Fasting and Feasting
The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray
A New York Times Notable Book for 2017–Now in Paperback
For more than thirty years, Patience Gray—author of the celebrated cookbook Honey from a Weed—lived in a remote area of Puglia in southernmost Italy. She lived without electricity, modern plumbing, or a telephone, grew much of her own food, and gathered and ate wild plants alongside her neighbors in this economically impoverished region. She was fond of saying that she wrote only for herself and her friends, yet her growing reputation brought a steady stream of international visitors to her door. This simple and isolated life she chose for herself may help explain her relative obscurity when compared to the other great food writers of her time: M. F. K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Julia Child.
So it is not surprising that when Gray died in 2005, the BBC described her as an “almost forgotten culinary star.” Yet her influence, particularly among chefs and other food writers, has had a lasting and profound effect on the way we view and celebrate good food and regional cuisines. Gray’s prescience was unrivaled: She wrote about what today we would call the Slow Food movement—from foraging to eating locally—long before it became part of the cultural mainstream. Imagine if Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver had spent several decades living among Italian, Greek, and Catalan peasants, recording their recipes and the significance of food and food gathering to their way of life.
In Fasting and Feasting, biographer Adam Federman tells the remarkable—and until now untold—life story of Patience Gray: from her privileged and intellectual upbringing in England, to her trials as a single mother during World War II, to her career working as a designer, editor, translator, and author, and describing her travels and culinary adventures in later years. A fascinating and spirited woman, Patience Gray was very much a part of her times but very clearly ahead of them.
Reviews and Praise
The New York Times Book Review–
"[An] absorbing biography . . . Struck by her mind, her vision and her prose, [Federman] went in search of [Gray's] past. The massive research he undertook is evident, but he handles it gracefully; and this richly textured material unfolds at a gentle pace. . . He’s done the most important thing a biographer can do: He’s created a fully formed character in these pages, honoring not only her brilliance but the rough edges that made her human.”
"Patience Gray is one of the most important food writers you’ve never heard of. Long before she published 'Honey from a Weed' (1986), her most enduring work, Gray endured hunger in the margins of society in London, during the lean times of both World Wars, and consequently in the kitchen her methods were simple, yet beautifully tied to nature, poetry, and art. She traveled extensively, eventually making a life in the Italian countryside. Three decades were spent in rough, remote Puglia without running water, refrigeration, or other modern niceties. It was in this far-flung place that Gray would write that iconic piece of culinary history. The title was celebrated at the time, but for today’s local food fanatics, it’s venerated. Gray’s work was cookbook poetry, steeped in Mediterranean lore, with recipes hearkening back to Virgil. Even her indexes became legendary. Her life made her as much a maverick as her culinary writing. Investigative environmental and food journalist Federman's biography will attract today's farm-to-table enthusiasts, and tells a little known story of someone who was eons ahead of her time."
“This deliberate and meticulous biography chronicles the life of a remarkable food writer whose self-sufficiency and love of nature placed her ahead of her time. Patience Gray, the author of the classic ‘Honey from a Weed, lived off the grid in southern Italy from 1970 until her death in 2005. She grew almost all her own food, and wrote and made art primarily for her friends and family. ‘Fasting and Feasting’ is broadly appealing as it explores her life and philosophy. A valuable resource on Gray’s early life and career as a journalist, the book, incorporating meticulous research, bears much fruit. Descriptions of Gray’s career, motivations, and personal life are extremely detailed. That this slows the pace of the book is in keeping with Gray’s personal philosophy: speeding through conveniently is a poor substitute for taking time and savoring the process. Though it only rarely draws a strong connection between Gray’s love of nature and modern awareness of sustainability, the book offers a valuable example of what a sustainable lifestyle can offer to the modern world. Aside from being a woman who stood on principle in an age when she was generally expected to behave herself, Gray is a captivating biographical subject and spokesperson for simple, slow living. Modern audiences, particularly those interested in eco-friendly alternative structures for their lives and careers, will find this book to be a worthy read."
"Federman's book is meticulously researched . . . . The author's portrait of the complex, fiercely independent woman who reshaped ideas about cooking and food and about what constitutes a life well-lived in a world defined by the 'numbing effects' of modernity is intriguing and well-rendered. A highly detailed traditional biography of an unconventional woman.”
“Of all my culinary heroes, Patience Gray was the most magical—and the most remote. I was lucky enough to meet her—just once. Adam Federman’s beautifully considered and well-researched biography shines a bright light on Gray’s complicated, surprising, and gutsy life.”—Alice Waters, owner, Chez Panisse; author of The Art of Simple Food
‘I felt I almost met Patience Gray amongst the pages of Honey from a Weed and was consumed by a desire to gain her acquaintance. I never did but somehow fancy I came to know her in Fasting and Feasting and love her all the better for it.”—Jacob Kenedy, chef-owner, Bocca di Lupo
‘A revelatory book about an extraordinary woman, writer, and cook. Patience Gray’s rackety life seems to conform perfectly with her visionary and revolutionary views about food, cooking, and eating. She should become a totemic culinary figure for our times.’—William Boyd, author of Sweet Caress and Any Human Heart
‘Honey from a Weed has been a constant companion for many years. It is a brilliant work, ahead of its time in so many ways. To now read the story of this fine book’s author and her remarkable life is a great joy.’—Jeremy Lee, chef patron, Quo Vadis
“Adam Federman’s Fasting and Feasting is an impressively thorough, absorbing account of the rich life of Patience Gray, one of the last century’s finest and least-known writers on food. No one before her or since has written with more first-hand experience or with the blunt, clear-eyed eloquence that she brought to her classic memoir of Mediterranean village life, Honey from a Weed. Federman illuminates her unlikely path from the post-war London newspaper world and translating Larousse Gastronomique to stone quarries across the northern Mediterranean and the remote, sculpture-studded corner of Apulia where she settled, wrote, and engaged with the growing community of food writers, sometimes contentiously. Fasting and Feasting is a timely celebration of a remarkable life.”—Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
‘Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed is an anomaly in the world of cookbooks—an inimitable, passionate, and reader-challenging account of her off-the-grid life in poverty-stricken rural areas of Catalonia, Tuscany, the Cyclades, and, most importantly, Apulia.
‘Part acerbic diarist, part gifted ethnobotanist, part fervent environmentalist, part food writer whose recipes still spoke their rustic dialect, Patience Gray wove her life, thoughts, and experiences into an indisputable masterpiece. Now, in Adam Federman, she has found her biographer—astute, empathetic, indefatigable in pursuit of the painterly details that he then deftly works into a portrait of an amazing original—and the remarkable company she kept.’—John Thorne, author of Outlaw Cook and Serious Pig
‘Patience Gray was a cultural outrider. Her life encompassed many thoughts and actions that preoccupy us today: single motherhood, passion gratified, an appreciation of the wider European scene, simplicity and self-sufficiency, food and cookery as an expression of place and identity, existence infused by art and taste. Yet she never quite banished the bourgeois within her. These contradictions, and her distinctive and distinguished contributions to the modern scene, are gracefully described in this sensitive and revealing biography.’—Tom Jaine, editor, Petits Propos Culinaires
‘Fans of Honey from a Weed are sure to devour this highly readable biography of Patience Gray, which reveals not only the inspirations and experiences behind that cult book but also the life and times of the fiercely independent woman who wrote it. Adam Federman’s carefully researched book lucidly describes the intellectual and emotional development of a woman who made her own rules both in work and love.’—Jojo Tulloh, author of East End Paradise and The Modern Peasant
“Patience Gray cast a spell over everyone she met, with her smoke-husky voice, darting observations, and bottomless erudition. In this marvelously well-researched biography, Adam Federman gives us sorceress and scholar: the postwar-London artistic Bohemia that shaped her and that she, with her stubborn unconventionality in a notably unconventional milieu, helped shape. Only the remote southern Mediterranean was wild enough for her own imagination and curiosity to soar—and her meticulously observed and researched descriptions of its food and life still have the enchanting force Federman makes us feel.”—Corby Kummer, senior editor, The Atlantic; author of The Pleasures of Slow Food
“A close look at any life is bound to be interesting, but the life of Patience Gray is unusually large and deep. If you know her only from her seminal book, Honey from a Weed—which may well be true for many readers—you will possibly be surprised and certainly delighted by Fasting and Feasting. What a well-articulated and inspiring life, and how fortunate we are to learn of it in such detail.”—Deborah Madison, author of Vegetable Literacy and In My Kitchen
“Patience Gray trail-blazed untrammeled ground as she explored the more literary, naturalistic, cultural, and ethnobotanical dimensions of food writing that many of us have come to appreciate today. As this captivating biography reveals, Gray’s inimitable style and idiosyncratic choice of subject matter were organically grounded in a life as unique and refreshing as her writing. This book allows us to fully appreciate how Gray became a major but often cryptic force directing the very trajectory of food writing, as it aspired to be literature of the highest order. She would remain without peer, except for the fact that M. F. K. Fisher, Alan Davidson, Robert Capon, Betty Fussell, and Jim Harrison all seemed to have absorbed something of her legacy. Savor this feast.”—Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land
“Adam Federman reveals the fascinating life of Patience Gray, whose Honey from a Weed may be the best book ever written about food. With admirable clarity, drawing on deep research, Federman has produced a strong portrait of a compelling personality who chose a way of life far outside the norm.”—Edward Behr, editor and publisher, The Art of Eating
“Patience Gray was probably the least-known great food writer the English-speaking world has ever produced. Her influence has been pervasive, even as she herself has resisted easy definition. With grace and impeccable understanding, Adam Federman in Fasting and Feasting undertakes the difficult task of explaining Gray’s contrary enigma as well as her considerable charm. His book is fascinating in itself and should introduce one of our most important food writers to a much wider audience.”—Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of The Four Seasons of Pasta and Flavors of Puglia
“Being given a behind-the-scenes view of Honey from a Weed is a true eye-opener. Federman’s elegant, detailed, and insightful account fleshes out one’s appreciation of Gray’s writing and turns this famous author into a familiar friend. Now it seems clear what the next step in Patience Gray’s legacy is for us today: making an environmentally pure lifestyle a choice accessible to everyone, not only those with financially generous family and well-placed connections. Federman brings Patience to life so clearly, I can hear her cautioning and encouraging us with her wisdom.”—Tamara Griffiths, author of Oaks and the Apennines
"(Patience Gray) emerges from this life as an utterly original spirit who was one of the few to rebel against the change in direction that eating had taken in modern times.”—Bee Wilson, The Sunday Times