What Marguerite Patten meant to generations of British home cooks 

Sasha Wilkins reflects on the legacy of the woman who always wanted to be known as a “home economist”

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By Sasha Wilkins on

Upon hearing that the cook Marguerite Patten had died yesterday, aged 99 after a long illness, it felt like a piece of my childhood had disappeared. She may not have been a household name in her latter years but there was a time when Patten ruled not just the bookshelves, but the airwaves too. 

For any woman who learnt to cook in the 40s, 50s and 60s - or has a mother who did - Marguerite Patten was a household name, even more so than Delia or Nigella are these days. And that meant that when I started to leaf through my mother’s cookbooks as a little girl, feeding my early obsession with all things culinary, her easy-to-understand books were some of the very first that I read.

And I wasn’t alone: the 1961 Everyday Cook Book In Colour was one of the most popular cookbooks of the 20th century, and one of the first to be printed in colour in the UK. It’s believed she sold over 17 million copies worldwide of her 170 cookery titles. 

When I told my mother yesterday that I was writing about Patten she laughed, telling me that, “When I became engaged in 1967, my grandmother gave me a copy of Everyday Cook Book In Colour and a bed jacket.” 

My great grandmother's pragmatic approach chimed beautifully with Patten’s: my mother always said that she reminded her of a good domestic science school teacher – the old-school type who could teach you to make the culinary canon from the perfect soufflé to a textbook shepherd's pie.

Patten taught several generations of British women how to produce nourishing and interesting meals in both austerity and peacetime

Patten herself would have agreed with this description – whenever anyone suggested that she might be a chef or even, heaven forfend, a celebrity cook, she would crossly (and refreshingly from a 21st-century perspective) refute the idea. “To the day, I die I will be a home economist," she said in 2011.

She was not an Elizabeth David, bringing the unexpected flavours of the Mediterranean to a gloomy post-war Britain, or an Arabella Boxer teaching hip 60s young wives how to throw their first dinner parties. Above all Patten was a good, plain, English cook with a common-sense approach to feeding the family.

It’s that building-blocks approach to food that lay at the heart of her work – it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that she was the Sir Winston Churchill of food as, during the Second World War, she worked at the Ministry of Food, teaching the nation how to make the most of the meagre ration card and in 1944, she started broadcasting her ideas to the nation on the BBC radio programme The Kitchen Front, and from 1947 (rationing didn’t end until 1954) to the early 1960s, she was the cookery expert on BBC TV’s Designed For Women.  

Without Patten teaching several generations of British women how to produce nourishing and interesting meals in both austerity and peacetime, the way wouldn’t have been clear for the food revolution of the past few years. And I swear that I owe the lightness of my pastry even today to Patten’s meticulous instructions. 

Picture: Rex

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Comfort food

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