Tribute to Josephine Bacon

Long-time Guild member Josephine Bacon died on 25 February 2018 after a long illness.

Marlena Spieler has very kindly let us share with you her tribute to this special lady.

I met Josephine Bacon at the first Guild event I attended, many years ago. It was an AGM; Josephine made a proposal, much discussion was had, and I was in awe. The next time we met was as a fellow tasting panelist at BBC Good Food Vegetarian Magazine; the subject was peanut butter; we bonded over the judging (everyone else liked Jif; we liked the artisanal one without added sugar) and were friends from then on.

The written word had great meaning to Josephine. Until a year or so ago she ran an antiquarian bookshop near Kings Cross. The history of food, knowing that it has the power to transmit culture and heritage one generation to the next, and gives us a portrait of days past, was extremely important to her. In conversation she often came up with quotations and observations about very old cookbooks and was fascinated by the cookbook that Hitler gave to all newlyweds in Germany during the Third Reich.

She wrote 20 books; two about Jewish history (The Historical Atlas of Judaism and The Illustrated Atlas of Jewish Civilization), the rest on the subject of food. Her interest in Jewish foods (especially Ashkenazi) was strong, as well as other cultural foodways. The African and Middle Eastern Cookbook (Hermes Press - with Jenni Fleetwood), and her A to Z of Exotic Fruits reflected her fascination with both the botanical as well as the gastronomical.

And always there were mushrooms (three of her books were about fungi). Josephine was a member of the mycological society, and since I live in the countryside would often ask about what fungi I was observing on my dog walks; I would dutifully take a phone and email a picture. On her blog she had a 'mushroom of the day', an exquisite photograph of the daily fungus; her book, A Field Guide to Mushrooms was amazing; complete, detailed, fascinating.

She was expert in the Americanisation of British cookbooks and the anglicisation of American cookbooks. Same language, different terms, measurements, and often ways of thinking; Josephine worked diligently at this craft to get each book right. She also contributed to the Encyclopedia Judaica, Food Lives (article about Dorothy Hartley) as well as the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, and among the publications she contributed to was The Algemeiner.

Her great professional passion, however, was translation; she translated more than 100 books from French and Hebrew, most about food, wine, art and history. She translated over a hundred books dealing with food and all that relates to it. One of her books won a World Gourmand Prize for translation from the Romanian. Two recent translations from French were a book about wines that grow along the 45th parallel, as well as an illustrated life of Marcel Proust, working with material from Remembrance of Things Past.

In addition she spoke seven other languages. For Josephine, translation was far more than her profession, it was part of her life, a link to generations before her – both mother and grandmothers had been translators.

I travelled with her to a number of cookbook fairs and conferences, such as The Paris Cookbook Fair, Frankfurt Buchemesse, an event in Orebro, Sweden. it was in Sweden in fact that we were in a taxi and she started speaking Swedish to the driver. I was like: 'Swedish? You speak Swedish?'. 'Of course' was her answer. As a travelling buddy, I don't know if anyone has ever laughed as much as we two. We just got into wacky situations in which laughing was the only option. Once we walked all over Paris trying to find the best choucroute garnie; it was hilarious; in the end we had a wonderful choucroute, and learned of the reason so many are in the area of the Gare de L'est (the trains to the east, to the land of sauerkraut, come and go from there, bringing choucroute and beer to Paris). We walked, we swam, we dined, we met others, it was an adventure always.

In the UK Josephine worked as a court interpreter, and spanned the world doing the difficult job of simultaneous translations for the UN among other important international bodies. Once I turned on the television to watch the Prime Minister giving a speech in Paris; when Le Président of France began to speak, the translating voice was none other than Josephine. I recognized her voice immediately. Then there was that time on the Guild trip to Northern Ireland, several years ago, where, gathering in the hotel lobby who do we see walking out the elevator? Josephine! She was translating for the Peace and Reconciliation Conference.

Yesterday, out of the blue, a language teacher friend rang to catch up and told me he had met a friend of mine, just before Christmas. Applying for simultaneous translation work with the UN, the panel assessing his abilities included Josephine! He was shocked that she had since passed away. 'She was so lively!'

Josephine was loyal and encouraging as a friend, and always ready to stick up for those who needed support, had been active in Labour, and on behalf of both Jews and Arabs in Israel (her business partner in the translation company was Arab Israeli/Palestinian).

She hadn't been well for months, but did she ever complain or kvetch or stop working at whirlwind speed? Not to my knowledge. In fact, a few weeks before she died we were speaking on the phone – my husband took the phone for a moment to say 'Hi' as he walked out the door, headed to Bratislava, Josephine exclaimed that she was headed there, too, the next day, translating for the UN.

A few weeks later I rang to suggest visiting London, she replied: 'I'm so tired these days, the hospital are doing tests. But come spend the night anyhow'. Still, she had work to do; I was on deadline also; we'll make it another time, we both agreed. Who knew she had so little time left?

A mere week and a half later, Josephine passed away at home, peacefully, inspiring her care-team by her attitude, leaving behind friends from all over the world shocked, and saddened. She is survived by her beloved family: husband, Phillip Carr, daughter Hannah White, and her two grandaughters, who I know – from Josephine, of course – are exceptional.

Josephine was her own original self; a character impossible to forget. Kind. Generous. Hard-working. Endlessly interested in the world around her. I miss her.