I generally don’t watch a lot of food television. After thinking about food and eating all day at work, the last thing I want to do is hear more from chefs as they prattle on about their amazing creative abilities and personal struggles on an episode of Chopped.
It doesn’t help that the format has been warped and abused over the past decade, with cooking shows growing ever more absurd in their attempts to attract viewers. From Guy’s Grocery Games to Gordon Ramsay’s Next Level Kitchen, I have no real tolerance for fucking around with the already-dramatic process of cooking by, say, making chefs switch kitchens in the middle of preparing the entree. Which is probably why I have an unrelenting love for the quiet simplicity of Two Fat Ladies, the best cooking show in television history.
Premiered in the United Kingdom in 1996, the BBC show follows Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright as they climb aboard their Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle — driven by Paterson with Dickson Wright riding shotgun in a sidecar — and go on adventures, like scallop fishing on a boat in Cornwall, all resulting in a slew of dishes that range from drool-inducing to totally confounding.
Two Fat Ladies — syndicated on the Food Network in the U.S. — is pure comfort television, perfect for binge-watching on a lazy weekend. It’s not exactly a show for those looking to expand their own cooking repertoire: You’re more watching the hosts cook than learning how to prepare the recipes, and it doesn’t offer the same type of step-by-step instruction you’d see on Every Day With Rachael Ray or America’s Test Kitchen videos. Rather, the series is like sitting at the counter of your charming British aunties, watching them prepare a hearty meal.
More than that, though, it’s one of the few positive representations of fat women in food media. From the beginning of the series, Paterson and Dickson Wright exude an incredible, authentic joy without the glitz or high-priced production involved in the modern cooking show. It’s a little bit cheesy, a whole lot charming, and perhaps the only cooking show in history that doesn’t shy away from the fact that its hosts are, in fact, fat.
“Grab that crab, Clarissa! Eat that beet Jennifer!,” the jaunty intro tune goes. “Well doesn’t that pheasant look pleasant? Fasten your tastebuds for a gastronomic ride, ‘cause us two fat ladies are itching to get into your kitchen!” At the end of the theme song, cartoon versions of Paterson and Dickson Wright on their motorcycle smash into a wall like the Kool-Aid Man.
These two fat ladies prepare and eat food with joy, and without apology. There’s no guilt or shame, which is exceedingly rare even when thin people are eating on screen. In the world of the Two Fat Ladies, any delicious, lovingly prepared bite is “worth the calories,” as Great British Bake-Off judge Prue Leith might say. Only here, it actually goes without the reminder of the pernicious impact of diet culture on our enjoyment of rich, delicious foods.
This attitude, of course, earned the show some scorn in the ‘90s, at the height of the low-fat craze, with its critics complaining that Peterson and Dickson Wright were “encouraging” obesity. The backlash was so significant that Dickson Wright later said that the two faced death threats, but the duo remained themselves throughout Two Fat Ladies’ four seasons. When the “body positivity” movement was still incubating, these women were already living it.
The show also dispelled some of the ideas that people have about fatness, and fat people in general — that we’re lazy or lonely or incapable of enjoying even basic physical activity. Instead, Dickson Wright and Paterson live life to the fullest, their fatness never stopping them from jumping on a crabbing boat with a fisherman who sings sea shanties, or riding their motorcycle into the countryside to cook wild game. It’s a refreshing break from the relentless competition and manufactured drama that dominates modern cooking shows, and perhaps more importantly, the obsession with dieting and “health” that’s infected even Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten, whose entire brand is built around indulgent, lavishly prepared food.
Unfortunately, the show was tragically cut short after the fourth episode of its fourth season in 1999, when Paterson died months after being diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 71. But it lives on forever on YouTube, where almost all of its 18 episodes are available to stream for free, offering an entirely new audience to experience the unmitigated joy — and celebration of fatness — that Two Fat Ladies brought to the screen.
It’s a shame that modern food television, with its intense storylines and glossy production, doesn’t look more like the homey, natural comfort of Two Fat Ladies. Perhaps, then, it’s time for a reboot. Our screens could use more of that effortless, laid-back vibe, and it would be so refreshing to see two people who couldn’t care less about how many calories are in an entree or whether or not their bodies are “fit for television,” as they create and enjoy the wonders of food.