Under the interview-microscope Clarissa Dickson Wright does not waver a syllable in her eloquent and perfectly-structured speech. In fact, the knowledgeable cook and outspoken TV personality-turned-author admits: "I write the way I talk," which is lucky, seeing as when it came to the end of a four-year deadline for penning her new book, A History of English Food (Random House), the 64-year-old was struck down by pleurisy and had to dictate the whole text into a machine, which was then "written up by a nice lady in Yorkshire".
The disease—an inflammation of the lung lining—caused Dickson Wright harsh pains when breathing in, leaving her unable to hold a pen. Nevertheless, she tackled the job with the formidable straightness any fans of her TV show Two Fat Ladies would feel nostalgia for, and had the 600 page book churned out in a matter of months.
Rather than taking away from its literary charm, one gets the impression A History of English Food benefits from the twists, turns and anecdotes that characterise Dickson Wright's speech, because her conversational style litters its pages that span nearly 1,000 years of English food.
For example, in one instant the reader learns that bread was such a fundamental part of the medieval diet that there was an "assize of bread" dictating all aspects of its production, and the next about the humiliating manner in which a cheating baker could be punished in the 1260s. Dickson Wright writes: "A dishonest baker could be fined, condemned to a spell in the stocks or even be flogged through the streets behind a cart while the populace threw muck, rotten fruit and even dead cats. The latter two penalties also required that the defective loaf be tied round his neck so that his crime was identified."
A History of English Food is a treasure trove of absorbing facts about the medieval palate—and the effect that ruling monarchs, international trade, politics and religion had on food tastes and cooking cultures in England. At one point Dickson Wright discusses how food changed after the Restoration in the 1660s, when street riots against the "Rump Parliament" led to people cooking rump steak on street bonfires in protest. She notes: "I love the thought that the celebration of a disgraced parliament took the form of barbequing rump steaks in the street for all to enjoy."
As to her research method, the food-lover—who grew up the youngest of four children in a house staffed with servants and who trained as a barrister before holding down a range of cooking jobs—says the work is a result of her life's experience. "This is the book I always wanted to write and the most important book I have ever written because it is educating people, enthusing people to perhaps know more about the subject. It is about enthusing the young," she says, adding that as she was growing up "food was the only thing we did not argue about".
The book has sprung from Dickson Wright"s liking for history, her upbringing around food and is down to her talent for having "a very good memory". The book"s rich detail is drawn from her life's learnings and one information bible—the Encyclopaedia Britannica from the year 1926—that she bought at Portobello Market in London because it was the "last one contributed to by individuals" and, according to Dickson Wright, the "only one worth buying".
The personal significance of the book is further underlined by its dedication—to Dickson Wright's father, surgeon to the royals. Arthur Dickson Wright was an abusive drunk who she professes to have "hated". Dickson Wright says: "It is the first time I have even thought about dedicating a book to my father. It came out of nowhere and it was a shock that I actually thought it, but that was the only thing to do. He taught me to think laterally. It is very important to know where you should go to look things up, and it is not necessarily in history books."
Her adeptness for writing is impressive considering the former alcoholic makes no apologies about some of her motivations for embarking on the project. Revealing how she prefers to deploy her love of language, she muses: "If I won the lottery I wouldn"t write at all . . . I would be an after-dinner speaker because I love to speak."
A History of English Food by Clarissa Dickson Wright is out today, published by Random House.