British

What the Two Fat Ladies (& Their "Mussels Casino") Taught Me About Food

“Don’t you find the title of the show offensive?” a journalist once asked Clarissa Dickson Wright, co-host of the cooking show Two Fat Ladies. “We don’t mind ‘Two’ and there’s nothing wrong with ‘Fat,’” she replied. “But we don’t like ‘Ladies.' It makes us sound like a public convenience.”

Large and vehemently opinionated, Clarissa Dickson Wright (who died in March 2014) and Jennifer Paterson (1928–1999), known collectively as the Two Fat Ladies, championed a cooking show that bucked not only the traditional model of televised cooking, but also featured women of physicality and character I had rarely seen on screen. Bearing some resemblance to Julia Child’s eccentric and masterful The French Chef, and very little in common with the show’s subdued contemporary Martha Stewart Living, Two Fat Ladies followed the cooking and antics of the women as Paterson drove her signature motorbike (Dickson Wright in the sidecar) to the townships and villages speckled throughout the British countryside, stopping at local farms, butchers, and cheese makers along the way.

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The show’s appeal to me, having grown up in a small Canadian town, was a bit obtuse. I was eight when I first saw it, and though I had never been to England nor tasted the elaborate, old-fashioned dishes the pair cooked (Deviled Kidneys, Coq au Vin), I mimicked them as I set up my own kitchen studio in the backyard picnic table. I fashioned twigs, branches, mushrooms, and leaves into dishes I presented to my imaginary television audience as classic pastoral dishes. I’d narrate how I foraged in the yard, describing the freshness of my make-believe lettuce leaves and spicy Dijon dressing made from spring water and mud. Two Fat Ladies made me think about the origins of my food, real or make-believe, and feel engaged in cooking it. Food became not just a process—adding three eggs here, mixing, pouring—but something to learn about and talk about.

Their grand personalities drew me in further. I was fascinated by Paterson’s wonderfully quirky storytelling, punctuated with rolling R’s, coupled with the more proper figure played by Dickson Wright. Each episode typically followed a simple arch: Some old English country folk—often of bucolic trades such as the clergy, or lock keeping—are hungry and in need of a home-cooked, familiar meal. The Two Fat Ladies trolled the English moors for ingredients and provided them with that meal.

Dickson Wright and Paterson are each responsible for cooking two dishes each for a spectacular breakfast, luncheon, or dinner, both bringing a passion for the traditional recipes of Britain. A typical spread, such as the one served to a male choir rehearsing mountainside en plein air, included dishes like Welsh lamb pie, mitton of pork (fillet of pork encased in streaky bacon), and a classic crème vichyssoise glacée. Their quirky and aggressively unique manners reminded me of the absurdist characters of Roald Dahl, or perhaps the eccentric teachers of Hogwarts.

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“I find most of their cooking unappealing but their remarks, gathering of ingredients, and the beautiful locations and old kitchens are worthy of repeat watching. Anyone remember Floyd on Food? Another good one.”
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The pair not only dismissed food trends and dietary restrictions, they seemed to adamantly loathe them: “It’s ‘be kind to ‘vegetarians’ this week,” Paterson concedes on a vegetable-centric episode. But not without adding, “As long as they can take an anchovy. I know some of them can’t.” Fat-free, low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-sodium—labels persistent throughout the 1990s—seemed not to exist in the Two Fat Ladies universe. None of that barred any importance in the kind of food the women cooked. Dickson Wright’s and Paterson insisted on the integrity of ingredients. In terms of methodology, the women were steadfastly faithful to tradition—meats marinated in brandy and Madeira, pork terrines slowly cooked in a bain-marie, and pheasants dutifully hung after the hunt.

Fat-free, low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-sodium—labels persistent throughout the 1990s—seemed not to exist in their universe.

Nods to good health are found in the women’s cooking, but importance is given to historical prominence rather than the finding of a scientific journal. Paterson’s recipe for Herrings in Oatmeal and Mustard with Bacon, published in their 1997 cookbook The Two Fat Ladies Ride Again, is a savory Scottish porridge that trumpets the heart-healthy oils of herring. “They are still cheap, they are wonderful to eat, and they are available to all, so why do people not eat more of them in this country, apart from the Scots?” she writes.

There’s an ethos that runs through the Two Fat Ladies world—that taking the time to cook for oneself (and for others) is more than merely a showcase of style, but of truly nurturing and feeding a hunger. In a time when overly engineered foods such as Soylent or this week’s new superfood promise to satisfy and nourish us in new and more holistic ways, it’s hard to escape how disassociated we are with their origins.

In 2016, my mother found a copy of The Two Fat Ladies Ride Again at a thrift store and gifted it to me. I was struck by how the recipes of the Two Fat Ladies, which once seemed strange and archaic to me, now felt relative and contemporary to the food I was cooking myself, and I began earmarking pages and sourcing the best ingredients to make dishes such as Garlic Soup with Poached Eggs (which Dickson Wright claims is sexually arousing). I take her list of ingredients—including garlic, bread, olive oil, eggs, paprika, and stock—to mean only the best of those simple foods. I source freshly plucked garlic from Vancouver Island, fresh eggs, and crunchy local bread, and am rewarded with a simple soup that is just as invigorating Dickson Wright promises.


Since my memories of the women are so vivid, I was saddened to a see a couple of instances where Paterson and Dickson Wright are the subject of insensitive punchlines, lazy setups that found the women often at the butt of the joke. They were once the subject of a skit on Saturday Night Live, parodied in a 1999 episode (a time when comedy was as easy as putting a man in a dress). Darrell Hammond plays Dickson Wright and guest Brendan Fraser plays Paterson, and the two act out a ham-handed attempt at satire. Fraser mocks the show’s frequent use of lard, while Hammond fashions a drink from the cream of a Twinkie. The show even gets a small cameo in an episode of Gilmore Girls, where Lorelai makes an off-handed joke about how “the fat one” died.

However, I have to ask myself: Is Two Fat Ladies a “feminist” show? However tempting it is to call it so, it is not so simple. At the age of 21, Dickson Wright became England’s youngest barrister. (She was later disbarred, as part of her troubled days with alcohol, which she often joked of as Paterson enjoyed her episodic post-kitchen drink and cigarette.) And Paterson herself lived a kind of life that seemed to have been plucked from a Victorian novel: She was an army brat who was expelled from convent school, and later a cook for the Ugandan legation. It's hardly the storyline of a typical housewife. But as the show’s celebrated producer Patricia Llewellyn noted in her introduction to The Two Fat Ladies Ride Again, their views on the role of women were as traditional as their recipes. “Feminists? Ghastly women with terrible clothes,” Llewellyn writes, quoting either Dickson Wright or Paterson, adding that Paterson’s love advice included quips like, “What is that garment you’re wearing. You’ll never find a husband wearing that!” They seemed to hold on strongly to tradition, for better or for worse.

Though their words don’t fit into feminism as it was popularly understood in the 1980s and 90s, their lived experiences tell a story of staunch individualism, living outside of gender roles—or any kind of prescribed roles, really. Like women such as Martha Stewart and Gwyneth Paltrow, Paterson and Dickson Wright were famous for a distinctive perspective on their food and their cooking. Like Stewart and Paltrow, they would probably judge you if you veered from their own point-of-view, but differently, and importantly, they never equated eating well with looking a certain way. They were fiercely individual as people, but their food was about connecting to the land and the people who cultivated it, long before farm-to-table dining was a regular feature of cosmopolitan restaurants.

This super-simple and immensely rewarding cocktail party dish showcases their talent. Photo by Rocky Luten

Many aspects of Paterson’s and Dickson Wright’s concepts around food hold up today. The women’s reactionary resistance against the supermarket seems now to have come full-circle. Their insistence on seasonality, local produce, fishmongers, and butchers, is very much the way I aspire to eat. The celebration of this food, cooked with care and vigor and excitement, is all a part of a life well-lived. In this spirit, I made Paterson’s Broiled Mussels from The Two Fat Ladies Ride Again. She makes no mention to only use the freshest available seafood, but I understand that she would implore me to make a trip to the fishmonger and find the best for my dish. Simple dressings of breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley, and chive follow the same direction. Crispy and satisfying, the dish riffs on Clams Casino, and is firmly in the tradition of rich, festive cocktail accompaniments—Paterson included the dish in the Cocktail Party chapter, after all.

I think of the women every time I’m in the butcher shop or farmers market, once again searching for a meal that will not only feed me but satisfy a larger hunger as well. “Our show seems to say to Americans that it's O.K. to eat red meat and cook with butter,'' Dickson Wright once said in an interview. ''I don't know why they feel they need permission.''

Are you a fan of Two Fat Ladies? Tell us about your memories of them in the comments!

7 Comments

Phildup April 13, 2018
The episode where they prepared a wonderful meal in a Royal Army mobile field kitchen was one of my favorites (hollowed out loaf of bread turned into an amazing steak sandwich) and anytime they went down to the harbor (harbour?) to get fish straight from the fisherman...Miss their show.
 
Nancy March 28, 2018
I know they had their demonds, but basically they were comfortable in their skin and so very far from the (mostly) tailored, coiffured and studio-bound contemporary cooking shows. See, for ex, their reaction at the start of the article to the show's title. Lovely memories.
 
amysarah March 8, 2018
I especially loved how they'd often go to, e.g., a boys' boarding school to prepare a post cricket match feast or some such - and somehow decide that the perfect treat, that all kids just love, would be deviled kidneys, or potted ox tails, or something like that...and lo and behold, all these young boys would ravenously dig in. They had magical powers.
 
QuesoB March 8, 2018
Yes. Particularly recall making cockles in shell for the pony club little girls, and a pretty much raw slab of beef encroute w/shrooms, and boiled eggs in mango cream sauce for the boyscouts. So not what I would've cooked for 'em but there it is! I learn a lot from them along these lines. Not a recipe show to me, but a cultural experience.
 
QuesoB March 8, 2018
Loved those gals. Have the DVDs and still watch them now and then. I find most of their cooking unappealing but their remarks, gathering of ingredients, and the beautiful locations and old kitchens are worthy of repeat watching. Anyone remember Floyd on Food? Another good one.
 
Kate K. March 8, 2018
My Dad and I used to watch them, even though he doesn't cook much and I was too young to and we only had margarine in the house. The episodes are so rhythmic and predictable -- your review recalls that feeling and its appeal wonderfully.
 
Oscar C. March 8, 2018
This was one of my favourite shows on PBS when I was little. I think they're the reason for my undue fascination with British cuisine.