This week the last of the “Two Fat Ladies” died: Clarissa Dickson Wright followed the passing away of her colleague Jennifer Patterson (on the right in the photo) in 1999, leaving everyone who loves food very much to mourn two of the great teachers of English cookery.
The couple filmed four BBC series that became internationally beloved for their quirky disobedience to any trends or fashions in cuisine. Riding around the English countryside in their sidecar motorcycle, they would arrive at a large stone house, enter a spacious well-equipped antique kitchen and begin preparing old-fashioned British fare underpinned by classical French technique.
Long before Paula Deen embarrassed herself on American TV with her near-pornographic overuse of butter, the Two Fat Ladies were ladling cream and butter, suet and lard into pastry crust, wrapping meats in caul fat and streaky bacon, and absolutely reveling in the decadence of it all in the name of delicious, good flavor. They knew exactly what they were doing, without so much as a smirk.
Wright had once been an attorney, battled and defeated alcoholism, worked as a cook and managed a London book shop, ran a catering business and luncheon club, and became a guild butcher—a rarity for a woman then. She had run through a large inheritance, went bankrupt more than once, and grew fat. But when asked if she minded the TV show being called “Two Fat Ladies,” she replied, “If you’re fat you’re fat. I hate this modern-day political correctness, that you don’t call things by their proper name.”
Her persona, which was only slightly less eccentric than her partner’s, was that of a formidable and brazenly large woman, laughing heartily, tongue in cheek, lecturing, cajoling, and saying outrageous things like, “you really want to get it well greased. Did you see `Last Tango in Paris?’ Something like that.” She raged at health food and never imagined too much of something could be anything but better.
The two women had actually never met before they went on the air in 1996, so the show was really an act, one playing off the other, Jennifer r-r-r-rolling her r’s and Clarissa making off-color jokes as the kitchen filled up with wonderful smells only imaginable by the TV viewer. The show met every expectation of those who like their Brits dotty, and Wright and Patterson played it all to the hilt—fiercely intelligent but seeming to be completely loopy. They were the polar opposites of the frenzied BBC sitcom characters Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone on “Absolutely Fabulous.” The Fat Ladiesnever quite winked at the camera but you knew they were having a ball, and it came through the airwaves like the aroma of vanilla and caramelized sugar.
Only 66 when she died, Wright left behind a legacy of British humor and presented a powerful argument for saving the cookery of another age, one now eclipsed by a modern cuisine more about style than good taste. Wright and Patterson are now both gone, and in their place we have the rantings of Gordon Ramsay in fully rehearsed explosions of dyspeptic rage where once the Two Fat Ladies–everyone’s crazy English aunties– gave us such good-natured and genteel instruction in the true joy of cooking and eating.