Well before Elizabeth David urged British cooks to seek out olive oil, lemons and aubergines, and a telly cook even before Fanny Cradock's pretentious piffle, Marguerite Patten was showing (mostly) women how to feed their families well despite wartime shortages and postwar rationing.
Warm, hard-working, self-deprecatingly humorous, but with a presence that testified to her nine months as an actress in a rep company, Patten made short shrift of anyone who called her a "chef": "To the day I die I will be a home economist," she told Sabine Durrant in 2011.
The then-95-year-old could be fierce: "To many people today we have become a dying race, which is a pity because we are needed more than ever. Our role is to educate people, to help them in the home. In this recession we really need to sort ourselves out."
When you think that she and Philip Harben re-founded television cookery in 1947 (X Marcel Boulestin having been the first BBC telly cook, in 1937), her refreshing disdain for being called a celebrity chef was the more striking. From 1947 until it ended in the early 1960s, she was the cookery expert for the first BBC television magazine programme, Designed for Women. With 17 million copies of 170 cookery titles to her credit, she was surely the country's most prolific as well as most helpful recipe writer.
Born in Bath, Hilda Elsie Marguerite Brown was brought up in Barnet. Her father died when she was 13, and her mother had to return to work as a teacher to support her and her younger brother and sister ("I come from a family stiff with teachers"). As the eldest, Marguerite "helped a little bit in the holidays" with the cooking, but "homework came first." Her mother was disappointed in her cooking career, as she felt her daughter had the makings of a good historian.
She took a cookery course after leaving school, and became a home economist at the Eastern Electricity Board. Her brief spell in rep in Oldham gave her the poise (and the taste for having an audience) needed when she joined Frigidaire as a home economist demonstrating the virtues of the refrigerator. "By God," she recalled, "I should never have got it. I was so young. I didn't know enough. But I travelled first class everywhere, stayed at the best hotels. It was a wonderful life."
During the War she was imaginatively employed by the Ministry of Food to show cooks on the home front how to use what was available from the rations to make interesting and nourishing dishes. They sent her to factory canteens, markets and hospitals to show clever ways of using Spam, powdered eggs and whale meat; and from 1944 she broadcast these on a morning BBC radio programme called The Kitchen Front.
Rationing did not end until the mid-'50s, so her television career began using the same material. The War, she felt, taught us "not only not to waste, but to be thrifty. I'd like us," she said in 2011, "to go back to the common sense of the war years, being clever about using up food." The Wartime Kitchen is still an attractive book.
She was cut from different cloth than Cradock's chiffon, and eschewed her extravagance and Escoffier-talk, though she always gave Fanny what she thought her due: "She brought a sense of… gracious entertaining…, though I disapproved of her evening dress and spangles. I didn't like her as a person because she was a bully – we were judges together at the Festival of Britain [in 1951] and she massacred me in the meeting, but I would defend her ability to the end of my days."
From late 1943 she ran the Ministry of Food Advice Bureau at Harrods, which became the Harrods Food Advice Bureau in 1947. Leaving in 1951 to go freelance, she toured extensively abroad and at home, playing the Palladium a dozen times. She remembered these post-rationing events with pleasure, as she made the audience join in the cooking: "When we had real eggs again, and sponges were possible, I'd put a Swiss roll in [the oven] and say, 'You time it for me. If it burns, it's your fault'." In 1999 she presented ten gripping 30-minute programmes on Radio 4, Marguerite Patten's Century of British Cooking, with plenty of social history and appropriate music.
She met her husband, Robert, during the War when he was a gunnery officer. She had been in Lincoln following a terrible night of bombing, and a friend of his gave her a lift home. "On the way to the car," she remembered, "Bob said, 'My mother thinks I should get married and I am going to marry you'."
Her husband became a fruit buyer after the War, and died in 1997. In 1961 they moved from Hove to a bungalow on a hill overlooking Brighton. They had one daughter, Judith, but in old age Marguerite revelled in her large family: two grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, and a great-great nephew and –niece.
Contemporary food habits puzzled her. The huge variety of foods available in supermarkets led her to give this advice: "Don't go in without making a good old-fashioned shopping list, and then stick to it." As for convenience foods, the doyenne of doing it from scratch said, "Basically I don't like any of them. Though I would far rather people bought them than had a nervous breakdown. But please augment them with fresh vegetables."
Sparky but serious, good at thinking on her feet (though she had to give up cooking in her 96th year when she could no longer stand at the stove), Patten continued to dispense wisdom and charm to countless TV crews and documentary history programme-makers (not just for her wartime experiences: she could also remember the Jarrow marchers). Awarded the OBE in 1991 and CBE in 2010, in 2007 she received the Lifetime Achievement Award of Woman of the Year. She was the antidote to the celebrity chef, and the country loved her for the modest way in which she made her huge contribution to the way we eat now.
Hilda Elsie Marguerite Brown, home economist, cookery writer and broadcaster: born Bath 4 November 1915; OBE 1991, CBE 2010; married Robert Patten (died 1997; one daughter); died 4 June 2015.Reuse content