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“Turkey—let’s face it—is a very dry bird!”: On Fanny Cradock’s Christmas Cookery

“Turkey—let’s face it—is a very dry bird!”: On Fanny Cradock’s Christmas Cookery

Eating With The Stars, Television

What is it about English women?  Recently, Stargayzing dished about Dame Barbara Cartland, who devoted her life to writing syrupy prose about the birds and the bees.  Today it’s Miss Fanny Cradock, who devoted her life to serving up birds cooked in syrup, before herself being fatally stung by the bee of her own belligerence.  I found Fanny Cradock by a quite happy accident while doing some research a few years ago (not about cooking, mind you), and was, of course, completely smitten.  How can you not be smitten by this, this, thing called a Fanny Cradock??  I thought it was a parody until I studied the video quality and set, which were obviously authentically 1970s.  It was simply too good to be true!

Where do begin?  Well, I love this completely spartan set, with it’s random use of negative space, teeny tiny stoves separated by a vast expanse of nothingness and overall affect which more closely resembles the kitchen in an Winnebago than today’s celebrity kitchens.  For God’s sake, I think Malibu Barbie had a more sophisticated kitchen than our Miss Fanny!    Then there is clearly abused assistant Sarah, who in a different episode of this program had to endure finger snapping and the terse admonishments of a clearly nervous and hard to please Fanny, no doubt an impossible boss.   Then there is the ensemble.  Can you imagine anyone but a movie star or a drag queen cooking in a synthetic pink chiffon gown with bell sleeves and half of the Harrod’s cosmetic counter on her face?

Then there’s that Cradock demeanor.  On the surface, all English formality and convivial politesse barely concealing her maniacal rage and pathological need for control.  This duality makes for very interesting television.   In the opening shot, don’t we love her affected insouciance as she aimlessly throws the garland about a Christmas tree that looks like it was dragged out of dumpster?  And who among us will soon forget the violent, staccato pinching of the turkey that suggests that, though ostensibly dead, animals may very well have been harmed during the production of this show!

Ah yes, let’s not forget the presentation of the food itself.  I would go so far as to bet that there probably was not a single homosexual anywhere involved in the production of this show.  It’s the only way to explain the visual characteristics of the production.  After all, though the period was certainly responsible for some aesthetic factors, with a production values this bad, you just can’t blame everything on a low BBC budget and the fact of it being 1975!

You might well be wondering, who the hell was Fanny Cradock and why does she look like this in the first place?  Most popular in the 1950s through the mid 1970s, Cradock was a popular fixture on English television and in the theatre, where she starred with her then-husband “Major” Cradock, and initialy proved to be somewhat influential in bringing more refined aspects of French Escoffier cooking to the U.K. and teaching housewives how to navigate their way around the kitchen on a budget.   By the 1970s, Cradock’s style of cooking was considered a bit old-fashioned and she seems to have been demoteded to hosting a series of annual Christmas specials, (from which the clip below is taken), before being summarily banished from television altogether, succumbing to death by public opinion by the housewives of Britain, the very people she had devoted her life to helping! The ingratitude!

In what I refer to as the “Gwen Troake Incident”, in 1976, Cradock was brought on as an expert panelist to evaluate the menu of an average housewife named Gwen Troake on a BBC broadcast called The Big Time.  After Miss Troake excitedly described her menu (seafood cocktail, duckling with bramble sauce and coffee cream dessert), Cradock recoiled as if from a hot flame and, in a final example of misjudgment, dismissed Miss Troake’s menu as “too rich” and verbally upbraided the housewife for being an amateur.  “You’re among professionals now,” she sniffed, in what  we know was very much the manner in which she spoke to her hapless helper Sarah (see the aforementioned finger snap in the Petit Fours episode). The housewives of England identified with Gwen Troake and revolted en masse, writing and calling the BBC to express their disdain for Cradock and thus, Fanny’s goose was cooked.  Perhaps The Big Time should have been called The Last Time.  Luckily, we have these wonderful videos to keep the memory of Fanny as moist as one of her birds.

Which leads me to my point.  Though I’m not exactly sure how I’ve managed it, seems as if Rich and I are hosting my family’s Christmas “thing” at my apartment.  I call it a “thing” because we’re Jewish and scrubbing it of any specifics, like Christmas dinner, or Christmas party, somehow eliminates the need for any further explanation.

Fanny with her nervous hand up the bird’s bum

I like hosting but I don’t like cooking.  Really, it’s more like I’ve never tried.  In the past, my boyfriends were the cooks and my job was to make the house look beautiful and be amusing, two things I enjoy doing.  But Rich isn’t like my other boyfriends; if anything, he’s even less domestically inclined than I am.  So this year it’s on me.  Paul suggested I just roast two chickens and ask everyone else to bring the other things and I’m going to follow his advice.

Roasting two chickens?  How hard can it be?  Especially since Fanny actually goes into great detail on chicken roasting, so between Paul, Fanny and me, we got it under control.  Fanny assures me that “unlike the turkey, the chicken is not a dry bird!”  You’ll see what I mean in this clip and for God’s sake do yourself a favor and invite Fanny Cradock into your home this holiday season!

More Fanny Cradock:

Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas: “Mincemeat, the Cinderella of Christmas Cooking”


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