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.”
Clarissa Dickson Wright, who has died aged 66 in Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary, took the world of television food and drink by storm when she was paired up with Jennifer Paterson in the BBC series Two Fat Ladies (1996-99). The presenters' eccentricity, their love of cream and meat and very rich food, the unscripted whimsy of their on-screen exchanges and, of course, their physical presence and demeanour made them unforgettable – as if two women of a certain age perambulating Britain in an uncertainly piloted motorcycle combination was not already enough to fix them in our memory.
Born in London, Clarissa was the youngest daughter of Arthur Dickson Wright, a prominent surgeon, and Molly (nee Bath). Both parents were of Scottish descent, although her mother's immediate forebears had connections with Singapore and Australia. Clarissa was brought up as a Roman Catholic, and remained one, albeit sometimes truculently. Educated at the Sacred Heart Convent in Hove, East Sussex, she studied law at University College London, being at the time the youngest woman – at the age of 21 – ever to be called to the bar. Had she done as she was told, she would have studied medicine at Oxford.
By her own account, her childhood was not happy. Within the family her father was autocratic and violent, and often drunk. Her siblings were much older, so she bore the brunt of his displeasure alone, save for her mother, whom she adored, and whose early death in 1975 precipitated Clarissa's own descent into alcoholism. She hauled herself out of that pit by the end of the 1980s (thanks to the Promis recovery centre near Canterbury, Kent).
Her drinking had put paid to a legal career, but she refashioned her identity as a good and knowledgeable cook at Books for Cooks in Notting Hill, central London. There she alternately terrified and charmed keen cooks and bibliophiles from behind her desk. Terrified: because she knew more than most of them and looked quite fierce (and had little sufferance for fools); charmed: because she had lashings of wit and told a good story. That venture came to an untidy end and she popped up next with her own shop in Edinburgh, the Cook's Bookshop: it lasted until she declared herself bankrupt in 2004.
Although I had seen Clarissa on television in the laste 1980s extolling the culinary virtues of that proto-artichoke the cardoon (whose torch she continued to bear until the very end), it was only in 1994 that the television producer Pat Llewellyn had the idea of creating the dreamteam of Clarissa and the characterful cook at the Spectator magazine – and motorcyclist – Jennifer Paterson.
They were acquaintances, but not particularly close friends. The Two Fat Ladies series on BBC2 was inspired. They took to the medium with little coaching and needed little scriptwriting. They simply reacted to whatever situation – boy scouts' camp, aristocratic shooting lodge, Brazilian embassy – the producers put them into.
Paterson's death (she was two decades older than Clarissa) in 1999 put a sudden end to their joint trajectory. Clarissa's television career continued, now embracing more of country life and its blessings.
Her new role was set in aspic in the series she made with Sir John Scott, a hill farmer, called Clarissa and the Countryman (2000-03): roughing it with the plus-four set with some discussion of the plight of rural Britain, the farming industry, the local food producer and the happy huntsman in the mix. She became a pin-up girl for the Countryside Alliance, the pro-hunting lobby and the students of Aberdeen University, where she was the first woman lord rector (1999-2005).
Clarissa wrote her autobiography, Spilling the Beans, in 2007 and produced several food books including A Sunday Roast (2002), The Game Cookbook (2004) and the prizewinning A History of English Food (2011). We used to share bookstalls at a regular summer conference of foodsters in Oxford and my wife always maintained that the skirt she was wearing this year was exactly the one she wore twelve months prior (same stains, same creases). For two days she would regale us with anecdotes, each more hair-raising, each more mordant – sometimes to be repeated the next year, sometimes not. Her style was inimitable and actually you didn't mind the odd repeat.
She is survived by two sisters.
Mary Contini writes: Clarissa came into our shop, Valvona & Crolla, more than 20 years ago, a bedraggled figure, eccentric and very, very posh. I had heard of her from her tenure at Books for Cooks in London: her reputation had preceded her. She had just moved to Edinburgh to open the Cook's Bookshop in the Grassmarket and was checking us out.
Her venture was a huge success, becoming a haunt for chefs, tourists and food writers, welcomed by Clarissa sitting in front of a glowing wood fire, drinking tea and holding court. She also opened a cafe at Lennoxlove House, Haddington, the seat of the Duke of Hamilton.
Meeting her led instantly to an enduring friendship. In our caffè bar she held court, too, always on table seven, usually with an entourage of authors, food producers, family and celebrities.
A constant critic of our efforts to provide good artisan local food and produce, she introduced us to suppliers and complimented us with abundance and generosity – but if we made a mistake or changed a recipe in a way she did not like, boy did she tell us.
She loved her food highly seasoned, and our chefs knew when she was in to be on their guard: a bowl of chilli oil was prepared and extra salt put on the table. Simple dishes such as grilled meats or fish she had no time for: "I can cook that myself at home."
What she did favour were highly flavoured seasonal Italian dishes like Roman puntarelle with salsa acciughe, a bitter vegetable served with an ancient anchovy sauce, or scarola, bitter greens cooked with garlic, chilli, black olives and anchovies.
Her favourite passion was fresh white truffles, which were served to her the same way every time: with homemade taglierini pasta, lots of Italian butter and black pepper.
She was a great fun girl, loyally following the Italian music shows of my husband, Philip Contini, and was happiest when she had her special song, Fravula Fra, dedicated to her in the tiny theatre in the back of our caffè, where she sat always at the back of three rows of tightly packed chairs, laughing and cheering as he sang in Italian: "I love your sweet cherry lips – but please don't eat the garlicky baccalà!" He always translated this tale of flirting and salt cod before the song: she adored it, and the rest of the audience shared in her delight.
• Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright, cook, bookshop owner, writer and broadcaster, born 24 June 1947; died 15 March 2014