Before there were celebrity chefs and before cooking on television was glamorized by the likes of Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay and Giada there were “Two Fat Ladies.”
In the early days of Food Network, the shows were about cooking, technique and learning something in the kitchen. It was education, not entertainment and the “Two Fat Ladies” were one of the first so-called “cele-brity chefs”to blend the two. The BBC-produced cooking show quickly caught attention from audiences across the pond and was a boost to the young Food Network.
I doubt a show like this could be produced today as their kitchens weren’t equipped with modern design, their food wasn’t plated by a stylist and they weren’t concerned with wardrobe, hair or makeup.
Instead, the “Two Fat Ladies” made you feel like you were eavesdropping in the kitchen of two old friends. They rarely addressed the camera and any attempt at scripting the ladies was thrown out in the early episodes.
Clarissa Dickson-Wright and Jennifer Paterson were the aptly named fat ladies and while they didn’t take themselves, or each other, seriously what they did take seriously was English food and cooking.
They would ride around the English coast and countryside on their Triumph motorbike, Paterson — wearing a bejeweled crash helmet — always the driver, and Wright — wearing an old leather flying helmet — riding in the sidecar. Strapped to the back was a wicker basket filled with fish, fowl, vegetables or whatever inspired them.
“Make sure you get that basket closed properly, Jennifer,” Ms. Dickson-Wright would say, “I don’t want those crabs coming out and crawling down my neck.”
The show ran from 1996 to 1999, but only 24 episodes were produced. It had a cult following with an estimated 70 million fans worldwide, but production was stopped after Ms. Paterson was diagnosed with cancer and passed away within a month in August 1999. The final “Two Fat Ladies” season was only four episodes into production and aired later that fall. (All of the “Two Fat Ladies” episodes are available on Amazon.com for purchase or download.)
According to the BBC, Paterson first met Dickson-Wright at a party in Tuscany in 1991, but the two didn’t form a bond until the “Two Fat Ladies” series was conceived by producer Patricia Llewellyn.
Paterson was a devout Catholic who would ride for miles to go to mass during filming. She died ‘peacefully, painlessly and full of caviar’ at the age of 71 after losing her battle with lung cancer.
Upon Paterson’s passing, Dickson-Wright said, “Jennifer is no doubt sitting on a cloud, with her bike parked beside her, smoking a fag and discussing menus with St Peter, singing hymns with St Lucy and writing recipes with St Honor￩ before going off to lunch with Noel Coward.”
Now the two cooking and motorcycling-riding sidekicks are riding together again as the news of Dickson-Wright’s passing was announced on Monday.
I was saddened when I heard about her death because thinking of the show brought back some very fond memories. I was in my early 20s in Houston, not so interested in cooking, but my good friend Stephanie made me start cooking with her and we loved watching “Two Fat Ladies.”
As bad as our luck was with dating we figured we would probably end up like the two of them. Their banter in the kitchen and the way they joked with each other while cooking was reminiscent of our own friendship even though we had little in common with these funny English ladies.
We might have tried to cook a couple of their recipes, but back in those days I didn’t know the difference between a head or a clove of garlic. We did a lot of experiementing and were ‘two skinny ladies’ because most of what we cooked was inedible. Our skills were lacking, but we learned to keep trying and have fun in the kitchen thanks to the “Two Fat Ladies.”
It’s funny where we find our inspiration and the dreams that drive us towards our own individual versions of success.
For Clarissa Dickson-Wright – well-educated, affluent and a successful lawyer – she went through some difficult times early in life with addiction, loss and financial ruin, but remained inspired by English food and cooking.
After the end of “Two Fat Ladies,”she began writing and published several books about English travel, history and food, as well as an autobiography called “Spilling The Beans.”
In 2011, “A History of English Food” was published and this large, detailed volume not only displayed her fine education, but eloquently explained the evolution of English food from medieval to modern.
It took her five years to finish the book, but in the introduction she states it was the book she always knew she would write someday. Her two greatest passions – history and food – had finally merged after 64 years of life.
At the end of the book, Dickson-Wright’s final page tribute to English food included a menu of what she hoped would be her last meal.
Oyster Beignets made with native oysters,
Freshly cut asparagus with hollandaise sauce,
Beef consomm￩ with poached bone marrow
Morecambe Bay brown shrimp on Matt Jones rye bread
Roast wing rib of White Park beef hung for eight weeks and served with freshly dug new potatoes, cardoons au gratin, cream made with freshly grated horseradish and beetroot, gravy
Raspberries with pouring cream and clotted cream
The final line of the book, “It’s perhaps a rather rich meal, but in the circumstances I don’t think I will be too concerned.”
I hope that Clarissa Dickson-Wright had a chance to enjoy her last meal. And if she didn’t, maybe her friend Jennifer Paterson was waiting at the pearly gates with the Triumph and the sidecar ready to whisk her off to a heavenly feast while joyfully singing the “Two Fat Ladies” theme song.
“Grab that crab Clarissa,
Eat that beef Jennifer,
Why doesn’t that pheasant look pleasant?
Fasten your tastebuds for a gastronomic drive.
Cuz two fat ladies are itching to get into your kitchen.”
Green Beans with Roman Mustard
12 ounces brown mustard seed
8 fluid ounces red wine vinegar
12 fluid ounces unsweetened red grape juice
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, freshly ground
2 ounces flaked almonds
3 ounces pine nuts
1 pound green beans
1/2 small fresh green chilie, seeded and finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1 tablespoon Roman mustard
2 tablespoons oil
1/2 teaspoon ground mustard seed
1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
To make about 1 1/2 pints of Roman mustard combine the mustard seed, vinegar and grape juice, and mix in the salt and cumin. Leave to soak, covered but not sealed for 36 to 48 hours. Put into a food processor and whiz for 1 to 2 minutes or until coarsely ground, then add the almonds and pine nuts and whiz very briefly until they are completely broken up, not over-processed. Top and tail the beans, then slice them into 1-inch pieces diagonally. Cook in boiling salted water for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on their age. They should be tender but still have a slight bite. Drain. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in the empty pan. Blend the chili, garlic, and mustard together with a pinch of salt. Add to the pan and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the beans and stir thoroughly over a very low heat. In a small pan heat the remaining oil, add the mustard seed and cumin, and cover. Cook until they start to splutter. Pour over the beans and serve immediately.
Crab, Corn & Coriander Fritters
6 ears fresh sweet corn
3 ounces crab meat
1 medium onion, grated
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 ounces flour
Freshly ground black pepper
Cut the sweet corn kernels from the cob with a sharp knife. Mix together all the ingredients except the oil. Cover and refrigerate for at least half a day. Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a frying pan and drop in tablespoons of the crab mixture. Fry in batches briskly until brown and flip and cook the other side. Drain the fritters on paper towels and keep warm until all are cooked. Serve as soon as possible.