The Most Important Food Writer You've Never Heard Of

Posted: Sep 12, 2017

The first time Adam Federman heard Patience Gray’s name was in 2005, the year she died. He had been leafing through the pages of food quarterly The Art of Eating when he came upon an obituary of this plucky, eccentric woman from Surrey in England. She had written two cookbooks during her lifetime, and the second, Honey from a Weed (1986), was described within that obituary as one of the best books ever written about food. So why, he wondered, had she spent the last decades of her life as a recluse in a remote corner of southern Italy without plumbing or electricity?

It just so happened that Federman’s parents had a copy of Honey from a Weed, gifted to them by an anarchist friend. He found Gray’s prose exhilarating and he was taken with the way this elliptical book bound together so many subjects he was interested in: food, the natural world, anthropology, history, literature. It contained still-urgent truisms about self-sufficiency and seasonality. And, from an aesthetic standpoint, it was rich with evocative illustrations in place of photographs, an antidote to the suffocatingly pristine aesthetic of today's cookbooks that emphasize perfection.

“She transports you,” Federman told me one day in July of Gray’s writing in Honey from a Weed. “It’s almost like a book of fairytales, except everything she describes in it is real.”

Yet he noticed that Gray offered little autobiographical detail in her writing, and there wasn't much existing literature on her life he could consult, either. Shortly after reading Honey from a Weed, Federman, an investigative reporter by profession who had also previously worked as a line cook and pastry chef, contacted Gray’s son, Nick, and made his first trip to Puglia in Italy to start reading through the vast archive of letters she left behind.

Initially, Federman had no intention of writing a book; he was simply motivated by his own curiosity. But as he learned more about Gray's remarkable life and realized what an astonishing trove of source material he could access, he realized someone needed to surface her story. He decided to write her biography.

Fasting and Fasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray, out today in the United States from Chelsea Green, is over 300 pages long, and goes into great detail about Gray’s vagabond life. Born Patience Stanham in 1917 to an upper-middle class family, Gray spent early adulthood absorbed in literary and artistic scene in postwar Hampstead. She was the first editor of the women’s pages at the Observer, a job from which she was eventually fired. Afterwards, she departed the United Kingdom for the Mediterranean, ultimately settling in Puglia with her lover, Belgian sculptor Norman Mommens.

“She became increasingly disillusioned with what she called London’s descent into 'consumerland' and the conventions of the publishing world,” Federman said of Gray's self-imposed exile. “All of these factors contributed to her being on the margins, which I think ultimately she preferred.”

Fasting and Feasting is a dense work of scholarship perhaps best treated as a companion piece to Honey from a Weed, a cookbook that has continually been cited by chefs from April Bloomfield to Alice Waters as a landmark text. In it, Gray, with tactile and occasionally arresting prose, championed ideas that have become front and center in food writing today, from eating seasonally to slow food to foraging. "Good cooking is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality," she wrote in the book's introduction. "It is born out in the communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons.”

Some may bristle at Fasting and Feasting's length along with the reverential tone Federman takes in charting her life. But Gray is a subject who demands such thorough and considered treatment. Part of Federman’s stated reason for writing this book was to re-situate Gray firmly within the canon of great food writers that include Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher, essentially resuscitating her legacy. Gray has been sidelined in such conversations, though she’d played a part in muddying these waters herself.

“The kind of recipe writing that Gray practiced, which really came of age in the 1950s, is a lost art,” Federman insisted to me. “It’s not so much telling you exactly what to do, with an intimidating picture of perfection next to it, but rather guiding you as you figure things out on your own. I’m guessing the publishing world would no longer be very sympathetic to this kind of approach.”

Not that it was exactly sympathetic back in Gray's time, either. Honey from a Weed, as Federman details, took over a decade to make. Gray finished the first draft in 1970 and spent years trying to sell it. Most publishers deemed the book too esoteric, passing on it routinely, until Alan Davidson, then the publisher of Prospect Books, took a chance.

Federman found a strange symmetry between Gray’s route to publishing her book and marketing his own. Convincing bigger publishing houses that people would actually read a biography of an obscure British food writer who’d lived half her life in a faraway corner of Italy wasn’t an easy task. Even if they didn’t read it, though, he figured the book was still worth writing. In 2011, he finished a book proposal and tried to sell it in the U.K. for two years. It went nowhere.

He was all but ready to abandon the project when, in early 2014, Chelsea Green publisher Margo Baldwin wrote Federman about whether he wanted to pursue a book project based on an article he'd written on an entirely different subject. Federman declined politely, but told Baldwin that he had a proposal about a British food writer named Patience Gray he'd been sitting on for years. Baldwin bit, and, three weeks later, the two hammered out the details of a contract. Throughout the process of shopping his book, he reminded himself that it had taken Gray herself nearly 15 years to publish Honey from a Weed. Her persistence had paid off, and what came of it is a book that has survived well beyond the span of her life. Two years? He could handle it.

Learn more about Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray here.

By Mayukh Sen
September 8, 2017
Source: Food52

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