Adam Federman: ‘Fasting and Feasting, The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray',
Adam Federman: ‘Fasting and Feasting, The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray', 2017, Chelsea Green Publishing, 369 pages, ISBN9781603587525
That Patience Gray spent the last thirty-five years of her life secluded in the heel of Italy captures our imagination. We mustn’t forget, though, that she lived eighty-eight years. Adam Federman in his searching and detailed biography doesn’t neglect her first half-century. The story of those years had to be told, and not only because Patience herself was inclined to turn her back on her past and forever begin anew. They were years when she was deeply enmeshed in the culture of her time and leading a personal life high in mundane adventure. Her life in Salento was a culmination of her interests, a deepening of them, rather than a new beginning.
Patience, to all appearances an exemplary British daughter of an upper middle-class fixed in Edwardian ways, had a father whose name, before he changed it, was Warschawski. His Jewish father had immigrated from Poland. Patience felt that the conflict she had with her mother, which would colour her life, came from her parents hiding the fact that her paternal great-grandfather was a Polish rabbi. Her childhood was the first thing Patience refused. She saw it as “stultifying”, bathed in hypocrisy, a face-saving conformity that crushed spontaneity and any creative inclination. (p.46) Whatever her parents failings , she received an excellent education at Queen's College and the London School of Economics.
Try as we may, we can’t separate Patience’s dislike of her mother from the insights of Sigmund Freud. He would die in 1939 in North London, a ten-minute walk from where Patience lived in Hampstead from 1947 till she left London for Europe in 1962. Her strictures on her mother are not shared by those who knew Olive Stanham, not even by Patience’s daughter. Federman’s picture of Olive is of a sharp-witted, stalwart matron and intrepid gardener who supported her daughter with understanding and money over a lifetime. Patience herself seemed to lean toward a Freudian explanation when she wrote of a friend (p.52):
“Like Marguerite Duras, she was born with murder in her heart and no doubt like many of us, unable to admit both love and loathing, would have liked to murder her mother.”
Patience shared with her father a desire for changing names. (She never called Carol Jean, her daughter, anything but Miranda.) They both sought to deny the past and make—in her case, always another—new beginning. Gray was the name she adopted legally in 1941. It belonged to Thomas Gray who had been her first serious love. He was immersed in London's 1930s cultural world where in 1939 he introduced the entranced Patience who was then in her early twenties. He was married, with children, unreliable in every way, and possessed of nothing but a fine spiel. Short as their liaison was, it resulted in three births, that of Nicolas, in 1941, Carol Jean, in 1942 and Bridget in 1943 , who lived just three months. Gray offered no support and little of his presence. Patience was on her own at twenty-six, penniless, clinging to the name of a man she never married and had now left. Nevertheless, she launched another new beginning, not only turning the page but discarding the book. This wasn't easy at a time when unmarried mothers were social outcasts, and London was being bombarded nightly. She would almost never speak of their father to her children or make any effort to have them meet him.
From autumn 1943, Patience lived with her two children in her mother’s remote Sussex cottage. Without electricity, plumbing or piped water, it was the first of several such dwellings that Patience would favour. The war made food scarce. Foraging for edible plants, herbs and mushrooms, she built up a specialist’s knowledge.
Patience from adolescence considered herself an outsider and a rebel. This inclined her to befriend the uprooted Europeans who came to the UK to escape the tumult on the continent. Often artists and intellectuals, they encouraged her in a variety of creative work. Although she published her first book on cooking, ‘Plats du Jour’, in 1957, her interests went far beyond food. She worked designing textiles, wallpaper and jewellery. She edited a book on plants and gardening (1952), and translated part of the ‘Larousse Gastronomique’. (mid-1950s). Finally, from 1958 till 1961 she was the first editor of a women's page in the ‘Observer’, a Sunday newspaper that at the time was a lively forum of ideas. Her articles often touched on European art, design and thought.
Federman notes that “Patience never identified herself as a feminist—a word she found distasteful [...]. In many ways Patience lived a feminist life but rejected the label”. (p.95) More exactly, Patience belonged to the line that comes down from the great French writer George Sand. These were highly gifted and energetic women to whom being good sisters was not a primary consideration. They competed successfully with males and let it go at that. Patience’s most acid differences were with other women. A friend remarked, “Patience was really jealous. She was terribly jealous. She couldn’t help it”. (p.51-2) Her many love affaires did not spare abandoned wives. She would warn Norman Mommens that she had “spent a lifetime hurting other people”. (p. 103)
Patience claimed that the second half of her life began in 1962 when she and the Anglo-Flemish sculptor, Mommens, set out to find a home in Europe. Here again Patience turned her back, this time on consumer society and art infected with commerce. Norman was in complete agreement. He needed to be near quarries, and they tried living in Carrara, always in the austere style that Patience had known during the war in rural Sussex. The search for the right place to live and work led to stays in Catalonia and a near year on the Greek island of Naxos. Patience explored several art forms and wrote ‘Ring Doves and Snakes’. As always, the couple accepted primitive living conditions as a badge of purity. Perhaps, too, it was a message to those whom their flight had hurt. The couple were signalling that they had not been after pleasure alone but freedom to create. As they moved about, Patience never stopped her enquiry into edible plants and the everyday cooking of the ordinary people around her.
In 1970 they bought and moved into the crumbling ‘masseria’ Spigolizzi, eleven acres and a “cowshed”, said Patience. (p.191) It was on high ground a mile and a half from the Ionian Sea, remote even from the nearest city, Lecce, itself off the beaten track in the heel of Italy. Putting the long neglected farm in order kept Patience and Norman from their own work. It transformed them into the part-time farm workers they would remain for the rest of their lives. They would produce wine, olive oil and a range of crops. Patience loved unfrequented places, and could often be found in the Mediterranean macchia, foraging in the scrubland where she was most at home. Derek Cooper wrote, “Spigolizzi is a time-warp of sanity in a world corrupted by the cash advantages of chemical farming”. (p.260) With the years Patience and Norman turned their attention more and more to ecological issues.
In Salento Patience continued to add to and reshape what would be her master work, ‘Honey From a Weed’. Published in 1984, it was life changing for many readers and brought Patience instant fame. However, acclaim did not dilute the vinegar in her outlook. She had wanted time to stand still, and it would not. Now it was the conviviality of eating together more than the food itself that she celebrated. She decried the new ‘foodies’, the food-culture vultures, “[W]ell-to-do Americans prying into the secrets of ‘la cucina povera’ in order to save themselves and others from heart attack”. (p.289)
Several writers called Patience “a modern-day witch”, generally benign but spiky. (p.2) Unlike the esteemed food writer Elizabeth David with whom she often disagreed, Patience was more than a brilliant journalist. She was a totem. Was she also a snob? “She did feel she was superior to most people,” said her daughter. (p.13) She damned vulgarity and dismissed the urban middle-class as mindless consumers who dined on poison. It was part of her lament for the disappearance of the peasantry. Everything she loved was tied to the earth and the people who worked it. Their cooking, derived from their lives, was what she had described with poignancy. This lent a tint of melancholy to her last years in Salento. For she was witnessing the end of a way of life that, somewhat romantically, she had adored. Adam Federman tells her story well.