As a vegetarian, I am the last person who should recommend watching Two Fat Ladies, the zany British cooking program that got its start in 1996 and featured the eccentric duo of Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright. If PETA finds out about this, they will surely revoke my special vegan privileges, right? Because if any two people loved meat, nay, celebrated the pleasures of eating a freshly killed animal, it was the Two Fat Ladies, who, by my last count, cooked rabbit, pigeon, duck, deer – basically anything that was ever adorable in its living state – an ate its flesh and other bits with gusto.
Paterson and Dickson Wright mocked the very thought of vegetarianism. Salads, to them, were pathetic. Why eat rabbit food when you can eat the rabbit itself?
But, I loved them – the same way I loved Julia Child. All three thought young people, with all their fad diets and calorie constriction, didn’t know how to live. Sure, I had to turn my head when the meat preparation got bloody, but when these women cooked and told their charming stories, I felt a warmth and coziness that reminded me of being around my lively grandma Lillian in her kitchen.
Except the Two Fat Ladies never cooked in their own kitchen. That was the show’s hook. The ladies would get a plea to cook from a nearby group, say a monastery or a private school – or a sometimes not-so- nearby-group in the case of the Jamaican polo team – and the duo would set off in their vintage Triumph Thunderbird motorbike and sidecar.
Yes, you read right: the two rode around Great Britain for 24 episodes on a motorcycle. They wore vintage biker jackets, goggles and scarves and they sang their own jazzy theme song. I’d like to see Rachel Ray pull that off.
Now every episode will be released in late July on the first ever Two Fat Ladies: The Complete Collection (Acorn Media, $59.99).
Although the series was picked up by the fairly new Food Network, stars Paterson and Dickson Wright were unusual in the United States. For starters, they weren’t kidding about being two fat ladies. These gals were fat. And not gorgeous. (I wonder if they would make it on the new, glossier Food Network, where the only Brits we come across now look like hottie Nigella Lawson.)
The Two Fat Ladies didn’t get that way by abstaining: They had a zeal for the pleasures in life. Both scoffed at using anything “low-fat.” They used a lot of cream and butter. Paterson even smoked while she cooked, and finished each episode with an adult beverage.
But their joy came after years of hardship. In Dickson Wright’s 2007 memoir Spilling The Beans, she wrote about a horrific childhood, growing up in a wealthy family, the daughter of an heiress and her abusive husband, a prestigious general surgeon who once worked on the Queen Mother. Dickson Wright and her mother were the victims of never-ending physical and emotional terror. As a younger woman, Dickson Wright set out to be a barrister and though she achieved her goal, she writes candidly of her descent into alcoholism and promiscuous sex. A scandal debarred her and stripped her of her dignity until she finally found sobriety and peace in the late 1980s.
Spilling the Beans, which will be released in paperback next year, came as a shock to fans of the upbeat duo. But it also illustrated why Dickson Wright now relished life and why she and her cooking partner sang in their kitchen. (It also shines some light on why she knew that bacon is a great hangover cure).
The Complete Collection includes biographies of both women as well as a tribute to Paterson, who died in 1999 of lung cancer. The last episode the two ever shot includes footage of Dickson Wright bringing a tin of caviar to her partner in the hospital. But she arrives too late. Paterson has died.
I live my life in direct contrast to the way the Two Fat Ladies lived. I gave up meat when I was 14. I was too terrified of lung cancer to continue smoking. I rarely drink alcohol. I’ve been known to monitor my fat grams. They would be ashamed of me.
But I did pick up on one important lesson from the ladies, the same one I got from grandma Lil, orphaned at 8 and raised by Catholic nuns: what’s in the past and the future might not be what you want, so enjoy yourself right now. Sing in your kitchen.