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Using her voice, post "Fat Ladies'

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Every Sunday afternoon, aficionados of eccentricity and nutritional incorrectness can still get a fix of Two Fat Ladies, its dotty duo zooming through the impossibly lush English countryside on a motorbike to yet another quaint kitchen where the cream will flow.

But close watchers of that hit series, a BBC import that made the Food Network worth watching, know the difference between television and real life. Since 1999, when Jennifer Paterson died, there has been only one Fat Lady, Clarissa Dickson Wright. She was the heftier half of the pair, the one who rode in the sidecar and was never seen popping open a beer at the end of an episode. There was almost a softness to her persona.

But when the gravy train slid to a halt after Paterson's death from cancer, Dickson Wright did not try to keep the gimmick going as One Fat Lady. These days she is not even to be found in some new cooking series, and it's not just because she doesn't "get one penny for the Food Network," she said, or even because The Naked Chef has become the new hot thing. It turns out that this tough character has bigger fish to deep-fry.

"What the Two Fat Ladies did was give me a voice," Dickson Wright, 53, said during a recent visit to New York, in part to lobby PBS to pick up her new series, Clarissa and the Countryman. "I'd rather use it on something I feel passionate about."

Her passions are apparently as unrestrained as her appetites. She has a new series and a new book, both of which have enraged animal rights activists and hunting opponents in Britain with their celebration of "field sports" as a necessary part of rural life.

In Scotland, her home, she has a Sunday newspaper column that lets her pontificate at will about politics. She has a university position. And she runs a book shop and a cafe. "I'm very keen to get people to regard me as more than one half of the Fat Ladies," Dickson Wright said in a long interview over sloshed cups of tea and room-service cookies at the Waldorf-Astoria. "It has perforce its own punctuation mark: Jennifer has gone to teach the heavenly angels to sing jazz."

Those are lines you aren't likely to hear coming out of your television, but then Dickson Wright is, as she acknowledges, "not your average BBC presenter." Her face reflects what she admits was 12 years of gin, which also left her with an aversion to cooking with juniper berries since she stopped drinking more than a decade ago.

On television, the realm of the pert and the blond, she and her co-star were revolutionary. In a world that fears fat on the body as much as on the plate, here were two women who were not afraid to revel in excess.

Dickson Wright said she had turned down repeated offers to reprise her Fat Ladies role in specials because she thought "there are too many cooks on television." But while she is known as one of the world's leading authorities on cookbooks, her life now revolves more around the origin of food than the disposition of it.

Her new program and book, both called Clarissa and the Countryman, pay homage to the lush landscape that made such a beautiful backdrop for Two Fat Ladies. With a childhood friend, a sheep farmer named Johnny Scott, Dickson Wright takes viewers through Wales and the Midlands and East Anglia in an effort to make them understand the countryside, its customs and its connection with the food supply. It's all very bucolic and extremely British, including the sight of her aiming a gun at a flock of geese in the first installment. And that is what makes it so provocative, and her more high profile.

To read the British newspapers lately, you would think Julia Child had morphed into Charlton Heston. Dickson Wright has raised the hackles of protesters who do not see fox hunts and pheasant shoots the way she does. She has been sprayed with paint and had book signings canceled because of bomb threats.

A columnist named Joan Burnie wrote in the Scottish Daily Record last March that "it is time someone doused her in strong disinfectant and placed her in permanent quarantine so she can cease contaminating the nation."

Dickson Wright now is assigned a Special Branch officer by Scotland Yard. Her car is inspected for bombs every morning. She has to have her mail scanned. And still she writes columns for her hometown newspaper, Scotland on Sunday, that rail against topics like terrorism and Tony Blair _ and end with a recipe for something like skate in beurre noir.