Obituary: Maggie Black

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The Independent Culture
MAGGIE BLACK was a leading food writer and one of the few food historians in Britain. Her publications range from The Wholesome Food Cookbook (1982) and 100 Ways with Cheese (1976) to A Heritage of British Cooking (1977) and The Jane Austen Cookbook (with Deirdre Le Faye, 1992) - some 30 food titles in total, as well as several translations and edited volumes, and a dozen children's books and plays.

She was Maggie to everyone, so it comes as a shock to see, on the cover of her book No Room for Tourists, the more formal "Margaret Black". But for that book, published in 1964, the more formal appellation was right. It was as Margaret Black that she, with her husband Alastair, moved to South Africa just after the Second World War; it was Margaret Black who took a master's degree at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg; and it was Margaret who, as the jacket of her book put it, "came reluctantly to the conclusion that liberal-thinking Whites only endanger their children and warp the growth of African self- realisation by staying in the country".

Her return to England in 1963 was a watershed in her life, and her 1964 book, a semi-biographical account of life under apartheid, was a political statement - and later banned by the South African government. Her subsequent career as a successful food writer and historian represented a major change of direction and a life less fraught by the moral ambiguities and anguish which had beset her for 18 years in South Africa.

What was constant was the cluster of hallmark characteristics familiar to all who knew her: integrity; diligence; conscientiousness; meticulous attention to accuracy and detail; and, perhaps above all, her generosity of spirit. She radiated a warm sympathy, to which, one felt, she had to give constant expression - often in the letters which she showered on all with whom she had friendships or dealings. Anyone unaware of her need to articulate and communicate might be taken aback by the length and frequency of her missives, and might have supposed that they needed replies in kind. Not so; they were part of a pattern of intense, organised activity in which a prime need for her was to be sure that she was rightly understood. This trait was endearing and was part of her essential modesty.

During the three and a half decades of busy writing which ensued after her return to England, Black acquired an enormous fund of experience and near-unique qualifications for tackling almost any food subject - she studied cookery in Switzerland and America, edited several Mrs Beeton volumes for the publishers Ward Lock, travelled widely, reviewed restaurants, lectured on food history at country houses - and reading her long list of publications suggests that there were few subjects she did not tackle. Yet she could seem very cautious, even timorous, in taking things on.

To say that she would bend over backwards to avoid getting something wrong or treading on anyone else's toes would be an understatement. She would choreograph for herself a whole series of backwards somersaults to evade any such perils. Again, Black's modesty was apparent. To take but one example, she was a real expert on cheese (witness her fine book for Paxton and Whitfield in 1989) and lavished upon me, by way of helping to bring The Oxford Companion to Food into being, her own knowledge, plus draft passages and comments on my drafts, etc etc. Yet she was shy of acknowledgement and diffident about the value of her (invaluable) help. Show her a bushel and she would be quick to hide her light under it.

Wide reading and much travel are of great help to anyone writing about food; they conspire to set the subject matter in a broader context. The same is true, probably even more so, of writing about food history, but here there is a need for one more piece of intellectual equipment, a feeling for history in the general sense. This Black certainly had (she took a first class degree in History and Political Science), and it must partly account for the enormous success which she achieved in her two contributions to the English Heritage food history series - and above all - to the even greater success of The Medieval Cookbook, first published by the British Museum Press in 1992.

The jacket of this 1992 book described Black as a food historian and consultant on historical meals. Both roles, which complement each other neatly (hands-on experience and skills in the kitchen, such as Black had, give life and substance to the results of research in libraries), are new. Back in the 1960s and 1970s those who professed to be food historians could be counted on the fingers of one hand; and serious activity in planning and executing historical meals, on a proper historical basis, was negligible.

Even now, despite the upsurge of interest in food history in Britain (and many other countries) since the late 1970s, British writers who are first and foremost food historians can probably be counted on the fingers of two hands and the toes of two feet. The number has become one fewer, but the pioneering work Maggie Black did will live on, constituting not only an important reference but also a source of inspiration for successors. That is a macro-legacy. Micro-legacies, in the form of happy memories for her family, friends and colleagues, are countless.

Alan Davidson

Margaret Katherine Howorth, writer and food historian: born London 22 September 1921; married 1943 Alastair Black (died 1967; two sons); died London 5 August 1999.

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