrote back, explaining that though she wrote for the Observer, she had no say in its editorial content, but she had enjoyed the piece and would forward it to her editor at the Observer, Paul Levy, as he also worked for House & Garden.
House & Garden had a private cook’s column: Basil is Best got published with a photo of me grinning insanely under the dark North East skies in our veg garden with my 4 Marran chickens as an entourage.
As any fledging food writer with no journalistic experience will tell you, apart from not being able to believe your luck, being published is like having a blood transfusion. It gives meaning, purpose and focus to your passion, and enables you to put all the thoughts running around your head down on paper, and share them with the outside world. Indirectly, Jane had not only channelled the direction of my all-consuming passion, but had kick-started my life’s work, too.
I was then fortunate to win the Guardian’s Mouton Cadet cookery competition (right up my street: they gave you a list of ingredients and you had to turn them into a starter and main course). Shortly after that (I think), I got a call out of the blue from David Higham literary agency asking if I’d like them to represent me; Chatto & Windus then followed asking if I’d like to write a book. Both had come via Jane’s recommendation ‚Äì whom, by the way, I didn’t meet or talk to until much later. David Higham led to a column in the Daily Telegraph for a time, and Chatto & Windus to my first major book, Fresh Thoughts on Food. All thanks to Jane.
It was around this time,too, that Jane wrote explaining that she was writing her Observer Guide to British Cookery and did I know any producers who might be interesting for her to know about? Did I just! Seeking out traditional foods and artisan producers was, for me, on a par with finding buried treasure and something else I was busting to share. Here was my chance to spread the word about Wabberthwaite ham, Yorksire oatcakes, Cotherstone and Swaledale cheese, the Gooseberry Show at Egton Bridge, elder (boiled and pressed cow’s udder ‚Äì the ‚Äòspam’ of West Yorkshire), Whitby’s Mecca of fish and chips, The Magpie – all these and more came tumbling out like a torrent.
Jane’s acknowledgement in British Food sounds like I helped her; but actually, it was the other way around. That she even asked me, let alone trusted my judgement meant more to me personally than anything ‚Äì but that is not the point. It taught me that one doesn’t need to be a famous food writer to make a difference: simply by supporting the things we believe in is ultimately what counts.
I guess most people contributing to a record of Jane’s influence would have known her well. I didn’t. I can’t even remember when I first met her ‚Äì it would have been at the Oxford Food Symposium, but I did visit her briefly at her home in Wiltshire. We had a nice chat and a cup of tea; my last memory of Jane is leaning on her garden gate waving me good-bye ‚Äì with me, yet again, grinning insanely, not believing my luck.
It seems right to me, therefore, to finish where I started, with Good Things. I’ve subsequently spent a good part of my food writing career writing about organic food and farming. How food is produced, the wider implications of the food debate, and what does or doesn’t constitute good food and good cooking is as important to me as the recipe. In short, I have become radicalized in the best sense of the word. But you know what? It’s all there in Jane’s introduction.