One of the less widely known figures in the world of food, Patience Gray (1917–2005) was, at the same time, among the most influential. She lived and wrote about simplicity, locality, and the rewards of a subsistence-level lifestyle long before those ideas had become part of the mainstream vernacular.
Although few could apply personally her very particular way of going about it, she served as a beacon for many of her contemporaries, such as Alan Davidson, Jane Grigson, and Richard Olney, as well as food ethnographer Paula Wolfert, explorer of basic cooking John Thorne, traveler and tireless writer Ed Behr, and even scientist Harold McGee. The often isolated farms and villages all around the Mediterranean where she alighted became pilgrimage destinations for those who knew of her.
English-born, Gray was well-educated and began her working life writing for magazines and serving for a time as the women’s page editor of the prestigious Observer. In 1957, she co-authored an immensely successful cookbook called Plats du Jour. Shortly after this, she met a sculptor, Norman Mommens, who would be her partner for the rest of her life.
With Mommens constantly in search of good stone, he and Gray began their odyssey, documented in her second book, Honey from a Weed (1986). Here she tells how she and Mommens—never named but referred to only as “The Sculptor''—formed a deep connection to the land and people wherever they were. “A vein of marble,” Gray writes, “runs through this book.”
Honey from a Weed, an immensely satisfying read, is a complex book. It could be called a cookbook, although it is also very much a memoir, a near-ethnographic assemblage of material on rural folklore and tradition, an historical work, a botanical guide, and a treatise on a dying way of life that Gray felt acutely had to be preserved. It is, to some degree, a strongly felt counter-cultural plea. The writing is elegant—personal, authoritative, and sometimes poetic—but happily, not over-polished.
Peppered throughout are rustic and hearty recipes, hyperlocal and fresh. What is notable about them is that they are not contrivances, in which clever people with fine palates and well-practiced technique put together ingredients and flavors in ingenious fashion. Rather they tend to involve making good food from what can be found in nearby lands and waters or what others produce locally.
A great deal of what they yield is real peasant food. That means in many cases finding a way to turn sometimes tasteless roots, tough vines, and bitter leaves into food that will nourish and satisfy. And it was, for Gray and Mommens, not always easy. They generally lacked running water, electricity, and gas and so had to revert to traditional methods of cooking and preservation, learned from the local populations with whom they dined and celebrated in both times of plenty and times of scarcity. With a depth of botanical knowledge, no ingredient goes unappreciated, and the chapters on “edible weeds” and mushrooms would not be out of place in horticultural and foraging publications.
The book was published jointly in the UK by Alan Davidson’s Prospect Books and in the US by Harper & Row. Our copy is a stated first printing with a Very Good book block and case and a Very Good dust jacket with a light faded spine and a one inch closed tear to the front.