A Wild and Exacting Food Writer Gets Her Due

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Now available in paperbackFasting and Feasting by biographer Adam Federman tells the remarkable life story of Patience Gray: from her privileged and intellectual upbringing in England to her trials as a single mother during World War II to her career working as a designer, editor, translator, and author to describing her travels and culinary adventures in later years.

The following article was written by Laura Shapiro and was published in The New York Times. It has been adapted for the web.


Patience Gray in England shortly after World War II. Photo by Nicolas Gray

One of my favorite passages in Adam Federman’s absorbing biography of Patience Gray, the legendary food writer and forager, is about the day the tinned peaches showed up in Apollonas. Gray was living with the sculptor Norman Mommens in this remote village on the Greek island of Naxos, a location they prized for its inaccessibility and rugged, hands-on way of life. They had arrived in summer, delighted to find a cottage by the water. A few months later, the wild greens had disappeared, they were surviving on potatoes and beans, even bread was scarce, and they were freezing. The windows in the cottage had no glass, only shutters, so when the wind was ferocious they had to close the shutters and live in the dark. They both had flu.

And then, in March, the tins arrived. Peaches, tongue and brisket, a gift from a patron of Mommens’s. The couple had been planning to follow village custom and fast during Lent, but they dropped that idea like an armload of just-chopped wood and pounced on the food. What I love is that these passionate believers in self-sufficiency, who hated “consumerland” and rejoiced in adhering to traditional culture, however rigorous its demands, unhesitatingly grabbed a can opener or maybe an ax and dug right in.

Gray was an extraordinary creature, quite unlike any of the other female icons who dominate postwar culinary history. Maybe that’s why culinary history hasn’t often treated her as one of its own. Books about Elizabeth David, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child and Alice Waters are plentiful by now; but “Fasting and Feasting” is the first about Gray, though she became a cult figure with the publication of “Honey From a Weed” in 1986. An artful compilation of memories, recipes and traveler’s tales, laced with the wisdom accumulated during years of study and observation around the Mediterranean, the book appealed to a good swath of the most influential thinker-cooks — Ed Behr, John Thorne, Jane Grigson, Paula Wolfert, Harold McGee — as well as many prominent food journalists. Nonetheless, it’s not a book we associate with home cooking, even at its most aspirational.

There’s something strictly otherworldly about the recipes in “Honey From a Weed,” despite their simple ingredients and clear directions. Each dish is inextricable from its time and place, those villages and landscapes and rustic kitchens that inspired both the cooking and the writing. How dare we bring home a cauliflower from the supermarket, turn on the air-conditioner and the nightly news, and start preparing cavolfiore colla salsa virgiliana (cauliflower with Virgil’s sauce)? Gray wasn’t inflexible, as we know from the tinned peaches, but she had no wish to identify with late-20th-century cooks. Her loyalty was to plants and fish and the seasons, and to the villagers who taught her how to make use of everything surrounding her.

Photo by Francesco Radino

Patience in her workroom wearing one of her rings, 1971. Photo by Francesco Radino

She also fits poorly with the notion of food as the wellspring of family happiness, a theme long cherished in popular culinary writing. As a single mother of two in 1940s England — their father was a still-married womanizer and all-around jerk named Thomas Gray, whose name she took for propriety’s sake — she frequently left them with her own mother and went off to work and travel. (The children addressed her as “Patience” and called their grandmother “Mummy.”) It’s true that her first book, “Plats du Jour,” co-written with Primrose Boyd and published in 1957, was ostensibly aimed at busy women cooking for their families. Still, it’s hard to imagine many working mothers getting home in time to serve up Gray’s tête de veau for supper, even if one of the kids has already soaked the calf’s head for the requisite two hours and removed the eyes.

But “Plats du Jour” does make it clear that Gray was a splendid cook, with an appetite for both the rustic and the grand traditions of Europe. During the 1950s she was also developing her talents for art and design, editing the women’s section of The Observer, and pursuing the science and lore of wild plants, especially mushrooms. Then, around the time her children turned 19 and 18, she began to think about breaking away. She liked the idea of being completely free to work and wander with Mommens, her great love. A painter, mime, philosopher and ecologist as well as a sculptor in marble, Mommens became a life partner and also a life force for Gray. In 1962, they began a search for an ideal place to live, some distant and inspirational landscape untouched by the corrosive aspects of modern life, preferably within reach of a marble quarry. They experimented with a number of God-forsaken outposts, including Apollonas, before settling eight years later in the Salento, a “wild and savage” region, as Gray called it, deep in the heel of the boot of Italy.
Photo by Grace DiNapoli

Norman and Patience, February 1992. Photo by Grace DiNapoli

Gray described the house as a cowshed; actually it had once been home to five families, but for the last several decades had been inhabited by cattle and sheep. She and Mommens and a work crew spent months on repairs — the place had no windows or doors, for starters — but they never found a need for electricity, hot water or a significant source of heat apart from an open fireplace. During more than 30 years on the property, they spent hours every day at the hard labor it took to live harmoniously with their environment, constantly learning from their neighbors. Meanwhile they managed to write, cook, study, make art and entertain hordes of guests. Gray went out regularly to gather weeds and herbs, and she pored over old culinary and botanical texts. All her reading and observing, all the butchering and gutting and sausage-making, the backbreaking work of the olive harvest, the endless boiling of endless beans … it all went into “Honey From a Weed.”

Here’s a taste, typically reflective: “Pounding fragrant things — particularly garlic, basil, parsley — is a tremendous antidote to depression,” she writes in a chapter called “Chopping and Pounding.” “But it applies also to juniper berries, coriander seeds and the grilled fruits of the chilli pepper. Pounding these things produces an alteration in one’s being — from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure. The cheering effects of herbs and alliums cannot be too often reiterated.”

You can see why food lovers fell in love with her. Federman, a journalist with a background in environmental reporting and professional cooking, writes that he knew little about Gray until he came across a copy of “Honey From a Weed” 12 years ago. Struck by her mind, her vision and her prose, he went in search of her past. The massive research he undertook is evident, but he handles it gracefully; and this richly textured material unfolds at a gentle pace. Clearly, he’s a devotee, and there are times when a touch of skepticism would have been appropriate. Gray was an extremely tough cookie; she could have taken it. But 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.

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The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray

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