Invisible Ink: No 82 - Philippa Pullar

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Some writers never settle on a single style because their writings echo their own caprice.

These are the ones who fail to fix themselves in the public attention and eventually fade from view. A singularity of thought is far more likely to win a loyal readership. Philippa Pullar has been variously described as capricious, vivacious, riotous and tormented. Born in 1935, raised conventionally in a solid middle-class West Country family, she married a chicken farmer and came to realise that her perceived notions of rural life were overly romantic.

In the Seventies a number of authors took up their pens against the horrors of factory farming. Pullar's belief in the sanctity of animal life informed her first and greatest book, the uncatagorisable Consuming Passions: A History of English Food and Appetite, published in 1971. Pullar had received a Cordon Bleu certificate of cookery and had been a restaurant manager, so she wrote a history of food like no other, incorporating such apparently unconnected subjects as phallic worship, cannibalism, agriculture, mythology, wet nursing, prostitution, witchcraft, aphrodisiacs and canning. Her chapters include "Pudding, Pepys and Puritanism" and "Culinary Erections". Her style was scattergun and frequently hilarious, incorporating recipes, jokes, historical anecdotes, and a persuasive explanation about why the English lost the art of cooking – an art still only in the early stages of revival.

She explains how mediaeval cuisine was really Roman, and how spices such as "galingale, mace, cubebs and cumin" were added after the Crusaders returned with Eastern influences. There are descriptions of dinner etiquette and the experience of table gatherings, the steaming trays of cranes and swans being served, the chamber pots being passed around, the men nodding off, the women stepping into the larder "where the jars made a cold crack on the marble shelves as the potted meats, the confections and the pickles were taken up to admire and set down again".

Consuming Passions is not quite a history nor a cookery book, but a treatise on the art of taste, and it is unique. She followed it up in 1975 with a biography of the Irish-American author Frank Harris, which was received with frosty politeness, but is now highly regarded. Then came Gilded Butterflies: The Rise and Fall of the London Season, the autobiographical The Shortest Journey and a descent into various New Age lunacies a friend disparagingly groups as "Ladyscience". Consuming Passions was last republished by Penguin.