Book Review: Spilling the Beans

If, like me, you thought the autobiography of the late Clarissa Dickson Wright – one half of the English cooking celebrity duo Two Fat Ladies – is about the gout inducing concoctions these iconoclast foodies used to shock and entertain us with in the nineties, you’d be wrong.

Instead this book is a surprisingly engaging and ruthlessly honest story of Clarissa’s turbulent life—from abused child of a relentlessly cruel father to becoming an alcoholic heiress who drank away her inheritance, followed by her perilous road to recovery and eventually, a more contented but just as hectic life as an international food celebrity. Clarissa died in March, 2014, and the world is a little less juicy for her death.

Pardon the pun and cliché, but she’s definitely larger than life and her chatty narrative style and numerous anecdotes, which include hobnobbing with British royalty and famous politicians (including Tony Blair in a pre-PM incarnation, who she detests by the way) to Elizabeth David, Delia Smith, Marco Pierre White are enchantingly entertaining.

In fact, the English upper class backdrop (her abusive father was a brilliant surgeon who apparently saved Saddam Hussein’s life once…she was Britain’s youngest female barrister at 21…she is an ardent advocate of fox hunting… she once fornicated with an MP in the House of Commons) is one of the most interesting aspects of this book—you can almost touch the plummy vowels and that carry-on-brand of British aristocratic eccentricity. And her fall from grace to down-and-out alcoholic (she ended up broke and literally sleeping on the streets a number of times despite her massive inheritance and early brilliant career) could be seen as tragic, but Clarissa’s inability to feel sorry for herself makes for emotionally uplifting reading.

I was most interested in her days as TV chef with partner in culinary crime Jennifer Paterson, but that section takes up only a minor part of the book unfortunately. But her almost nonchalant attitude to the Two Fat Ladies’ success (it was viewed by 70 million viewers worldwide at its peak) is rather curious, and refreshing, especially given the obsessive idolisation of self-important food celebrities we have to endure nowadays.

For those who are too young to remember, the Two Fat Ladies toured England in a Triumph bike and sidecar doing their cooking thing, but they were totally contrary in that they cooked big, cholesterol laden stodgy English meals and desserts, while smoking and drinking, at least Jennifer smoked. Apparently, butter and cream sales rose by 19 per cent in the U.K. around the time of the first series. While nutritionists might cringe, they were not into junk food—they pursued good quality food, from excellent game to the freshest dairy.

They were also not particularly photogenic, unlike the lively Jamie or the comely Nigella who hog the Brit culinary celebrity limelight these days, (the Hairy Bikers is a derivative of the Two Fat Ladies). So Clarissa and Jennifer engender part perversion and part fascination and perhaps they are the original gastro porn pin-ups?

Clarissa’s turn of phrase is most eloquent when describing food I think, as in the following description of a pound of flesh (albeit lovely beef). “I saw a beautiful sight: a glass cabinet lined with dark red velvet and on it stood the most perfect rib of beef, the fat like good clotted cream and the meat the colour of garnets or dark pigeon blood rubies” (p.245 of the 2007 paperback edition).

And Clarissa is thoughtful about food and food production—she laments how the economic imperative pushes farmers into breeding fast-growing hybrids, which are not always tasty—like the Angus Limousin cross which she found impossible to carve “because of the flap of muscle running through it” (p. 226)—such divine detail.

This book is not really about food, cooking or food celebrity as I initially expected, but about Clarissa’s zest for life, which when you think about it, is the most important ingredient in being a good cook. I know Kei has oodles of the same zest and in fact, I think they would’ve really hit it off.

by Masako Fukui, Kei’s Kitchen

Spilling the Beans, by Clarissa Dickson Wright, originally published in 2007