The Imperishable Jane Grigson

As for all the great food writers, one can read them for sheer delight.

I don’t think I’ve had whitebait more than once – it was in London – and being frank, I was left with an iffy impression.

Perhaps they didn’t come at their best, as scholarly but practical eater Jane Grigson was an unqualified admirer.

In (1973) Jane Grigson’s Fish Book she devotes a chapter to the “treat” she recalled as a child when accompanying her mother to Lyon’s Corner House in Piccadilly.

The fish came with lemon and brown bread and butter, whence ensued a lifelong attraction.

(White bread seems best for fried fish and chips in England, at least at Harry Ramsden’s it does. This was proved to me indubitably at their outlet in Salford).

Plumbing literature for fellow admirers, Grigson drew on everyone from Thomas Walker to Thomas Love Peacock, Bashô, and Frederick Tennyson.

Walker, in his weekly The Original in 1835, described a dinner that included whitebait. Grigson quoted Walker on the meal plan:

Turtle, followed by no other fish but whitebait; which is to be followed by no other meat but grouse; which are to be succeeded by apple fritters and jelly.

(For booze, punch with turtle, claret with grouse, Champagne with the whitebait).

The party were well satisfied with the repast except “a water-souchy [waterzooi] of flounders should have come after the turtle”. Oh well.

She ends her musing on Neptune’s small fry by noting how Bashô, the famed haiku poet, viewed whitebait:

… in the situation of powerless masses restrained by the powers of the few:

“The whitebait

Opens its black eyes

In the net of the Law”.

Quiet a thought next time you buy a packet of frozen whitebait!

You can find dozens and dozens of similar stories in her Fish Book, and all her books. As a mainstream food writer of her time, is there anyone comparable today, who has the kind of publisher she did (Penguin)?

Certainly there were popularizers of food and cooking then, as many today, but erudite writers like Grigson, Elizabeth David, and Theodora FitzGibbon (Irish) had national followings, sometimes appearing on television or radio.

Their books were available in independent and chain-store bookshops across the U.K.

Does something similar exist today? Probably, but I sense the market is more fragmented now, with distribution apace.

Jane Grigson (1928-1990) is pictured below, from 1989 (source: Wikipedia).




2 thoughts on “The Imperishable Jane Grigson”

  1. Sometimes smelt gets included under the catchall of whitebait, and I really enjoy it. I can see why it might not appeal to everyone since it’s fairly oily and bony. Unfortunately it’s not sold regularly where I live.

    And J can also see why whitebait in general can be easy to mess up when it’s deep fried — it probably only takes moments to go from undercooked to overcooked, and if it goes in the wrong temperature of oil it will be incurably greasy.

    • All sounds right, and she does make point fish species will vary, or in different places.

      When I had it, it came tepid, and too salty as I recall.

      Willing to try again.


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