Gathering Honey from a Weed: The Life of Patience Gray
Iconoclastic food writer, forager, and force of nature Patience Gray always found the good in the simple. In Fasting and Feasting, Gray’s biographer Adam Federman discovers that her life was never simple.
“Struck by Patience Gray’s mind, her vision and her prose, Federman went in search of her past. . . . He’s done the most important thing a biographer can do: He’s created
a fully formed character in these pages, honoring not only her brilliance but the rough edges that made her human.”
—The New York Times Book Review
The following excerpt is from Fasting and Feasting. It has been adapted for the web. Header photo by Stefan Buzás / courtesy of Nicolas Gray.
Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed is one of the most important and best-loved cookbooks of the twentieth century, yet its author remains little known beyond a small circle of food writers and critics.
Such is the fate, perhaps, of a woman who lived for more than thirty years in a remote corner of southern Italy— without electricity, modern plumbing, or telephone—and liked to say, deliberately misquoting Gertrude Stein, that she wrote only for herself and friends. As her publisher, Alan Davidson once observed, “She simply wished her accumulated knowledge to be preserved in a permanent, beautiful form for the benefit of her grandchildren.”
“The best food writing should inspire you, either to be more adventurous, or more critical, or more keen to enjoy.”—Patience Gray
Alan rescued the typescript from oblivion, and when Honey from a Weed was published in 1986, it was immediately hailed as a classic. Gourmet described it as “magically idiosyncratic” and placed Patience alongside Patrick Leigh Fermor, Freya Stark, and Elizabeth David. In an early review of Honey from a Weed, John Thorne wrote that only D. H. Lawrence was her equal “in conveying the rich physical sensuality of Mediterranean life.” Cookbook editor Judith Jones, who reviewed the manuscript for Knopf but knew that they would never dare publish it, said she fell in love with it and copied several pages “to read again when I needed that kind of refreshment.” In an essay titled “Eat or Die”, the late novelist Jim Harrison called Patience “a wandering Bruce Chatwin of food.” In other words, she was much more than just a food writer. Honey from a Weed—part recipe book, part travelogue, and part memoir— offered a singularly evocative portrait of a remote and fast-disappearing way of life. Following the publication of Honey from a Weed, food writers sought Patience out and many made the pilgrimage to Puglia to see her, a testament to the power of her work. She was profiled by Paul Levy, appeared on the BBC’s Food Programme with Derek Cooper, and was featured along with her partner, the Belgian sculptor Norman Mommens, in the Italian magazine Casa Vogue.
Although she enjoyed the attention, Patience was rather guarded about her own life. This applied not only to visiting journalists and food writers but to friends and family as well. There was “an aura of secrecy about her,” a sense that her past was somehow shuttered, which Patience did little to dispel.
“Patience loved secrets, secret rooms, dark corners, mysteries and so on,” her friend Ulrike Voswinckel recalled. This aura of secrecy was enhanced by her interest in astrology and mysticism and her vast folkloric knowledge of edible plants and mushrooms. She shared her workspace in Puglia—to which others were rarely admitted— with a large black snake and often ruminated on the symbolic meaning of the scorpion, which happened to be Patience’s astrological sign. She was born on Halloween. It is perhaps not surprising then that several people, including Paul Levy in his profile for the Observer and the Wall Street Journal, described Patience as a modern-day witch.
Of course, I knew none of this when I happened upon Patience’s obituary in the quarterly food journal The Art of Eating in 2005. In the reminiscence, the magazine’s editor, Ed Behr, who visited Patience on two occasions at her farmhouse in Puglia, called Honey from a Weed “one of the best books that will ever be written about food.” It was unusually high praise from a discerning and often unsparing critic. Soon after, I discovered a copy of Honey from a Weed on a shelf in my parents’ kitchen. A single recipe was marked: “Catalan veal stew with prunes and potatoes,” described in a note scribbled in the margin as “fabulous, rich, full, and simple to make.” I read the book from cover to cover and was swept away by its originality, its sense of urgency—the introduction is a powerful argument in favor of eating seasonally—and its vivid descriptions of fasting and feasting. It was unlike anything I’d ever read before. Yet despite the book’s intensely personal nature, it revealed little of its author’s past, with the exception of a fleeting and somewhat cryptic reference to gathering fungi in a wood in Sussex during wartime. Naturally, I wanted to know more.
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