'Fasting and Feasting': Vermonter sheds light on `almost forgotten culinary star'

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WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Ask Vermonter Adam Federman about his new biography "Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray" and he sums up its subject as one of the most important cookbook creators of the 20th century, a contemporary of Julia Child — "and an author most people have never heard of."

Gray graduated from the London School of Economics, raised two children as a single mother during World War II, was hired and fired as the first "woman's editor" at Britain's Observer newspaper and then, after living three decades in the Mediterranean without electricity, modern plumbing or a phone, turned her prophetic thoughts about local, seasonal eating into the 1986 cult-classic memoir "Honey from a Weed."

"Patience wrote about food and ideas in food that have become mainstream," Federman recently told the public radio program "The Splendid Table." "I still encounter people today who say that `Honey From a Weed' changed their life."

It changed his. The former line cook, bread baker and pastry chef turned Addison County author first learned of Gray upon reading the 87-year-old's obituary in 2005. Discovering his parents had a copy of her "part recipe book, part travelogue and part memoir," he started reading.

"Once I got a taste, I tried to learn as much as I could about who she was," he recalls. "But although her writing is intensely personal, she revealed little about her own life."

That's when Federman decided to contact Gray's son and daughter.

"I thought maybe I'd try to write an article or two."

Then he discovered they had a trove of unseen letters and unpublished work.

"Once I realized how exhaustive it all was, I started thinking about turning it into a book."

A decade later, Chelsea Green Publishing of White River Junction is releasing the biography in the fall Gray would have turned 100.

"Her hope that a more traditional approach to food and cooking would take root, even amongst city dwellers, has exceeded the most optimistic expectations," Federman writes in the introduction. "`Honey from a Weed' lives on, a source of inspiration to many, but Patience herself remains an `almost forgotten culinary star.' A full account of her remarkable life is long overdue."

The 384-page hardcover takes its "Fasting and Feasting" name from the working title of "Honey from a Weed," as well as the fact Gray and her housemate turned husband, Belgian sculptor Norman Mommens, savored a plethora of wild greens in the summer, only to survive on potatoes and beans in the winter.

"Good cooking is the result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality," Gray wrote. "It is born out in the communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons."

"It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being fatally eroded by an entirely new set of values," she continued. "As with students of music who record old songs which are no longer sung, soon some of the things I record will also have vanished."

Federman understands the ups and downs. Penning a book proposal in 2011, he couldn't find a publisher until 2014, when Chelsea Green expressed interest in a story he had written on another subject. The resulting biography, debuting in England last summer and in the United States this fall, is reaping praise on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The massive research he undertook is evident, but he handles it gracefully; and this richly textured material unfolds at a gentle pace," the New York Times opines about the "absorbing" work. "He's done the most important thing a biographer can do: He's created a fully formed character in these pages, honoring not only her brilliance but the rough edges that made her human."

"For admirers of Patience Gray's remarkable prescience in anticipating what has become known as the `Slow Food' movement," Britain's New Statesman adds, "Federman's exhaustively detailed biography will be a valuable resource."

Federman, a former VTDigger.org reporter who's now a fellow with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute, is responding this Thanksgiving with gratitude.

"For me, biography comes out of a place of admiration and respect, at least initially — that's what inspired me to pursue this project," he says. "I knew there was a small group of folks who would be interested. I had no expectation it would reach a wider audience. But the way she writes about food and places and people, it's just so evocative of another world."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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