Edward White’s monthly column, “Off Menu,” serves up lesser-told stories of chefs cooking in interesting times.
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 post-imperial 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. As Kevin Geddes, in his biography Keep Calm and Fanny On, quotes one of Fanny’s friends, Evangeline Evans, as saying, “She wasn’t real … she didn’t know who she was. She made herself up as she went along.” Read More