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Patience Gray in her flat in London, circa 1960. Photo by Stefan Buzás. Courtesy of Nicolas Gray.

Interchange – Honey From a Weed: The Life of Patience Gray


As we’re in the midst of a holiday season that can so often feel like merely a smattering of one-off charitable acts and token expressions of fellow-feeling paired with culturally enforced gluttony, it seemed appropriate to turn to a different kind of life, one which defines fasting and feasting in much different terms. As the sweet gives to salt it’s conceptual savor, a feast finds joy in breaking the fast.

Honey from a Weed is the title of Patience Gray’s most well-known book. It came out in 1986 at the height of Thatcherism in Britain and Reaganism in the US and can be considered counterstatement to their ethos of acquisitive commercialism. But it knows this to be a kind of errand in the wilderness. The book opens with an epigram from Octavio Paz, “Man is nostalgia and a search for communion.” Patience Gray knows that she is already too late.

A weed might be said to represent valuelessness, and worse perhaps, a thing which actively devalues what many consider to be the proper and true way of living. And even the idea of honey from a weed asks that we make the best of a bad situation. Yet, the weed is honey to Patience Gray. As value is a social construct we might readily damn a culture that even uses weed as a category of denigration and harm; and Patience Gray shows that the opposite is more of a truth. The Garden requires expulsion, after all.

But as for usefulness: In a 1987 London Review of Books essay Angela Carter wrote of the book that it is

like very few others, although it has some of the style of the 17th-century commonplace book, replete with recondite erudition and assembled on the principle of free association, as when Mrs Gray lists uses for goose fat. In a cassoulet. In soups. On bread. On toast. ‘On your chest, rubbed in in winter. On leather boots, if they squeak. On your hands if they are chapped.’

Our music throughout is by Matteo Salvatore. Salvatore, born in 1917 in the Apulia Region of Italy (the heel of the boot), was a composer and singer of popular music, as well as interpreter of traditional songs. His childhood was marked by Italy’s post-WWI poverty and much of his music reflects this experience. His music is often enriched by funny anecdotes told with irreverence. He has been called the great poet of the poor.

Adam Federman is a reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. His writing has appeared in the Nation magazine, The Guardian, and Gastronomica among many others, and he’s the author of the biography Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray, published by Chelsea Green.

Wolfing It” by Angela Carter (review of Honey from a Weed)
Between Plenty and Poverty” by Adam Federman (Gastronomica, Spring 2011)
Paradise Lost” by Adam Federman (Petits Propos Culinaires, May 2008)

All songs by Matteo Salvatore
“Mo ve’la bella mia da la muntagna”
“Cunta l’ore”
“Le chicchiere du lu paese”
“Le nozze di Giannina”

Producer & Host: Doug Storm
Assistant Producer: Rob Schoon
Studio Engineer: Bryce Martin
Executive Producer: Wes Martin

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