Jane Grigson’s friends and admirers share their personal memories, explain why her work was a source of inspiration and reflect on her legacy.
Jane Grigson is my favourite English cookery writer. Her work combined so many strengths, all expressed in graceful, flowing, seemingly artless prose: deep scholarship, fastidious attention to detail in recipe-writing, a wide range of interests and enthusiasms, an original approach to the construction of cookery books.
But what I love most about Jane Grigson’s work is its sense of warmth and humanity. Whereas some cookery writers speak to us as if from a distance, she gives the impression that she is there in the room with us. She makes us feel that she is our friend, that she wants us to be happy in the kitchen. If an ingredient is rare or costly, she gives humbler alternatives and doesn’t imply that the result will be inferior. If the classic version of a dish is impractical, she explains how to simplify – again, without suggesting that you’re not really doing it properly. If she suspects that some cooks will have trouble at a particular stage in a recipe, she quietly points it out.
Grigson’s prose gives the impression that all these qualities come naturally and easily, but they don’t.They’re the product of hard, careful writing. As someone said in a different context: ‘if it weren’t hard, everyone would do it.’
I turn to Jane Grigson’s books more than those of any other writer, seeking advice,ideas, or just an enjoyable few minutes of reading while dinner’s cooking. I hate to single out one book when they are all so good, and so distinctive, but The Mushroom Feast occupies a special place in my affections. There’s the wide range interests: history, etymology, gardening, taxonomy, etc. There’s the practical-mindedness: in a platter of crudités ‘it is better to have three or four vegetables in perfection than twenty that have seen better days.’ There’s the sense that she lives in the same world as her readers. (The head note for one dish begins, ‘Fattening, but worth it.’) There’s the wide variety of culinary sources, and of cooking styles from humble to haute cuisine. And everywhere there is the wonderful turn of phrase: the head of a John Dory looks ‘lugubrious’; the precision needed in making soufflés ‘has the dignity and security of order about it’; fried rice is ‘a good way of using leftovers discreetly.’
A final word in passing. Late in her life, Jane Grigson embraced microwave cooking. I too loved the microwave (and still do), and it heartened me that she was a fellow fan. There were few others among the eminent cookery writers of the day (and today there are probably even fewer). Had she lived longer, I wonder, would my collection include Jane Grigson’s Microwave Cookery? I wish it were there on the shelf. But I’m deeply grateful for the books that are there.