It was a somewhat mad but inspired decision to host a Fabulous Fanny Cradock’s Christmas party. But who was she – some call her the first celebrity female television chef. Fabulous Fanny also produced cookery books selling in their thousands and a brightly illustrated 96-part magazine cookery course.
Instagram is awash with millions of stunning food images but go back to the delights of seventies food images, magazines and cookery cards. Cookery books such as 70’s Dinner Party: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly of Retro Food mock Technicolor food recipes. The associated blog highlights the horrors of dubious combinations of ingredients.
Pictures of retro food from the 50’s onward have fun showing bright green tinned peas, salad cream, wobbling aspic savoury jellies, and scarlet glace cherries. Blogs such as Keep Calm and Fanny On by the supreme researcher of her life – Kevin Geddes – shows Fanny’s vegetarian side.
However, who was Fanny as a foodie? People who see Fanny as an extreme, almost grotesque caricature with a fixation on food snobbery and lavish food do her a major disservice. I wanted to research more and had a sneaking suspicion that in fact, she was ahead of her time and one of the first television food celebrities.
Fanny plans her Christmas party
I proposed to the Museum of Cambridge that I do a Christmas recipe dish event, and take on the persona of Fanny Cradock to present a cooking performance. My allies in the museum’s Capturing Cambridge team adored the idea of a fun Fanny performance and party. They came up with original cookery books and her part works to add to 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.
So why was Fanny so famous?
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 technical developments with canned and frozen food, metal foil, and new food mixers on stands. Fanny was prolific and produced over forty cookery books, selling in thousands plus a 96-part magazine cookery course. She inspired untold millions of women to be brave in the kitchen.
So who was this amazing woman?
Fanny was born as Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey in 1909 to a pleasure-loving, talented, but a 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.
Fanny was quickly bored with him, so left him to bring up their son Christopher, not divorcing him. She spent time washing -up in a canteen to make money. This was because she was penniless in a Kensington bedsit with her elder two-year-old son, Peter, to provide for. She then sold vacuum cleaners, ran a dressmakers shop and 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 Johnnie Cradock. At the time he was a married man with four children. To keep up appearances she changed her name by deed poll only just marrying Johnnie 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”. Fanny and Johnnie visited thousands of hotels and restaurants, home and abroad.
Fanny Entertains – star of stage and screen
Fame grew for Fanny and Johnnie with the publication of her first cookery book The Practical Cook 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. Fanny and Johnnie staged “Kitchen Magic” extravaganzas across the country and created a Food and Wine Brains Trust with Egon Ronay. Johnnie became her invaluable 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. She instructed cooks how to use gas cookers for basic dishes, regularly having audiences of thousands.
Fanny was an early food media personality with radio, then BBC TV in 1955. She moved 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 “cooking is not a grubby chore”.
The modern side of Fanny
Fanny campaigned against artificial flavourings and fertilisers and was not a promoter of poor quality food. She often encouraged saving time and money yet could be elaborately extravagant. She had a “garden to gourmet” approach for her own garden and used its products 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 luckily boosted her growing reputation. For 20 years from the mid-1950s to 1976, Fanny was the queen of British cuisine. The Cradock’s last television cookery programmes were Christmas-themed and in colour in 1975. These are now revived on Youtube 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. She criticised Devon housewife Gwen Troake’s rich menu and mocked her desert. But Gwen then got her own book deal from it. Fanny stayed with The Telegraph until the early Eighties. Johnnie died in 1987, and she followed him in 1994 at the age of 87.
Welcome to banana candles, blue eggs and choux swans for Christmas
In preparation to channel Fanny, I wore my fabulous red ball dress, donned a curly blond wig and stuck a flower in my hair. My daughter applied the lavish makeup and expressive eyebrows. 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 oeuvres
- 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. He sported a bow tie and acted increasingly sozzled. It was great fun abusing my poor assistants who were putting the tomatoes together wrongly and misusing the “fancy cutters”.
As Pina from Onetwoculinarystew tweeted – “We ate, we laughed, we gasped as the wonderful Dr Sue Bailey was Fanny Cradock personified completed by a bumbling Johnnie. She prepared Fanny’s original recipes and gave us some insight into her life in an engaging presentation.”
Can Fanny be revived again as her many fans have asked for another outing?
In response to demand, Fanny has reappeared at Eat Cambridge, doing a summer party extravaganza as a fringe event. She has also demonstrated jellies to the small fry at the Museum of Cambridge event. Last year she travelled further afield to Ely to demonstrate at the Food and Drink festival and to Market Drayton for the Ginger and Spice Festival.