A Day in the Life: Food Historian, Dr Annie Gray

Annie GrayIn this Day in the Life we hear from food historian and star of Victorian Bakers, Dr Annie Gray.

No two days are the same for me. I spend a few days each month at home, prepping lectures, researching, writing articles, or writing up reports, but I can rarely predict the exact pattern of any week before I get there. That said, I’m writing a book in 2016, so I’ll have to get used to long periods of staring at a computer screen, interspersed with tea-making and fridge-raiding. This, therefore isn’t a typical day, but it is a day and there will be several like it in any given month. More than any other type of day, anyway.

I’m obsessed with food. That goes both for the history of food and its place in the modern world. Let’s face it, history is just the present after we’ve skipped on a few years anyway. Everything I do is concerned with food, history, and public communication. It’s rare that my talks or media work are aimed at an academic audience anymore, and as a result, I have to always be aware that a lot of the people who will be listening to me won’t have the foggiest idea of the social scene in 1830, or who George III was. With media work, especially, most viewers or listeners primarily want to be entertained. They may be looking to learn something as well, but if what they see or hear is tedious, they will just switch off and go and do something else. (The same is true of live interpretation, but more brutal, as people just walk away). So when I’m researching or writing, I am always looking for a hook, a ‘wow’ moment which will make people engage. Once they are listening and interested, then we can explore the wider issues – but otherwise it’s blank faces all round.

I get up around 8am. To paraphrase Garfield, I hate mornings and they hate me. I try and go for a half-hearted jog most mornings, or I might do an hour of gardening. Anything to get me out of the house and in the fresh air. I love my garden, I’m enthusiastic rather than skilful, and I take the view that once I’ve planted and watered a few times, it’s up to the plants themselves to show that they want to live. Mainly I grow historic things – produce I can’t buy easily, but which is useful for historic cooking. I’ve got a barberry, a couple of apple varieties, clary sage, comfrey, salsify and a massive patch of Jerusalem artichokes which, for obvious reasons, we’re not allowed to eat on a school night. If it’s blackberry season, I might cycle instead, with my bike panniers full of plastic containers ready to pick pints and pints of blackberries, so I can later make jam, or indeed, just gorge on them.

Once I’ve had copious amounts of coffee, food, and a hot shower, I can just about deal with the day. I usually do admin for an hour before I get going – the nitty gritty of freelance work, such as chasing invoices, replying to emails and checking Twitter. I occasionally blog, if I have anything interesting or pertinent to say, and I get asked for recipes quite a lot if I’ve done something particularly fine on the tv, so I might scribble a paragraph or two and post them online.

By 10.30am I am usually into the day proper. Depending on what exactly I’m up to, I might spend some time racing up and down stairs to get books, which are all over the house. If I’m writing a lecture, I’ll plan it all out and then start scanning or photographing books for PowerPoint pictures, or if I’m researching for The Kitchen Cabinet (the Radio 4 show I am part of, and which I utterly adore doing), I’ll divide up my piles of books by topic and start methodically looking for cool facts and interesting slants which will fit with the nature of the programme. I usually cook a dish for TKC, and I’ll liaise with the producer to make sure whatever I decide on will work with whatever the other panellists are planning. We don’t have a script, but we are briefed on the main topics we will be covering – usually something seasonal, something regional, and something else. I’ve got a reputation for bringing fairly outlandish things, and the odd time I manage something which everyone finds delicious is usually greeted with cheers.

Kitchen Cabinet

I break for lunch at about 1pm. Or, indeed, 12pm if I’m struggling to get going. Or 4pm if I’m on a roll. I might nip off the shops if I have to cook something that afternoon, or I might do some more gardening if I haven’t done any that morning. If it’s welting it down and all I want to do is huddle, then I’ll watch something mindless on catch up. The are always a few episodes of CSI hanging about, or I might see what’s on Amazon Prime. I’m not a big TV watcher – I prefer to get lost in a good book, but if I’ve been reading all day, it’s nice to do something different. I always have a cooked lunch, eggs or a hash or reheated leftovers. I lived in France as a teenager, and I think that two square meals a day (breakfasts in France are, to be fair, a bit poor, but then they eat lunch very early) and no snacking, is a good thing to aim at. (Though, see above for fridge-raiding – all the best resolutions crumble under the weight of a good Stilton).

After lunch I’ll get on with whatever the afternoon holds. I might cook that Kitchen Cabinet dish, or I might continue to do desk-based research. If I’m lecturing that evening or the next day, I might have to get costume ready, or even demo kit if I am doing a demonstration. Equally if I have a talk and tasting coming up, I’ll have to prep all of that. I have a separate store and workroom for my historic cooking gear – I try and keep work and home delineated so that I can attempt to have a life when I’m not working.

Victorian Bakers

My partner usually gets home around 7pm, and I’ll often pick him up from the station. It signals the end of the working day for me, and we’ll cook dinner together while putting the world to rights. We plan all of our meals, and have both a modern and a historic cookbook every month, from which most of our evening meals are chosen. It means I get to experiment with my kind of food, and we also use our ever-increasing collection of modern cookery books as well. So dinner could be anything from a pressure cooked sausage stew, to a partridge and ham pudding, or a simple (but artful) eggs and spinach recipe from the 18th century.

After dinner we’ll either read or watch something on TV. We’re currently working our way through the Montalbano box set, and we also have French TV, which usually has some hard hitting documentary on food scandals on, or perhaps the French version of The Great British Bake Off, or Top Chef, both of which are (unintentionally) hilarious, but go on for three hours. At some point we’ll lose the will to live and go to bed. Or, of course, I could be somewhere in a B&B halfway across Britain, drinking whisky after an evening’s hard work. As I said, I don’t really have typical days.


You can read more about Annie Gray here, or catch up with Victorian Bakers (BBC2).




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