A Friend with a Heart-Shaped Leaf

Patience Gray - Illustrated letter

Courtesy of Nicolas Gray.

Patience Gray, the most important food writer you’ve never heard of, spent more than thirty years living in a remote corner of Southern Italy—without electricity, modern plumbing, or a telephone. Her 1986 cookbook, Honey from a Weed, is one of the most beloved of the twentieth century, yet little was known of her reclusive life until now. This illustrated letter, sent by Gray from Carrara, Italy, in 1966, is excerpted from Adam Federman’s new biography, Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray and is reprinted with permission from the publisher, Chelsea Green. As Federman writes in the introduction,

Although she enjoyed the attention, Patience was rather guarded about her own life. This applied not only to visiting journalists and food writers but to friends and family as well. There was an “aura of secrecy about her,” a sense that her past was somehow shuttered, which Patience did little to dispel. “Patience loved secrets, secret rooms, dark corners, mysteries and so on,” her friend Ulrik Voswinckel recalled. This aura of secrecy was enhanced by her interest in astrology, mysticism, and her vast folkloric knowledge of edible plants and mushrooms. She shared her workspace in Puglia—to which others were rarely admitted—with a large black snake and often ruminated on the symbolic meaning of the scorpion, which happened to be Patience’s astrological sign. She was born on Halloween. It is perhaps not surprising then that several people, including Paul Levy in his profile for the Observer and the Wall Street Journal, described Patience as a modern-day witch.

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