Food with the Famous (1979) by Jane Grigson explores the lives of eleven famous English and French artists (writers, painters) in history – Grigson’s mode of selecting the eleven was to “take a number of famous people who liked eating, and give recipes for their favourite dishes” (9). Grigson published this book as an established cookbook writer who performed light scholarship; but she was not a food sociologist. The titles listed in my first edition copy of Food with the Famous suggest that Grigson’s experience lay in writing about enjoying food rather than the history behind it; these titles include Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, The Mushroom Feast (which explores the diversity of the mushroom family), English Food (which remains a “classic” and can be purchased updated with a modern cover on Amazon), Fish Cookery, and Good Things, all of which preceded Food with the Famous. In her introduction Grigson explains that she wrote “cookery articles in the Observer Magazine in 1978,” and that a conversation with a coworker spawned the idea for Food with the Famous (9). This frames Grigson’s career as oriented towards eating in history, but focused mostly on cuisine itself.
Excerpts of Food with the Famous did not appear before the full text was published, but Grigson’s writing in the Observer Magazine and her prolific career during the 1970s established her as a familiar name in English food writing. There appear to be only two editions of the book: the original 1979/80/81 publications, and an updated 1991 edition. This indicates that the book was popular during the 1980s and 1990s, before it could drown in the new millennium’s surge of cooking shows, cookbooks, and stylish diets requiring their own subcategory of cookbook. An Amazon search today generates only used first and second edition copies of Food with the Famous, all with visibly dated dust cover designs. The only book of Grigson’s that I discovered is still regularly read and praised is English Food (1974), which is sold on Amazon today by Penguin (a step up from the relatively unknown Hollen Street Press, who published Food with the Famous). The new edition features journalistic quotes testifying to the revival of English national cuisine that the book promoted. Jane Grigson died in 1990, so the decline in her books’ popularity may be due simply to her absence in emerging food writing.
Food with the Famous was published by an already popular author – English Food, evidently Grigson’s most lastingly influential book, was published five years before it, so Grigson’s name would have leapt out to customers. The book popularizes the history of food through famous cultural figures, all of whom are English or French, thus reinforcing the emphasis on nationality that characterizes Grigson’s work. Food with the Famous takes an unusual form: Grigson introduces her work and the book’s format in her introduction, then includes a section for each author, listing them chronologically, she explains. Each author section begins with a two or three page description of their life and relation to food, favorite dishes, and materials Grigson used to investigate their life through food. What follows are on average eight recipes, excerpted from diaries or family cookbooks but which Grigson modernized for the twentieth (and now twenty-first) century cook. She combines anthology, scholarship, biography, and recipes to form a book that maps English food. As a marketing strategy, this gives readers many reasons to buy the book: as a cookbook, a piece of academic work, or an exploration of the lives of figures famous and popular in England.
Grigson, Jane. Food with the Famous. Hollen Street Press, 1979.