Food and fiction fundi

2009-10-07 00:00

IT comes as no surprise that one of the characters in Prue Leith’s latest novel, Choral Society, is a food ­writer. So, after all, is South African-born Leith, along with being a cook, restaurateur, businesswoman and television personality.

All these are public roles, while writing is notoriously private, something to be done alone. So when I met her in Durban on her publicity tour for Choral Society, I asked what took her from her public world to the ­private one of the fiction writer.

“I’ve always spent a day a week writing. For 12 years I had columns in various newspapers in the United Kingdom, and I wrote the sort of cookbooks that combined recipes with chat. I’m good at sitting by ­myself and writing: I enjoy it. But I also write on trains and planes.”

Leith goes on to talk about meeting other authors at festivals, and how they say they love the chance to get out of their studies and meet people. “I’m very gregarious, so I would find it difficult to do nothing but writing. I’m an old chatterbox.”

And certainly, talking to Leith is easy. The interview ranges over her book, school meals, the horrors of the hand-held snack culture, music, why she finds it impossible to sing, and the way food used to be prepared for photography which involved half tennis balls to make cakes look higher and mashed potatoes standing in for ice-cream (it doesn’t melt under the lights). The law has now been changed, so what you see is closer to reality than it was.

Many of the things we talk about are linked. Choral Society is the story of three 50-something women — ­Lucy, Joanna and Rebecca — who meet when they all join a choir. Lucy is a widowed food journalist, Joanna a single businesswoman, and ­divorced Rebecca is on the hunt for a man. I ask her if Lucy is the closest to her author’s heart.

“She’s probably the most like me. She’s a widow and the grief that goes with that comes from me. And her irritation with the trivialisation of food through too many daytime television cooking shows, that’s me. But Joanna shares my enthusiasm for business and the not being able to sing.”

Leith says that she can sing in the bath or walking around her garden. “I may not be in tune, but I can sing. But if I’m in church, faced with even the most familiar hymns, I can’t. No voice comes out and after a couple of verses my throat is so sore that I don’t even try. The chap in my life [Sir Ernest Hall] is a pianist, and he says of course I can sing. So we both really tried, but in the end he said: ‘you’re right, you can’t sing’. But I love music.”

She explains that the idea of the singing group was a way to bring her characters together. The book goes on to detail their lives, their growing friendship and what happens when they get together to take over a run- down Cornish hotel.

In the novel, Lucy is persuaded to get involved in a television programme. Leith can again draw on her own experiences as a judge on Great British Menu, now going into its fifth season. The show takes top chefs and in the show they each have to produce a special meal for a ­specific occasion. The first was for Queen Elizabeth’s 80th birthday.

“We’re quite a sparky team. My role is to be the bossy schoolmarmy one who slaps their wrists. If I’m honest, my publishers and agents like me to do it. It makes my name noticed, and that sells books. And it’s gratifying to be stopped in the supermarket and told you are wonderful. But in fact, it’s a proper programme, showcasing the best chefs and real skills.”

This brings Leith on to the dumbing down of a lot of other cooking shows. “Food shows are cheap telly, generally shown on daytime TV, which seems to have been taken over by people who think the public have butterfly brains. Everything is about doing it fast.”

And this, of course, brings Leith on to another of her pet subjects — the way the nation eats, starting with school meals. She chairs a government body on school food, and gives a lot of credit to Jamie Oliver for ­getting their fight a lot of publicity. His programme on just how dreadful school meals were, forced the government to act.

“Now children aren’t allowed ­biscuits, chocolates, chips, fizzy drinks, chicken nuggets and other processed food. But of course, there are still parents who reward their children for eating the school lunch by giving them a bar of chocolate on the way home.” She shakes her head.

With all this going on, you wonder where Leith finds time, apart from on those planes and trains, to write her books. But fortunately for her fans she does.

And when I ask her what is her­ ­favourite comfort food when she is home alone, the superwoman mask drops. “I’m an advert for yogurt. I don’t like low fat or any nonsense like that. If it isn’t full fat, I put cream or custard on it, and sit in front of the TV with the dog on my lap, waiting to lick the carton.”

• Choral Society by Prue Leith is published by Quercus.

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