Exploring an exhibition about legendary food writer Jane Grigson, Helen Peacocke finds that a legacy of cookbooks is also a treasure trove in terms of a social history of the English speaking world

I am sure I am not alone in admitting my collection of cookery books by the legendary Jane Grigson is worn and used: dribbles of oil tarnish yellowing pages and some leaves in the paperback editions are loose and crumbling.

Indeed, I was reduced to borrowing a couple of books from a friend to check some recipes when writing this article.

Jane was a self-taught cook who learned how to prepare food by consulting books, family and friends, yet her remarkable output during her 23 productive years has provided us with a wealth of books and articles considered to be social documents.

She has, as Alan Davidson says, left a legacy of fine writing on food for which no parallel exists. Fellow food writer Claudia Roden said her writing was as beautiful, erudite, witty, inspiring, warm and full of the enjoyment of food and life as she was.

Claudia describes Jane’s writing as the best you can get as readers not only learn cook delicious food, but a lot more about life, history, literature and products.

She certainly won a large audience by being a friendly writer who never failed to explain the why as well as the how.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Jane’s death, at 62, the Jane Grigson Trust, founded by Geraldene Holt in 1991, has an exhibition exploring her life, work and influence, at the Glass Tank, Abercrombie Building, at Oxford Brookes University. This exhibition includes not just books, but articles, notebooks and kitchen ephemera. Its appearance links with the discussion Jane Grigson: the Food Writer’s Food Writer, for Oxford Literary Festival, in the Divinity School on March 25.

It will be chaired by Donald Sloan, head of department at Oxford School of Hospitality Management and founder of the chair of Oxford Gastronomic. Geraldene Holt, writer Paul Bailey and Jane’s daughter, Sophie, will join him.

No commemoration of a life such as Jane’s could be overlooked by the BBC’s Radio 4’s Food Programme. On May 4, it will explore her life, food and work as part of the Bristol Food Connections Festival.

It was the late Derek Cooper, of the show, who commented on the creative ease which Jane Grigson related cookery to life beyond the kitchen and turned everything she wrote into a voyage of cultural discovery.

Geraldene agrees and considers her clear and graceful style a joy, with its emphasis on locating food and cooking in a historical and literary context which has given Jane a distinctive place in English literature.

“Above all,” she says, “her work reminds us of how we regard food as the most important aspect of life itself. She shows us, with characteristic warmth and wit, that food and eating are the source of lasting pleasure and joyful celebration.”

On BBC Radio 4 in 1987, Jane said she considered cookery writing a form of autobiography; her way of finding out why she was on Earth and adding something to the sum total of human happiness.

The Jane Grigson Library was set up in 1990 under the leadership of Geraldene Holt, in London’s Guildhall Library.

Thanks to Sophie Grigson’s generosity, the nucleus of her personal collection of food books is now on permanent loan to the trust and forms the core of the collection which moved to Brookes University 2005.

It was placed in the Special Collections Reading Room on the Headington campus.

Her published books include Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, 1967; Good Things, 1971; Fish Cookery, 1973, English Food, 1974; The Mushroom Feast, 1975; Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, 1978; Food With the Famous, 1979; Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, 1982; and The Observer Guide to European Cookery, 1983 and 1984.

In her forward to The Fruit, Herbs, & Vegetables of Italy by Castgelvetro, Jane said: “Writing a book for me is an act of faith and folly. You have a plan, of course, but you bluster about in the work following blindly, one step after another, slogging it out in the early stages. Then suddenly you come across one thing, one reference, one passage, that explains to you why you are writing this particular book, that gives you the theme, that shows you the way.”

Entry to Jane Grigson: Good Things is free and it continues until April 2.