Spilling the Beans
by Clarissa Dickson Wright

The Overlook Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-590-20295-2.
Reviewed by Judy Alter
Posted on 04/12/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir

If you remember the BBC show, "Two Fat Ladies," you'll recognize the woman on the cover of Spilling the Beans—a bit dumpy, a bit rumpled, standing in the English countryside (or perhaps Scottish) with a smile on her broad face and no make-up, no pretensions. Clarissa Dickson Wright was the one who rode in the sidecar, in the motorcycle driven by Jennifer Paterson in the most successful cooking show ever, eventually watched by seventy million people worldwide. Her memoir is as zany and energetic as the show, and Wright's ironic, witty voice bursts off every page.

That happy cover picture belies what lies inside these pages. Wright came from an extremely dysfunctional family and was beaten, mostly as an adult, by her alcoholic father, who once broke two of her ribs and another time tried to ram her head into a marble mantel in what she thought was a sincere attempt to kill her. Nineteen years younger than her older sister, she became the ally and protector of her mother, her beloved Mollypop. In spite of her father's refusal to support her efforts, she studied law and became the youngest woman ever called to the Bar in England.

Her successful legal career ended after the unexpected and sudden death of her mother, a loss from which Clarissa found oblivion in drink. For years she was the kind of wild, outrageous, carefree alcoholic who couldn't remember the day before. She was disbarred, penniless and homeless when she finally sought treatment, a long and arduous learning lesson from which she emerged with the clear knowledge that she could never drink again.

In her drinking years, she discovered that she loved to cook and hired out to various commercial operations and once for a family where she cooked an elaborate ten-course meal. The next day she couldn't remember what she cooked or if she had cleaned the kitchen (it was spotless!). Sober, she worked several years in a cookbook shop, then moved to Scotland, opened her own bookstore and branched out into catering. A mutual friend introduced her to Jennifer and came up with the proposed series. BBC liked it, and they were internationally famous.

After Jennifer's death, Wright made a series of specials with her friend Johnny Coleman, called Clarissa and the Countryman, promoting the values of coursing and hunting at a time when England was near banning fox hunting (which it has since done). They caused a furor of protest, and she was sometimes in danger but still enjoyed the touring and signings. Her television career ended, but she says today, "I have an enjoyable life."

Wright is a great story-teller but she is also brutally frank about herself, her drinking and periods of promiscuity, and the peace she found in sobriety. Some of her stories are sad but a lot are funny, like the time Jennifer's motorcycle went out of control and they careened toward a terrified cameraman, swerved at the last minute toward some rugby players, and finally came to a halt without any damage. Spilling the Beans is riveting, giving a glimpse into a life few of us can imagine.

Clarissa Dickson Wright is one of BBC's "Two Fat Ladies" of the TV series that ultimately attracted 70 millions viewers internationally. Born to a privileged but dysfunctional family in London, Clarissa Wright was the youngest woman admitted to the bar in England. After physical abuse from her father and alcoholism, she found recovery, a career in food preparation and television, and a cause in promoting the British sport of hunting to the hounds.

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