Considered the savior of British cooking, Fanny Cradock was one of the first celebrity chefs on English television long before The Galloping Gourmet and Nigella Lawson. Although much of Cradock’s BBC cookery series is not available at the click of a mouse, luckily for those of us craving holiday kitsch Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas has survived in archives.
Cradock’s past is a lot like her latter-day TV wardrobe, that is “colorful.” In her more mature years (she was born in 1909), Cradock sported a la dee da style, with garish make-up and fancy gowns, while she expertly demonstrated her recipes.
Fanny was born as Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey in Leytonstone, England, into a middle-class family. Her mother was Bijou Sortain Hancock who spent money like it was going out of style, and her father Archibald Thomas Pechey was a gambler and a notable, prolific writer of varying pen names devised to avoid debtors. The family also avoided creditors by moving frequently.
Cradock was married in the common-law sense four times, “twice bigamously,” as her second husband (from an enforced marriage due to pregnancy) was a devout Catholic and refused her a divorce. The fourth companion, Johnny Cradock, was the charm.
Before meeting her last partner, Cradock amassed her cookery experience at serious restaurants, and was heavily influenced with the culinary arts of August Escoffier. She and Johnny became food critics, co-writing a column in The Daily Telegraph under the nom de plume Bon Viveur before launching a restaurant theatre act with Fanny as the chef who “hen-pecked” her drunk husband. The act led to her career with the BBC, with Cradock’s first television show in 1955. Like Julia Child in the States, Cradock promoted French cuisine to British audiences, though her no-nonsense delivery (ranging from humorously dry to curt to badgering, especially of her husband Johnny) and tips on how to save money (“This won’t stretch your purse.”) resonated with household audiences.
Cradock published over 30 cookbooks.
Her brash style and personality—reportedly she threw tantrums and knives, terrifying assistants and production crews—has drawn comparisons to present-day temperamental (at least for TV ratings) chefs like Gordon Ramsey.
YouTube offers a nice array of Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas episodes and snippets, including one demonstrating various methods for preparing Royal Mincemeat with the help of silent assistant Sarah (Johnny had retired at that point after suffering a heart attack). In the mincemeat segment, Cradock is absolutely mesmerizing: she works a striking bouffant with hot pink hair adornments that match a 1970s elegant full length dress that would be cumbersome in the kitchen with most other folks, yet Cradock has command of the craft. The makeup is late career Bette Davis, if Davis was a porcelain doll, eyebrows and lips drawn on. RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 1 fan favorite Tammie Brown seems to have been inspired by Fanny’s miraculous brow game. And her voice! Perhaps to the ears of this Yank the magic is in her lyrical delivery of a rich vocabulary, but Cradock’s vocalization sounds like a hot toddy. The kitchen studio exhibits all the hues and production values of Sesame Street.
The show begins with Cradock trimming a Christmas tree on set, casually telling viewers she would “be with you in a minute.” As she sashays over to the work station, Fanny says, “Well I always think, and I think you probably agree with me, that somehow or another mincemeat is the Cinderella of Christmas cooking.” Cradock commences to instruct about various options to enjoy mincemeat with splendidly rehearsed choreography that involves Sarah, attired in a dowdy housecoat – possibly a Lanz of Salzburg nightgown – perhaps to show affinity to housewife viewers? To emphasize Cradock’s glamor?
Throughout the seamless processing of recipes, Cradock lets rip with some stellar quips:
“…and I’m using a finger, because you can’t cook without using them.”
“And of course a proper rolling pin without any handles on, because that’s the easiest kind and it’s the professional kind as well, so perhaps someone will be kind enough to slip one in your stocking for Christmas.”
Why thank you, Fanny!
At the stovetop, Cradock impressively, violently, entertainingly (“I’M GOING TO BE NOISY NOW, SO I’M GOING TO STOP TALKING”) whips up a perfectly formed omelet, “in a proper omelet pan,” which “that is to say, iron, steep-sided, and, unlike Cook, never washed.” She then fills the omelet with mincemeat, “keeping it wet on the inside.” When a platter is needed for the omelet, she snaps a finger at Sarah, evidence of her notoriously demanding reputation, though she does quickly soften, telling Sarah, “Thank you, my darling.” Once the omelet is plated, Cradock feels it to be “too naked,” therefore Sarah dusts it with powdered sugar! Once the omelet is on the buffet table, she cuts it in half to show the camera the desired consistency. “But the top is still wet!” she declares forcefully.
Honestly, watching this footage is 12 holiday minutes well spent.
The battle-ax dimension of the infamous chef’s personality is just barely contained in Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas. However, when Cradock smiles, penciled eyebrows lifting high to punctuate her passion for Christmas cookery, we feel that Fanny has warmed to us, is in agreement with us, that we are more than mincemeat, and maybe she won’t throw a knife at us.