Why Fanny Cradock? Technicolor food recipes and dubious combinations of ingredients are mocked, as pictures of retro food from the 50’s onward have become popular with blogs Keep Calm and Fanny On and @70s_Party and cookery books such as 70’s Dinner Party: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly of Retro Food. These have fun showing bright green tinned peas, salad cream, wobbling aspic savory jellies and scarlet glace cherries. People who see Fanny as an extreme, almost grotesque caricature with a fixation on lavish and exotic food do her a major disservice. Therefore, I wanted to see what the truth was and had a sneaking suspicion that in fact she was ahead of her time and one of the first real foodies as an author and television personality.
I proposed to the Museum of Cambridge that I do a Christmas recipe dish demonstration and take on the persona of Fanny Cradock as a cooking performance. My allies in the museum’s Capturing Cambridge team adored the idea of a fun Fanny performance and party and came up with lots of original cookery books and her part works to compliment my collection of retro cookery leaflets. For the museum the aim was to help inspire visitors to donate their food memories to Capturing Cambridge. Fanny’s son Christopher had also worked locally in Cambridge.
Fanny became the ground breaking consummate food entertainer inspiring many of our now grandparents. As well as locally sourced foods and unusual ingredients, she celebrated the rise of technological developments with canned and frozen food, metal foil, and new food mixers on stands. Fanny was prolific and produced over 100 cookery books, which sold in thousands, a 96-part magazine cookery course, children’s stories, and four science fiction novels and inspired untold millions of women to be brave and adventurous in the kitchen.
So who was this amazing woman? Fanny was born as Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey in 1909 to a hedonistic, talented, but lazy singer named Bijou who left her to her grandmother to bring up. Fanny married her first husband, an RAF pilot, at 17 but tragically three months later she was widowed and pregnant. Undaunted, she swiftly married again, pregnant with her second child. However, her second husband was a reformed wild character who quickly bored Fanny.
Fanny then left him to bring up their son Christopher, not divorcing him. Penniless in a Kensington bedsit with a two-year-old son, Peter, to provide for, she washed-up in a canteen, sold vacuum cleaners, ran a dressmakers shop and then worked in restaurants.
She met a rich young playboy, bigamously married him but then eight weeks after left him and shortly afterwards at a concert met Major Johnny Cradock, a married man with four children. To keep up appearances she changed her name by deed poll only just marrying Johnny properly when she was 68.
Fanny started her writing careers as a children’s author then became a beauty writer for the Daily Telegraph. The Women’s editor then suggested reviewing weekend breaks, which lead to a five-year exploration of food as Bon Viveur when Fanny and Johnnie visited thousands of hotels and restaurants, home and abroad.
Fame grew for Fanny and Johnnie with the publication of her first cookery book The Practical Cook under an assumed name in 1949 when food rationing was still in force. Soon invitations for Fanny to give cookery demonstrations at luncheon clubs grew and stimulated Fanny’s talent for entertainment and style, staging “Kitchen Magic” extravaganzas across the country, and creating a Food and Wine Brains Trust. Johnnie became her right hand man first in cookery demonstrations, then TV. The British Gas Council sponsored her to appear at shows such as the Ideal Home Exhibition instructing cooks how to use gas cookers for basic dishes. She regularly had audiences of thousands.
Fanny was an early food media personality with radio, then BBC TV in 1955, moving to independent television for Fanny’s Kitchen from 1955-1961. Their TV shows for the “small fry” enthralled children. She cooked in ball gowns or extravagant dresses, without an apron, saying that cooking is not a grubby chore.
Far from being a promoter of poor quality food, she campaigned against artificial flavourings and fertilisers. Fanny had a “garden to gourmet” approach for her own garden and used its produce frequently. Fanny rose – through her own energies and skills – to become the first celebrity chef.
Fanny’s combative persona, dramatic make-up and waspish comments to virtually everybody she met appealed to the public and bolstered her growing reputation. For 20 years from the mid-1950s to 1976, Fanny was the queen of British cuisine. Fanny Cradock’s last television cookery programmes were Christmas-themed and in colour in 1975. These are now revived on You tube and UK digital television channel Good Food, usually in the run-up to Christmas.
Fanny fell from television grace on BBC Esther Rantzen’s “The Big Time” talent competition in 1976– criticising Devon housewife Gwen Troake’s rich menu and mocking her desert. But Gwen then got her own book deal from it. Fanny stayed with The Telegraph until the early Eighties, then Johnnie died in 1987, and she followed him in 1994 at the age of 87.
In preparation to channel Fanny I found my most fabulous red ball dress, donned a curly blond wig and stuck a flower in my hair and put on lavish make up and expressive eyebrows, applied thanks to my daughter. Testing and preparing the recipes in advance , I stuck faithfully to the originals.
The evening’s Christmas menu a la Fanny was:
- French garlic sausage roll in puff paste ( Saucisse a l’ail feuillete)
- Tomato wheels
- Liptauer cheese with Pretzels or Ritz crackers
- Egg barrels ( the blue Ouefs a la Riga) and Egg hors d’oevres
- Vol au vents with chicken or mushroom filling ( tinned soup base)
- Royal mincemeat ( Puff pastry sweet mincemeat galette)
- Banana candles
- Choux pastry swans plus a rather alcoholic punch and traditional lemonade.
We had an amazing time, ad libbing throughout and fantastically supported by my husband Johnnie, in bow tie and acting increasingly sozzled. Abusing my poor assistants who were putting the tomatoes together wrongly misusing the fancy cutters just made for extra fun.
As was tweeted by Pina from Onetwoculinarystew – “We eat, we laughed we gasped as the wonderful Dr Sue Bailey was Fanny Cradock personified complete with a bumbling Johnnie. She prepared Fanny’s original recipes and gave us some insight into her life in an engaging presentation.”
I just hope that Fanny can be revived again as her many fans have requested another outing!