Marguerite Patten’s distinctive signature with the bold looping ‘M’ was both familiar and remote in my 1970s childhood seen on the spine and cover of household cookery books. Familiar because Marguerite Patten was the cookery writer of the day, and remote because you could hardly believe she was a real person, such was her legendary status. Meeting Marguerite Patten in 2009 was one of the most exciting experiences in my time as Museum Learning Officer for Royal Pavilion & Museums adult event programme.
This picture, taken on Saturday 10 October 2009, shows from left to right, myself Paula Wrightson, Marguerite Patten then aged 94 and Sarah Tobias, Social & Cultural Historian. We are seated at The Old Courtroom in Brighton, then newly restored and opened as a Lecture Theatre. The occasion was a study day linked to an exhibition at Brighton Museum, ‘The Land Girls: Cinderella’s of the Soil,’ that ran from October 2009 to March 2010.
The exhibition looked at the work and lives of recruits to the Women’s Land Army in World War II through personal stories, paintings, posters and photographs. It revealed the experiences of some of the 75,0000 women who left their ordinary lives to work on farms and in fields helping to keep the country fed at that time of world crisis. A highlight of the exhibition was a display of the distinctive uniform worn by the Women’s Land Army; buff-coloured corduroy breeches, green woollen jumper and brown felt hat.
I had invited Mrs Patten to speak about her wartime work at The Ministry of Food. During the war in that role, via practical demonstrations, pamphlets and a BBC radio broadcast called Kitchen Front, she advised the nation on how to eat well and stay healthy using the rationed, limited and sometimes unpalatable foodstuffs available.
The privations of the wartime diet are well-known but Marguerite’s description of whale meat is worth repeating, “it looked like a cross between liver and beef and because the raw meat had a strong and very unpleasant smell of fish and stale oil, I loathed handling whale meat to create recipes and in my demonstrations to the public.”
Marguerite deplored the use of these “magnificent animals” for food, however the perilous state of food supply by 1946 and throughout the infamously harsh winter of 1947 meant all sources of nourishment were considered. I have in front of me one of Marguerite’s 1947 recipes; Hungarian Goulash made with a pound of cubed whale meat to two pounds of onions and a little paprika and salt that I should not like to try!
After the war, Marguerite Patten went on to become one of the most famous and influential cookery writers of the 20th century and the first ‘celebrity chef’, a term she disliked. Mrs Patten termed herself a Home Economist. From the 1940s and into the 2000s she appeared regularly on radio and television and published over 170 cookery books with sales in the multi-millions. My 1968 copy of her Entertaining at Home is a delightful dip into the era of fondue parties, vol-au-vents, make-your-own sundaes and mock béarnaise sauce.
Meeting the legend was a nerve-wracking experience. To secure her as a speaker I first corresponded by letter, writing to Mrs Patten at her home in Withdean, Brighton. On the day of the event she arrived, a tiny stately and pin-neat person in a royal blue dress, escorted by her personal assistant who left Mrs Patten in the care of Sarah and I. At 94 she was frail but you could feel the vitality she radiated.
Anxious not to tire our guest, Sarah had prepared a list of carefully researched questions, focusing on her wartime work meaning the speaking engagement took the form of a convivial dialogue. Marguerite spoke (to a packed audience) in the clipped RP or BBC English accent of her era, heightening the sense of being in the presence of a person of considerable grandeur although in actuality Mrs Patten was down-to-earth and modest.
Sarah conducted the interview in her customary merrily serene manner but I sat watching nervously because afterwards Sarah and I were to take this distinguished cookery expert to lunch. I realised, here in our care, was a great personality appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1991 for her “services to the Art of Cookery”, the 2007 recipient of the Woman of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award and the celebrated name on pretty much every cookery book I grew up with, and now I had to decide on a fitting lunch menu.
Fortunately, after the interview and loud rounds of applause, Mrs Pattern let me know she had a very small appetite at her age and requested simple pâté on toast. We dined in the open air, having chosen an Italian restaurant near the Royal Pavilion, our small party favoured by the warm sunny weather that October day. Marguerite Patten’s fame was bought home to me when a young chef from a nearby establishment came running out of his workplace having heard the legend was in the vicinity. He was keen to meet and thank Marguerite Patten for being his inspiration. It was a lovely happening on an unforgettable day.
After lunch Mrs Patten was collected by her personal assistant and we bade her farewell thanking her for her contribution to the event. I seem to remember Sarah and I looking at each other, smiling broadly and having one of those ‘phew, that went well’ moments as we stood in the autumn sunshine.
And yes, I did find the courage to ask her to sign a cookery book for me.
Marguerite Patten went on to live another six years, sadly passing away at the age of 99 in June 2015. By that time, to add to her honours, in 2010 she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer Preston Manor