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One Good Thing: The Two Fat Ladies proved pleasure was for every body

The late-’90s cooking show was a revolution before we knew much about body positivity.

Television - Two Fat Ladies - London
What I loved most about it was the message it sent me about the kind of adult life I could still choose to live.
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images
Keren Landman is a senior reporter covering public health, emerging infectious diseases, the health workforce, and health justice at Vox. Keren is trained as a physician, researcher, and epidemiologist and has served as a disease detective at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the first scene of the Two Fat Ladiesseason three opener, set in western Ireland, a wrong turn down a dirt road leads the show’s stars, Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson, to schmooze with a cattle-wrangling Benedictine nun in a paddock outside Kylemore Abbey.

When the sister bemoans the waning interest in taking the veil, Dickson Wright declares herself and Paterson “a bit worldly” to qualify. The nun, wearing what appears to be an acid-washed denim habit, leans over the fence and squints.

“You’ve got to have been out in the world a bit to know what you’re missing,” she says.

Paterson nods, her eyes widening behind her bottle-thick lenses: “Otherwise, you might get yearnings later on,” she says.

I first started watching Two Fat Ladies not long after graduating from college. Living alone for the first time, in a sweaty little studio apartment on the ground floor of a Dupont Circle brownstone in Washington, DC, I developed a routine: On Saturday mornings, I walked my granny cart to the farmers market at the top of the Metro escalators, bought whatever I could get for $20, hauled it home, and turned it into food while watching the hours of cooking shows the local PBS channel would broadcast on weekend afternoons.

Two Fat Ladies aired as part of that block of programming, and technically, it was a cooking show. Each week, its stars traveled to a different peculiarly British institution to prepare different peculiarly British dishes for the people who kept those institutions running. They roasted a Christmas goose for the Winchester Cathedral boys’ choir and deviled kidneys for North Yorkshire brewers, soused herrings for lock keepers at the Welsh-English border and made Queen Alexandra’s favorite sandwiches for Oxfordshire cricketers. They fed teams of workers and hobbyists laboring in the region’s most prominent historic establishments with food that was rich and messy, aimed at providing comfort rather than novelty.

But the show’s real draw was its hosts’ prodigious patter: They squabbled over directions while trundling down country roads in a Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle with a sidecar, stopping occasionally to coquet fishermen out of the best seafood or haggle over local produce. In the ancient kitchens where they heaved seething crocks into and out of countless Aga ovens, they offered something less like an educational demonstration and more like a cottagecore cabaret act, roaring at bawdy songs and recollections of their own newsworthy exploits.

I learned a lot from the show — how to make mayonnaise with a whisk (drizzle the oil in drop by drop), how to peel peaches (dunk them briefly in boiling water), how to ensure meat’s maximal unctuousness (bard and lard). But what I loved most about it was the message it sent me about the kind of adult life I could choose to live.

When I started watching Two Fat Ladies in the late 1990s, I was not thin, not quiet, and not particularly interested in a life of routine. However, the icons of femininity available to me were overwhelmingly slender and acquiescent: Supermodel culture was at its peak, threatened only by Kate Moss’s even skinnier aesthetic, and “body positivity’’ was years away from becoming part of the vernacular — Americans hadn’t even collectively agreed to celebrate Jennifer Lopez’s butt. Sex and the City’s 1998 debut felt revolutionary because, at that time, women who grounded their power in the pursuit of pleasure and adventure were more often reviled than revered.

Before I even knew what the male gaze was, I sensed that the Two Fat Ladies couldn’t care any less about it. Female characters whose size and exuberance did not prevent them from taking delight in food, sex, and travel felt revolutionary to me.

In 1999, the show came to an abrupt end when Paterson died months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. For years, scenes and snippets of its dialogue floated into my mind during nostalgic moments. Unable to find it on cable or any of the streaming services, I bought the box set in 2014, and was relieved to find its message still lands; there is no bad time to be reminded we’re all entitled to live a life that makes for good stories later on.

The show is now syndicated on the Food Network, although people without cable TV can watch somewhat haphazardly edited episodes on YouTube. A little less than 30 minutes into each episode is one of my favorite parts: the moment just before the credits roll, when the stars finally come off their feet to enjoy a cool drink and a chat while others eat their food. They never sat at the table with those lucky ones for whom they cooked; for the Two Fat Ladies, there was perhaps more freedom — and more pleasure — in being just a little bit on the outside, sprinkling fairy dust over one magical meal before disappearing in a puff of smoke.

Two Fat Ladies is available to watch on YouTube. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.