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Edward White’s monthly column, “Off Menu,” serves up lesser-told stories of chefs cooking in interesting times.

Still from Fanny Cradock’s BBC Christmas Special

On the evening of November 11, 1976, the BBC broadcast the third episode of The Big Time, which followed members of the public as they tested themselves in high-pressure situations. It was what we’d term today a reality TV–style show, and that week was the turn of Mrs. Gwen Troake, a middle-aged woman from rural Devon in southwest England, who was being given the chance to design and cook a special banquet at the world-famous Dorchester Hotel in London. Troake, an amiable, soft-spoken lady any audience would root for, was assigned the most demanding mentor the production team could muster: Fanny Cradock, an extraordinary character who was the face and voice of cooking on British television from the mid-’50s to the mid-’70s and was once described by one national newspaper as “a preposterous character, the foodie you loved to loathe.”

Cradock built an entertainment brand on her putative brilliance in the kitchen, but also her superciliousness, hectoring her husband, mistreating her colleagues, and patronizing her audience, the great British public, whom she regarded as gastronomic philistines. Evidently, this included Gwen Troake, the amateur cook on The Big Time. As Troake ran through what she was planning to serve at the banquet—a seafood cocktail, followed by duck, and rounded off with a rum and coffee cream pudding—Cradock rolled her eyes, gulped, and grimaced in a pantomime of disgust and disbelief at the overbearing richness of the menu, at one point blowing her cheeks out as though she were about to be physically sick. When Troake revealed that the duck would be served with a blackberry jam, Cradock could stomach no more and unleashed what she thought was the ultimate insult. “All these jams,” she said, “they are so English.”  Despite being stereotypically English in so many ways, in her mind the only really good English—or, indeed, British—food was really just French food by a different name. “The English have never had a cuisine. There’s nothing English. Yorkshire pudding came from Burgundy.”

She was probably wrong about Yorkshire pudding, but she definitely had a point, both about the heaviness of Troake’s menu and about the sorry state of her nation’s cuisine. In the postwar decades of Cradock’s great success, amid heated debates about what it meant to be British in a postimperial world, British food was an international laughingstock. It was fitting, then, that Cradock herself seemed to be in a perpetual identity crisis. Her personality was as peculiar as many of her famous recipes, and nobody was quite sure which of the stories she told about herself were true, and whether, despite her constant talk of refined French food, she was half as accomplished in the kitchen as she claimed to be. In the words of somebody who knew her well, “She wasn’t real … she didn’t know who she was. She made herself up as she went along.”

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The notion that Britishness is inimical to good food is almost as old as Great Britain itself. Across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Industrial Revolution, which occurred in Britain earlier and faster than in most other countries, did great harm to its “peasant” food tradition, the foundation of any national cuisine. Places such as Manchester and Birmingham swelled to smoking urban behemoths in the blink of an eye, relocating workers from farmland to factories and causing havoc to regional food cultures. By the start of the twentieth century, the global reputation of the nation’s food was poor, except when it came to the tables of the wealthy and the lordly. Auguste Escoffier, Cradock’s French cooking idol, ran celebrated restaurants in London, and stately homes hosted banquets that were vast, technically brilliant, and replete with ingredients, recipes, and customs unique to the British Isles. But after World War I, aristocratic households could no longer afford such indulgences, and the production line of skilled and knowledgeable kitchen staff dried up.

Fanny Cradock, born Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey, was only nine when the war came to an end and wasn’t much affected by the conflict, but her early years were full of upheaval. After her sybaritic parents decided they were either unable or unwilling to look after her, she was raised by her grandparents. By the age of thirty, she had been married three times, widowed once, and birthed two sons with whom she had no contact, a sad shadow of her own childhood. At least some of the extraordinary personality for which she would later be known, and her predilection for inventing and reinventing her biography, was surely rooted in these early decades of trauma, abandonment, and failed fresh starts.

It was probably during her disrupted childhood that she first acquired her skills in the kitchen. According to Cradock’s reminiscences—which are littered with tall tales and deceptions large and small—her grandmother taught her the rudiments of how to be a lady: deportment, the piano, French, hosting soirees, and cooking. As her biographer Kevin Geddes points out, Cradock sometimes claimed these lessons took place not in suburban England but in the grandest kitchens of Paris and the Riviera, though these stories were obviously untrue. They were attempts, perhaps, to rewrite a painful past, or simply to make herself seem more glamorous and distance herself from the bland inadequacies of British food.

Everything changed for Fanny in 1939, when she met Johnnie Cradock, an officer in the British army. Their connection was instant, deep, and profound: not only did they adore food and drink—their first date was a five-hour lunch—but they also had a yearning for wealth and glamour and shared ambitious designs for the life they would share together. With Johnnie offering moral support, Fanny thrived. Between 1942 and 1952, she published twenty-one books of fiction and nonfiction for children and adults under a range of assumed names. As a writer she was prolific but unfocused, shifting from one identity to the next, never settling on one fixed idea of herself.

Around this time, she also perfected the art of entertaining, using those skills her grandmother had taught her to host dinner parties and soirees. In the conditions of the day, this was no small accomplishment. Food rationing had begun in Britain in January 1940 and did not end until 1954, causing shortages of even basic foodstuffs. When the English food writer Elizabeth David returned home in 1946 after many years abroad, she was horrified to see some people eating meals as paltry as flour-and-water soup. From a public health point of view, this was obviously gravely serious. It also dealt a further blow to the integrity of British cuisine, as another generation lost out on vital skills, knowledge, and experiences. In response to this situation, Cradock became involved with the British Housewives’ League, an organization that urged the government to end rationing and make radical changes to the British food system. Her involvement with the group led to her writing a series of hotel and restaurant reviews for the Daily Telegraph. She adopted yet another pseudonym, Bon Viveur. This name was more considered than the others she’d used, articulating how Cradock saw herself in her iteration as food expert: a steadfastly British woman filled with French sophistication.

Her reviews were hugely popular with readers, and throughout the fifties, the Cradocks developed Bon Viveur into a brand, producing books and a live stage show that traded heavily on their personal relationship. Onstage, Fanny cooked in ball gowns and high heels, the glamorous, extroverted star of the show, while Johnnie, dressed in black tie, played her hapless sidekick, a henpecked lackey who bore the brunt of his wife’s short temper. They were like sitcom spouses, though one could never be sure how much of it was put on for the audience and how much was a reflection of their real relationship. Certainly, Fanny kept everybody on their toes. She communicated an “innate superiority,” to quote the writer John Walsh, “as if she were a grande dame condescending to offer cookery tips to the great unwashed.” She succeeded, it seemed, because of her astringent personality, not in spite of it. Perhaps somewhere deep in the British collective consciousness, there was a feeling that the nation deserved to be rebuked for its bloody awful food—and waspish, haughty Fanny Cradock was the perfect person to do it.

In the sixties, the couple became household names, fixtures on radio and television, Fanny almost as famous for her performative rudeness—snapping her fingers and barking orders at Johnnie and a cast of onscreen helpers—as for her prolific output. Though there were always doubts about precisely how expert she was in the kitchen, she was assiduous in building her brand as a British home cook of rare sophistication. She grasped any commercial opportunity and published books on every conceivable aspect of cooking: soup, the brave new world of pasta—she even managed to devote an entire book to the uses of aluminum foil. Doubtless these ventures helped to educate their audience, but what the Cradocks did more than anything was to put glamour, fantasy, and indulgence into ordinary British food at a time when that seemed mightily difficult to do.

Yet there was always something off-kilter about Fanny Cradock’s food, fitting for the most famous cook in a land that had lost the thread of its culinary identity. She gave her public green mashed potatoes, green Gruyère-flavored ice cream, blue hard-boiled eggs, and a recipe for roast swan decorated with gold leaf, even though eating swan was against English law. She was addicted to garnishes and overpowering sauces, and never passed up an opportunity to flambé something in brandy. When that wasn’t a viable option, she doused everything in icing sugar, including the bizarre and unappealing mincemeat omelet she made as part of her 1975 BBC series Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas. Her appearance got more striking each year, and by the time of that Christmas series—presented without Johnnie—she resembled a psychedelic Cruella de Vil, her face heavily powdered, her eyebrows plucked and redrawn an inch above her eyes, her hair decorated with large pink ribbons. She was—and still is—magnificently watchable, partly because she’s so elusive; she switches from ingratiating smiles to impatient scowls so quickly that one can’t tell what she’s thinking or feeling, whether she wants to embrace her viewers or rap their knuckles. Perhaps this was the effect of the mood-altering amphetamines that some have alleged she took before filming. Whatever the reason, the person beneath the Fanny Cradock persona is as confusing as her food.

Though Cradock’s peak years were probably the mid to late sixties, she and her cooking seem tailor-made for the seventies. In his novel Jake’s Thing, Kingsley Amis described a seventies menu that was “firmly in the English tradition: packet soup with added flour, roast chicken so overcooked that each chunk immediately absorbed every drop of saliva in your mouth … soggy tinned gooseberry flan and coffee tasting of old coffeepots.” Yet although the quality of British food may have been as disastrous as it had been for as long as anyone could remember, a spirit of gastronomic adventurousness broke through in that decade, one that Cradock had done more than a little to stoke. It was the decade of fondue parties, cheese and pineapple chunks on cocktail sticks (considered an exotic indulgence at the time), Black Forest gâteau, chicken Kiev, chili con carne, Neapolitan ice cream, and the prawn cocktail. The latter is often cited as a Cradock invention, and although that’s probably not the case, it does seem like the sort of thing that could have emerged from her imagination: a fusion of colors, textures, and flavors with a veneer of sophistication, yet simple enough to be cooked in every kitchen in the land.

Inexpert and clumsy though it may have been, Britain’s exploration of new foods was indicative of deeper currents, as Britain, its empire definitively dead and buried, reexamined its place in the world. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide whether or not the UK should join the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union. Amid the huge economic difficulties besetting Britain at the time, food was central to both sides of the argument. In the buildup to the vote, Cradock was given a regular spot on the magazine television show Nationwide, in which she visited various member states of the EEC to profile, mainly positively, their cuisine. A spin-off series of books—Common Market Cookery­—followed; the volume on France, naturally, was especially exultant.

The referendum took place in June 1975; 67 percent voted in favor of joining the European project. It was hailed as a definitive turning point in Britain’s relationship with the outside world. Edward Heath, the former prime minister, was a key pro-European figure of the day, and the banquet that Gwen Troake prepared as part of the Big Time television series was in his honor. When Cradock made her infamous appearance, assailing the Englishness of Troake’s menu, the public apparently decided that it had had enough of her imperiousness. Bullying Johnnie was one thing but, in a pre–Gordon Ramsay era, being unkind to a nice lady from Devon was a soupçon too much. Viewers complained, and the British newspapers—primed as ever with confected moralism—declared themselves outraged. “Not since 1940,” wrote the Daily Telegraph, the paper that had first allowed Cradock to write about food, “can the people of England have risen in such unified wrath.” Her goose was cooked. It was time for Fanny Cradock to get out of the kitchen.

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Cradock never hosted another show, although that wasn’t entirely down to the Troake incident. She and Johnnie had already left the UK to live as tax exiles in Ireland, where Fanny rediscovered herself as a novelist and, alongside Johnnie, practiced faith healing, which they claimed had helped to cure them both of cancer.

Their public image had always rested on their relationship as husband and wife, though in fact they had never tied the knot. When Fanny split with her Catholic second husband, Arthur Chapman, in 1929, he refused to give her a divorce, meaning that when she married for a third time (to Gregory Holden-Dye, shortly before she met Johnnie), she had done so bigamously. Johnnie, too had been married at the time he met Fanny; breaking from that marriage was dreadfully messy and destroyed his relationship with his four children, just as Fanny only ever had strained and fractured relationships with the two sons she gave up in her youth. However, in 1977, Johnnie learned that Arthur Chapman had died and Fanny was at last free to marry. Curiously, the Cradocks were unable to resist tweaking their biographies even on the marriage certificate. They both lowered their ages by several years, gave a wrong address, and Fanny recorded her father, Archibald, as Arthur. To add to the confusion, it turned out that Johnnie had been mistaken, and that Arthur Chapman was alive and well. Unwittingly, Fanny had committed bigamy for a second time.

When Johnnie died, age eighty-two, in 1987, Fanny struggled to cope with the loss. She refused to see him in his final days, a reflection, perhaps, of her selfishness, but also of her fear and distress at the prospect of losing another beloved. In a final tribute to him, she signed herself Jill, his pet name for her. It was one more alternate identity, this one shared just between the two of them.

Cradock lived for a further seven years, during which time she made a few appearances on talk shows, where she was treated as a kitsch curio from a distant age. In some ways, she was. By the time of her death in 1994, Britain was in the foothills of something like a food renaissance, much of which has been communicated through her television successors. The global popularity of Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, and The Great British Bake Off would have seemed implausible in Cradock’s day, when good British food was universally considered a contradiction in terms.

Though just as it was in 1918, 1945, and 1975, food remains a contested part of the nation’s endless tussles over its identity on the world stage. Prawn cocktail–flavored crisps, bendy bananas, and chlorinated chicken all featured in the Brexit campaign arguments. And as Britain prepares (or fails to prepare, depending on one’s perspective) to leave the EU in December, there are dire prognostications of food shortages, rationing, and malnutrition, countered by elysian visions of a self-sufficient country returned to the soil amid teeming fields of homegrown produce. It would have seemed like déjà vu to Fanny Cradock, a lodestar in the foul-tasting odyssey of bad British food.

 

Readers in the UK can see the whole of Fanny Cradock’s Christmas series on the BBC iPlayer.

Read earlier installments of “Off Menu.”

Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. He is currently working on a book about Alfred Hitchcock. His former column for The Paris Review Daily was “The Lives of Others.” 

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