The importance of Patience Gray

Oct 5, 2017

Patience Gray’s cookbook, Honey From a Weed, is a big, beautiful book. Written over the span of 20 years, it’s poetic and full of both feasting and hunger. It’s the definition of a cult classic, but few people outside of that cult have even heard about the fascinating woman who wrote it, who would have turned 100 this year. Adam Federman’s new biography of Gray, Fasting and Feasting, tells her complicated life story. Our contributor Russ Parsons talked to Federman about Gray's acheivements, travels, and her seminal works.

Bring some of Patience Gray's passion into your kitchen with these three recipes hand-selected for The Splendid Table by Gray's granddaugher: Guineau Fowl My Way, Salt Cod Cooked in Milk, and A Vegetable Braise.

Adam Federman, author of Fasting and Feasting
(Author photo: Andrew Federman)

Russ Parsons: Your book describes Patience Gray as the most important food writer we've never read. She was a fascinating person who led a multifaceted life. Who was she? What kind of person was she?

Adam Federman: I suppose there's something a bit counterintuitive about making the claim that an author most people have never heard of is one of the most important food writers of the last half-century. There were many incarnations of Patience Gray. She was born in West Surrey in the south of England. She grew up mostly in the country, although she went to Queens College in London and the London School of Economics.

She had a remarkable experience during World War II, raising two children out of wedlock. She lived in a tiny cottage owned by her mother through to the 1950s, when she returned to London and took up a career as a translator, editor, and writer. Eventually, she published her first cookbook Plats Du Jour, and went on to be the first woman's editor of The Observer, which was quite possibly the most important newspaper in London at that time.

All of this preceded her Mediterranean odyssey, which is what she's most known for. Everyone who knows Patience Gray knows her through Honey From a Weed, so they think of this woman who lived this very intrepid, rugged life in Greece and Italy, then finally in Puglia in the very south of Italy. This is unquestionably one of the most fascinating chapters of her life, but it's by no means the whole person.

Patience and Honey From a Weed occupy an unusual place in the world of food writing. The book is considered one of the best books on food ever written, and yet Patience remains almost completely unknown. Patience was a contemporary of Elizabeth David – another British food writer – and M.F.K. Fisher, who have far greater notoriety. Patience wrote about food and ideas in food that have become mainstream today; it's surprising that she isn't better known. I still encounter people today who say that Honey From a Weed changed their life. That's something you don't often hear about a cookbook.

Left: Portrait of Patience Gray taken in 1959 by her colleauge at The Observer. (Photo: David Sim) | Right: Gray at her Spigolizzi farmhouse in the mid-1990s (Photo: Doris Schiuma)

RP: Patience's first cookbook, Plats Du Jour, was published in the 1950s, and it was extremely influential in England. What was it like? How did it set a table for her future work?

AF: Plats Du Jour was a remarkable book, and as you say, it was a runaway best seller. Published in 1957, it was one of the first mass market paperbacks of its kind. Until that point, Penguin hadn't done a lot of cookbooks, let alone cookbooks aimed at a mass market audience. The book covered a wide range of European cuisine based on the countries that Patience and her co-author, Primrose Boyd, had traveled to before the war. It embodied the same kind of romance and wanderlust of the books that Elizabeth David had written earlier in the decade.

RP: Let’s put it this way: It's a dinner party cookbook. But Honey From a Weed is completely different. It's an idiosyncratic book, and anything but a cookie cutter, modern market cookbook.

AF: Honey From a Weed brings so many threads together. I think part of the explanation for that is the fact that it was written over the course of a 20 year old period; it reflected the life that Patience and her partner, Norman Mommens, had lived throughout the Mediterranean. It combines personal essays with recipes, reflections on the landscape, and esoteric subjects like anarchism and Carrara. Then on top of that, it offers what I think is probably the most comprehensive and remarkable field guide to the edible wild plants and fungi of the Mediterranean. It does this in a comparative way that is really unique. She includes Greek, Catalan, Italian, English, and even Salentino dialect words for these plants and fungi, so you get a real sense of the context and the relationship between these various foods and the countries in which Patience lived.

Patience Gray with husband Norman Mommens, February 1992. (Photo: Grace DiNapoli)

RP: We've talked about Honey From the Weed as a philosophical work and as a guidebook to esoteric culinary knowledge, but it's full of delicious recipes, too. What were some of the favorite things that you cooked from it?

Adam Federman: It is a remarkable cookbook and, I should also add, a very accessible one. I think the recipes that tend to get referenced from it are the esoteric ones, like fox or something along those lines. I also think it tends to be a book that people read and don't cook from, but I hope that changes. A couple of weeks ago, at home in Vermont, I did one of her pasta dishes. It’s spaghetti boiled in heavily salted water. In a large bowl you put fresh ricotta. Before you're finished cooking, you ladle some of the pasta water into the bowl and mix it with the ricotta, drain your noodles, toss them in the bowl, mix them, grate a bit of nutmeg over it, ground black pepper, and it's a wonderful dish. That kind of dish is sort of what Honey From a Weed is all about.