So much more than just a food writer

“Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray,” by Adam Federman

As sprightly October settled at last into true autumn with its iron gray skies and rain, I enjoyed returning day after day to the extraordinary life of Patience Gray and her many years living in the austere sun-hot and windswept landscape of Puglia, Italy’s boot heel. To call her a “food writer” is to pigeonhole this woman whose life work ranged from writing on design in post-war England to jewelrymaking to avidly collecting weeds and fungi wherever in the world she lived throughout the late 1960s and 1970s to actively supporting the work of environmentalists in the 1980s. This biography by Vermont author Adam Federman allows us to accompany Patience Gray through her various manifestations and colorful associations and living situations, bringing a clear picture of this prickly, exact, risk-taking, and life-loving woman.

Most notably, her years on the island of Naxos in Greece, Carrara, Italy, and homesteading in Puglia were years of rough living, deprivation, but an abiding interest in local flora, particularly the edible kind, and a devotion of learning from the locals their foraging for area foodstuffs and traditional recipes. Her book “Honey from a Weed” was published in the mid-’80s to acclaim and earned her the longstanding respect of chefs and food lovers concerned with regional cuisine. The book was part memoir, part recipe book, and part paean for a life close to the land.

Her upper middle class background did little to prepare her for the wandering life she chose (although regular handouts from her mother certainly helped), but the hardscrabble skills required of life in post-war England, with little on store shelves, brought out something in young Patience that would inform her interests for the rest of her life. She was a rebel against middle class expectations, and a hard worker, persistent in her search for a meaningful way of life. She birthed three children out of wedlock at a time when that was still guaranteed to cast her outside of acceptable society, had a wide range of friends and acquaintances among the design and art worlds of London, then took up with another married man, a sculptor with whom she would spend the rest of her life, a life devoted to creativity, simple living and fighting to preserve Puglia from pesticides and overdevelopment.

If the biography sags at time from a plethora of side stories of acquaintances and who knew whom how and when and perhaps an overly slow pace now and then, it nevertheless provided a delightful and engaging venture into a fascinating life and made even me — one who hates to cook, raises no vegetables in her garden, and enjoys the creature comforts of turning on the heat with a click and an abundance of hot water — want to reconsider my entire lifestyle, go grab a handful of the last of the wild grasses, mushrooms, and fallen applies, and conjure up a warm stew over the fire against the coming dark.