Clarissa Dickson Wright, respected cook and co-star of BBC’s ‘Two Fat Ladies,’ dies at 66


Clarissa Dickson Wright (right) with Jennifer Paterson, the hosts of the cooking show “Two Fat Ladies.” (PA/PA Wire/Press Association Images)

Clarissa Dickson Wright, the British-born former barrister and champion of rural life whose cookery, earthy humor, erudition and authorship earned respect in the food world, died March 15 in Edinburgh, Scotland. She was 66.

She was most famously the remaining co-star of “Two Fat Ladies,” a BBC television cooking show in which she and Jennifer Paterson, clad in leather caps and goggles, traveled in a vintage motorcycle and a sidecar to prepare and bestow a feast upon the inhabitants of abbeys, farmsteads and public schools in England and Scotland.

As she piquantly described it, the show was about “two fat old bats on a Triumph, traveling around the country and cooking.”

Although Ms. Dickson Wright had been in Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary since early this year, her death came after a sudden illness and its cause was not disclosed, said her friend and literary agent Heather Holden-Brown.

“She was a fantastic writer, extremely articulate, and an excellent food historian who absolutely knew her own mind,” said Holden-Brown, who worked with her since 2006. Ms. Dickson Wright wrote or co-wrote 16 books, including “A History of English Food” (2011).

“Two Fat Ladies” originally aired from 1996 to 1999, and was shown on the Food Network in the United States. (Reruns continue to draw viewers on the Cooking Channel.) Paterson died of cancer in 1999.

Her former TV cooking partner, Ms. Dickson Wright once recalled, “had the instant reactions and the naughtiness of a child. She wanted to be the woman in the circus ring with the spotlight on her, and in the end she was.”

Their plump, ambidextrous hands tamped down fish pies, shaped Christmas puddings and filleted the organic beef of Prince Charles’s farm at Highgrove — all in service of traditional English dishes. As they cooked, the ladies exchanged bits of culinary knowledge and philosophy. They were upper crust yet unpretentious, and reliably entertaining.

Ms. Dickson Wright, who made bluntly clear her preferences for luxe cooking heavy on creams and animal fats, directed her best-known bon mots at “manky little vegetarians.” She advised businessmen to cook as a way “to relax after the ghastly things they do in the city.”

Not to every critical taste, the show nonetheless prospered and drew millions of viewers. When the women toured the United States in 1998 to promote their show’s companion cookbook, they were feted like British royalty.

At the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, Ms. Dickson Wright chatted at length poolside with a “sweet handsome young man” who turned out to be actor Keanu Reeves. Alice Waters, the influential author and owner of Berkeley, Calif.’s Chez Panisse, took them to a farmers market, which inspired the “Two Fat Ladies” stars to get involved with a huge farmers market project in Britain.

Ms. Dickson Wright had, in her own words, “a splendidly enjoyable life” — an assessment she made at age 60 despite her own struggles with alcoholism, bankruptcy, disbarment and the death of a man whom she described as her “one real love.”

She was born Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright on June 24, 1947, in London, the youngest of four children to parents Arthur Dickson Wright, a renowned surgeon, and the former Molly Bath, an Australian heiress.

Her childhood was privileged but, she said, burdened by a father who became a violent alcoholic. He beat his wife and threw Clarissa against walls without provocation. Still, he recognized his daughter’s intellect and spent hours quizzing her with questions from TV game shows. She and her father shared a love of fine food, and he kept a constant supply of caviar on ice and had squab flown in from Cairo.

Eleven-year-old Clarissa was sent off to boarding school. Two years later, her father informed her that she should study medicine. She countered with her own intentions of becoming a lawyer, which enraged him so much that he refused to pay for her university education.

At 18, she lived at home while she studied law at University College London. At 21, she became one of the youngest female barristers in the country. Her father also left, freeing the mother and daughter from ongoing physical abuse. Her parents eventually divorced.

Molly Dickson Wright died unexpectedly at age 67. She left a sizable inheritance to Clarissa, then 25, who was devastated at the loss. She began drinking that very day and spent the next 10 years or so in a drunken haze, yachting in the Caribbean and draining all the money.

Back in England, she met a man she identifies in her autobiography only as Clive, a two-time divorcé and a fellow alcoholic. They partied hard. He died in 1982 of what appeared to be alcohol-related causes, sending her further into a downward spiral.

After a wretched time spent at a detox center, she took a series of domestic jobs, working as a home companion and a private cook. She relapsed, finally jolted into action after a bad fall.

At 40, Ms. Dickson Wright emerged sober from 10 weeks at an addiction treatment center. After months of clean living and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, she happened upon a cookbook shop in Notting Hill whose owner was in need of someone to run it.

The Books for Cooks shop thrived during her seven-year stint there, and Ms. Dickson Wright credited the job with initiating her turnaround.

British TV producer Patricia Llewellyn met Ms. Dickson Wright while she was at Books for Cooks and filmed her cooking cardoons, a vegetable that Ms. Dickson Wright passionately loved. The experience, and Ms. Dickson Wright’s subsequent radio appearances, prompted Llewellyn to unite her and Paterson, barely acquainted, to star on “Two Fat Ladies.”

Ms. Dickson Wright, who is survived by two sisters, spent her post-TV years traveling and living a private existence in a coach house in Inveresk, Scotland. She spent nearly 27 years sober, yet kept a wine cellar for dinners with visiting friends. She cooked good, fresh, simple food for herself, happy to patronize the local butcher and fishmonger.

She called her 2010 autobiography “Spilling the Beans.”

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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