This post originally ran on Food Riot, which has closed its doors. I’m rerunning some of my favorite posts I did for the magazine before it goes dark forever.
I was peripherally aware of Two Fat Ladies when their shows first aired in the late 90s. I was a little bit of a Food Network junkie back then, a teenager with big dreams of becoming a pastry chef, and I liked these two quirky broads riding a motorcycle around England. My taste had no discernment back then – I watched anything and everything food. But in my late twenties, when my dreams of professional chefdom had gone the way of my dreams of becoming a figure skater and a country music star, Two Fat Ladies resurfaced for me. And now that both of the Ladies – Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Wright Dickson – have left this earth, we are left only with our ability to remember the Two Fat Ladies.
In my late twenties, when I was introduced to The Cooking Channel – the cooler, more community-oriented younger sibling to The Food Network – I spent hours hanging out with my then-girlfriend (now wife), watching Unique Eats, Unique Sweets, and to my glee and utter enjoyment, reruns of Two Fat Ladies. We set the DVR and gorged ourselves on episode after episode of these two hilarious British ladies cooking dishes we had never seen, and sometimes never heard of.
Food television has become formulaic and well-practiced. Allen Salkin’s book From Scratch: Inside the Food Network gives an excellent history of how cooking shows settled into the formula we know today. Early shows lacked money and production value. Things went wrong. But as time has passed, we have come to expect flawless sets, beautiful dishes, beautiful hosts. There is something pristine and clean about food television these days.
Perhaps that’s why we glommed onto these reruns of Two Fat Ladies. These women cooked throughout England and Scotland (and even Jamaica in one episode), in a variety of different kitchens, usually rustic-looking, sometimes close and tight, sometimes cavernous. They wore clothes suited to their frames, personalities, and comfort levels. Most shows ended with Jennifer enjoying a cigarette and a drink.
Their humor was naughty. We do not call the immersion blender by its proper name in my house; we call it the kitchen vibrator, as Clarissa did in one episode where Jennifer made a potato soup. They joked on vegetarians, on Americans, and lovingly, on each other.
I remember one episode where the women took off walking in search of eggs. After awhile, Jennifer pitched a fit. She was tired of walking, and she announced that she was done. She sat down, and despite Clarissa’s entreaties to keep going, she stayed put and smoked a cigarette. It was a moment of awkwardness, of unscripted on-camera human behavior that is completely absent from food television. A woman is tired from walking and refuses to go on. The awkwardness was palpable as we watched. And when Clarissa came back, riding in the open bed of a truck, her feet swinging, a smiling face for her friend, all was well. The day was won. The dishes were made. But we still remember and talk about that episode.
Try finding that on Food Network these days. You won’t.
We remember singers by listening to their songs. We remember artists by visiting their paintings or sculptures. We remember cooks by making their recipes. But this is where my problem comes in.
A friend gave me the cookbook, Cooking with The Two Fat Ladies, for my birthday a few years ago. I recently looked through it, knowing what I would find. A lot of meat. Like, seriously. There was one episode that my wife and I remember often. Clarissa lined a terrine with bacon, then filled it with whatever she was making, and then covered the top with bacon as well. She made a bacon lid. Just let that sink in for a moment.
I’m a vegetarian, and even if I weren’t, many of the ingredients are hard to find in the States. We don’t readily have game available. My only options are desserts, which do look delicious.
But the conclusion I came to was that to remember the Two Fat Ladies, I will have to look to their other influences on my life. My wife and I still enjoy watching those old reruns, though we’ve seen almost every episode. We sing the theme song together. We joke about the kitchen vibrator whenever we make soup with an immersion blender.
And we remember the nights at the beginning of our life together, when we would make a snack and settle in for marathons of Two Fat Ladies. We can remember them as the soundtrack of our courtship. We can remember them as icons of our eating lives. Remembering the Two Fat Ladies won’t happen through making their recipes (or a bacon lid, just imagine), but it will happen by the simple act of remembering.