‘English Food’ Restored a Nation’s Culinary Reputation

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The story of English food in the 20th century goes something like this:

Once upon a time, all the food in England was terrible, except in children’s books. The beef was overcooked, the vegetables were overboiled, the custards were watery, and this once-proud country was the laughingstock of the culinary world, especially its neighbor France. But the English did not care. They had survived two world wars, one depression, and a decade of rationing. It was their lot to maintain a stiff upper lip and suffer.

And then, like an avenging angel, Elizabeth David descended, armed with a lemon in one hand and a bottle of olive oil in the other, and lo, like St. Patrick with the snakes, she chased bad food from the shores of Great Britain forever. (Or at least the expectation that food should be bad.)

Now Britain is filled with marvelous food from all over the world (including France). Without David, there would be no Ottolenghi, no Jamie Oliver, no Fergus Henderson and his nose-to-tail take on classic English food… but wait! Does the existence of “classic English food” mean there was interesting food in Britain all along?

This is the problem with attributing a food revolution to a single person. Elizabeth David taught the British readers of the 1950s that there was a wonderful world of food beyond the English Channel. But it was Jane Grigson who taught them to appreciate what they already had. Or, as Grigson wrote in the introduction to the 1979 edition of her 1974 book English Food, “English cooking — both historically and in the mouth — is a great deal more varied and delectable than our masochistic temper in this matter allows.”

It’s hard to write about Grigson without contrasting her with David, which is why, I suppose, people do it, even though it’s unfair to both of them. Both wrote a specific kind of cookbook, the kind you read to learn not just the steps for preparing a specific dish but also the origins of the dish: who and where it came from, how it got its name, bits of associated folklore, and other ephemera that are maybe not especially useful but are nevertheless fascinating. Both Grigson and David were masters at pre-internet library research, and their scope of knowledge is awe-inspiring.

But David could also be snobby and critical. She grew up in a manor house with servants, and that imperious spirit remained in her writing. The personal anecdotes that appear in her books are about trips to the south of France and the Amalfi Coast. It’s interesting reading but also uncomfortable in the same way that glossy magazines can be uncomfortable: How many of us can afford to live (and eat) that way? Subtext: Elizabeth David is better than you.

And that is the last I am going to say about her, except to note that she and Grigson were great friends and talked on the phone constantly — a detail I find delightful — and also that she recommended Grigson for a gig as the London Observer’s food columnist, a post Grigson held from 1968 until she died in 1990.

Reading Grigson is a warm, almost cozy experience, like settling in by the fire in a library with a really excellent cream tea arrayed in front of you. After she died, friends and associates uniformly remembered her as a kind and generous person with a delightful sense of humor. In photos she appears rather matronly. Her personal anecdotes rarely strayed far from home: mostly growing up in the north of England during World War II and life with her husband, Geoffrey, and daughter, Sophie, in their 17th-century farmhouse in Wiltshire and their summer cottage in the Loire Valley in France. Except that Geoffrey wasn’t really her husband and the Loire Valley cottage was actually a cave.

Like English food itself, Jane Grigson was more complex than she is often given credit for.

Grigson started writing about food almost by accident. She grew up in an upper-class family with an artist mother who was an indifferent cook. She, like many other English people of the time, had to eat bottled salad cream and mayonnaise that had been thickened with flour. There was one deviation, however: Her parents were both vegetarians. Her father had given up meat sometime in the 1930s after his work as a deputy town clerk in Gloucester led him to spend two weeks inspecting an abattoir. He was so horrified by what he saw that he never ate animals again, and his wife joined him because she didn’t see the point of cooking two meals.

Grigson was sent to the same boarding school attended by Charlotte Brontë, who used it as the model for the school in Jane Eyre; Grigson didn’t like it much, either. After graduating from Cambridge, she spent a year in Italy and then returned to London with the goal of working in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Five rejections later, she accepted defeat and took a job as a picture researcher for the publisher Thames & Hudson, which was working on an encyclopedia called People, Places, Things, Ideas.

Her boss turned out to be Geoffrey Grigson, a writer and poet whose work she had admired since she was a teenager. He was 23 years older than she was and known for his gloomy disposition, owing to a perpetual lack of funds and an unhappy marriage, but Jane was far from disillusioned. For his part, he said, “She ruined my waistline but saved my soul.” They left London together for Wiltshire. Geoffrey’s wife — his second — refused to give him a divorce, but, undaunted, Jane legally changed her last name to Grigson, and they carried on as though there had actually been a wedding.

Their existence was precarious. For many years, they couldn’t afford a refrigerator. Geoffrey wrote and Jane translated from Italian. In the mid-’60s, her father gave her a gift of 1,000 pounds ($1,270), but the couple didn’t buy a refrigerator. Instead, they bought a cave house in the French town of Trôo, which they had first visited in 1961 and where, like many English people before them, they discovered the glories of French cuisine. They would spend summers there for the rest of their lives.

One of their French friends decided to write a book about French charcuterie and asked Jane to help him with the research. When he bailed on the project, she decided to carry on and finish it herself. She had no culinary training. Charcuterie itself was a puzzle, unraveled only by spending hours in butcher shops and absorbing information until she was satisfied. (Her daughter recalled getting up early to be at the charcuterie at 6 a.m. She later described the experience to a British newspaper as “stultifying,” but it must have been formative because she grew up to be a food writer herself.) The result, Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, appeared in 1967 and established Grigson as a person of importance in the culinary world. It was praised by Julia Child and James Beard and even translated into French, a true mark of distinction for a French cookbook written by a non-French person.

Even so, Grigson had mixed feelings when she began writing her Observer column the following year. On the one hand, it paid much better than translation. On the other, she didn’t know about anything food-related besides pork and she was terrified. Her first column was about strawberries. As she later recounted in an essay for the Guild of Food Writers, she turned to Geoffrey for advice. “Right,” he told her, “we’ll find out what the strawberry has meant to people, what they have done to it, how they have developed it and so on.”

This would prove to be her method for the rest of her working life. A Grigson essay may contain a reference to Chaucer or British folk customs, a recipe from an 18th-century cookbook author, an autobiographical anecdote, a brief dive into agricultural history, and maybe the etymology of the name of an ingredient, all jumbled together but somehow united by Grigson’s kind, practical voice and leavened by small jokes: “In a properly trained household,” she wrote in English Food, “the cry of ‘Soufflé!’ should have the same effect of assembly as ‘Fire!’”

By the time Grigson began working on English Food, which was published in 1974, she’d also begun using her bully pulpit to advocate for what she called “an active intervention in current eating habits,” by which she meant encouraging people to eat more local and unprocessed food, especially fish. The majority of British fish at the time was exported to mainland Europe, something Grigson considered a great waste. She hated factory farming and manufacturers who loaded their food with preservatives and encouraged her readers to invest in the best raw ingredients they could find. Budgets were no excuse: If you had money for liquor, she wrote, you certainly had money for a free-range chicken. She often published the names of her favorite farmers and advocated for their products. This insistence on good ingredients wasn’t just about health, it was a matter of respect. “To provide worthless things,” she wrote in the introduction to English Food, “or things that are worse than they should be, shows what you think of your fellow human beings.”

Respect was at the heart of what Grigson was trying to do with English Food. Yes, French and Mediterranean cuisine were wonderful, but England had its own grand tradition that had been partially erased by the Depression and war rationing and deserved to be resurrected. Perhaps her own time in France had helped: You can see the place you came from more clearly once you leave.

Grigson didn’t consider herself so much a writer of recipes as a curator. She frequently looked to 18th- and 19th-century cookbook writers such as Hannah Glasse, Elizabeth Raffald, and Eliza Acton (the English culinary tradition, she noted proudly, was dominated by female home cooks rather than male chefs like the French) and took suggestions from her readers, to whom she always gave credit. Very little in cooking is original, she told the host of the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs in 1978. How could she claim ownership of a soufflé when it had been invented in the 18th century? “Cookery is bound to be continued plagiarism,” she said. (For the record, her No. 1 desert island album was a recording of her husband reading his own poetry.)

Still, Grigson did manage to put her stamp on old dishes beyond updating them to accommodate modern kitchens. According to the Spectator, she was the first writer who thought to add a lemon to Sussex pond pudding, a beloved suet pudding probably best known to Americans for its appearance in the “Kitchen Horrors” chapter of Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking. And Grigson’s curried parsnip soup is now mass produced and sold in cans, which is, the Guardian commented, “something that may or may not have amused her.”

Cooking from English Food is something of a challenge. Part of this is a translation issue: Cuts of meat are different on this side of the Atlantic, as are fruit varietals, and finding accurate substitutes requires a bit of Googling or a special order from the butcher. But the other part is that Grigson didn’t want her recipes to be easy. She knew readers liked step-by-step instructions. “But that can be boring,” she told Florence Fabricant of the New York Times in 1984. “I like to let the reader do some reasoning. I think the English are more confident than Americans so I can see the point in the exactness of Julia Child’s recipes.”

The first recipe I tried from English Food was shepherd’s pie. Making the filling was straightforward enough, but then I got to the topping. “Boil potatoes in their skins, peel them, and mash them up with butter and milk.” It turns out that there are a few intermediary steps involved that I, a mashed potato moron, discovered only after consulting Joy of Cooking. Still, the pie, once it emerged from the oven, was delicious, as was the roast beef with Yorkshire pudding that I made a few days later. Grigson knew how to get a lot out of simple pantry ingredients.

English Food comes into its full glory in the “Teatime” chapter. Or maybe that’s just because, thanks to The Great British Bake Off, I know what madeira cake and Bath buns are and have been wondering for years what they taste like. I made the madeira cake first; it was also delicious, though slightly dry. (In the book, Grigson explains that low gas pressure on Sundays and holidays made cooking times variable. This may explain both the issues with my cake and old-school British food in general.) I also made Grasmere gingerbread, the dish Sophie Grigson told the Guardian she most associated with her mother because of its simplicity and unfussiness. I devoured the entire batch in a weekend.

Though Grigson included quite a few Welsh and Scottish recipes in the book — including the wonderfully named Singin’ Hinnies, a type of pancake — there is one very conspicuous absence: chicken tikka masala, now considered by many to be the national dish of the United Kingdom. This puzzled me. Grigson wasn’t xenophobic — she wrote in English Food that “It is hard to be purist about English cookery, or about any country’s cookery for that matter” — and in fact chided her readers for being unadventurous and overly genteel. She was, however, skeptical of what she considered trends. “Latterly we in England have developed a most Athenian characteristic,” she wrote. “We are always after some new thing. Which is fine in many ways, but in matters of food often disastrous.” And chicken tikka masala was, at the time she was writing, still a relatively new thing: Though its origins are widely debated, nobody can find evidence that it existed before the mid-’60s. (For what it’s worth, Grigson also didn’t include other late-20th century inventions like banoffee or stargazy pie.)

In any case, Grigson didn’t have much of a chance to fully take in chicken tikka masala. Geoffrey died in 1985, and she was diagnosed with cervical cancer the following year. “When I first got cancer … I welcomed the thought of joining him in the churchyard,” she wrote to a friend. Life without him was less vivid. She spent the remaining four years of her life writing and lobbying for animal welfare and protections for small farms, but she never believed her work was as important as her husband’s.

“People claim too much for cooking and fail to keep the whole thing in perspective,” she told Fabricant. “It is a skill, a craft, but not an art like painting, music or poetry. I would compare it to a beautiful chair by Chippendale but not a painting by Leonardo.”

But she also told the BBC that cookery writing has “been my way of finding out why I’m on this earth, and adding something to the sum of human happiness.” Is that not why Leonardo made paintings or Geoffrey Grigson made poems? Jane Grigson did this, too, and in the process, she saved English food from being an international joke. What could be more important than that?

Aimee Levitt is a freelance writer in Chicago. Read more of her work at aimeelevitt.com.

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