Theodora’s wonderful world
Food writer Donal Skehan has done the nation’s cooks a great service with his latest book, which rediscovers the recipes of free-spirited cookery writer and champion of Irish food Theodora FitzGibbon
Theodora FitzGibbon photographed in Dalkey in 1964
With The Pleasures of the Table: Rediscovering Theodora FitzGibbon , food writer and TV presenter Donal Skehan has done the nation’s cooks a great service. In much the same way as New York blogger Julie Powell brought America’s beloved cook Julia Child to life, and returned her to fame in the film Julie & Julia , Skehan has brought Theodora FitzGibbon’s recipes and writing to life for a new generation, as well as giving them back to a generation which, for so long, took pleasure in both her recipes and her appetite for life.
Theodora FitzGibbon was legendary, in her own and many another’s lifetime. A majestic presence – Picasso admired her long arms – she made her mark on several decades of the 20th century and had lived several lives, all of them exhilarating, before becoming a cookery writer in 1952.
Her Saturday column in The Irish Times , which appeared for 20 years and became as legendary as everything else about her, was witty, pithy, filled with extra curricular food knowledge and as avidly talked about as it was read. She had an unfailing instinct for putting both recipes and sentences together, and knew more than anyone how to be entertaining while doing both.
She was born in London, in 1916. A dab hand at creating her own legend, FitzGibbon was variously vague and imaginative about when and where she was born. But facts are facts and they declare that her beginnings were in Bethnal Green in 1916, where her grandmother had set up a slum clinic at the turn of the century.
She took hold of life early on, held it firmly by the throat until she died, in Killiney, in 1991. Her two-volume autobiography tells all: the names she used before settling on Theodora, the cookery lessons given to her by the former Queen Natalie of Serbia, the food-chomping travels with her rakish father in Europe, the Middle East and India.
As the century moved on, she became an actor and model, kept company with Balthus, Cocteau, Dali and Picasso, escaped wartime Paris to live in Chelsea during the Blitz and was friendly with Freud, Bacon and Soviet spy Donald Maclean.
She married Irish-American writer Constantine FitzGibbon in 1944. They divorced 15 famously stormy years later. In 1960 she married George Morrison, the filmmaker and archivist, and they lived together in Dalkey.
Most of her 30 or so books were about food. An encyclopedia, The Food of the Western World , took her 15 years to write and looked at the food of 34 countries and 32 languages. Her books for the series A Taste of … became instant classics. A Taste of Ireland (1968) had a drisheen recipe using pig’s blood with cream alongside her inimitable mix of food history, sociology and geography.
Her defense of Irish cooking was resounding. Irish butchery had its day when she wrote, “people who say that there is no such thing as Irish cooking completely forget that butchering in Ireland is different from that in any other country” ( A Word on Irish Butchery ).
Donal Skehan, in his introduction, reminds us that Theodora FitzGibbon’s knowledge of Irish food and cooking was encyclopedic. Her recipes, love of food and lusty approach to the business of good dining were simple extensions of how she lived her life.
The Pleasures of the Table. Recipes by Theodora Fitzgibbon. Photographs by Donal Skehan. Published by Gill & Macmillan, €24.99
Buy this book for €18 at irishtimes.com/bookshop (P&P free within Republic of Ireland). To order by phone, call 01-500 9570 and quote ‘ITGM’.
Rediscovering Theodora FitzGibbon with Donal Skehan, a Gill & Macmillan ‘Finishing School’ event, on Tuesday, April 22nd in The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 63 Merrion Square, Dublin 2 (tickets €10), see gillmacmillanbooks.ie.