Ladies of the Pen and the Cookpot: Elizabeth David

Elizabeth David Frenc Country Cooking coverFoxed, spotted, acid-rich, the paper crackles under the slightest touch of my hands. The book’s an old Penguin paperback, worth only 74 cents on Amazon.com. As I turn the pages of French Country Cooking (1951), I vaguely recall a comment I once read, written by food activist and restaurateur Alice Waters in her book, The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (p. x), where she talked about how she got started in the whole business of food and cooking:

I bought Elizabeth David’s book, French Country Cooking, and I cooked everything in it, from beginning to end. I admired her aesthetics of food, and wanted a restaurant that had the same feeling as the pictures on the covers of her books.

Later, after David’s death in 1992, in an obituary of David, Marian Burros of The New York Times quoted Waters as saying:

“When I go back and read her [David’s] book [sic] now,” Ms. Waters said, “I feel I plagiarized them. All of it seeped in so much, it’s embarrassing to read them now.”

So this book catapulted Alice Waters into becoming a crusader for better, fresher, slower food?

More recently, Alice Waters told Dave Weich of Powell’s Books:

I’m always going back to Elizabeth David. I continue to be a fan. I can read and reread and find something important in there. I love her French Provincial Cooking.[1]

And then there’s this, on Alice Waters’s Facebook Page:

Elizabeth David writes so vividly and sensually about food in the markets that you understand the absolute necessity of seasonal, fresh, and locally grown foods. But it is her sense of aesthetics that makes this book so unique and refined. [2]

Let’s think about that.

Does the current American nostalgia for, and the awareness of, a tastier past really come from the work of English food writer Elizabeth David? In her own words, Alice Waters, the doyenne of fresh sustainable food in America, locavore of all locavores, suggests that she owes just about everything she is today to Elizabeth David.

Elizabeth David photo
Elizabeth David

David herself based her early books, the ones that captivated Alice Waters, on nostalgia — for pre-World War II food.  (She loathed deep-freeze food, and said so many times in her books.)

Are we seeing a chain reaction of nostalgia for food reflecting a reality that never existed?

In her introduction to French Provincial Cooking, David related a little story about what might as well be called the ‘tiny cookbook heard from sea to sea.’ David succumbed to the charms of a cookbook cover, just as Waters did:

It was a tattered little volume, and its cover attracted me. In faded pinks and blues, it depicts an enormously fat and contented-looking cook in white muslin cap, spotted blouse and blue apron, smiling smugly to herself as she scatters herbs on a gigot of mutton. Beside her are a great loaf of butter, a head of garlic and a wooden salt box, and in the foreground is a table laid with a white cloth and four places, a basket of bread, a cruet and two carafes of wine.

The promise of the cover was, indeed, fulfilled in the pages of this delightful little book, called Secrets de la Bonne Table, 120 Recettes inédites recueillies dans les provinces de France [by Benjamin Renaudet, ca. 1900].

How seductive a book’s cover can be! And “they” say never judge a book by its cover …

Elizabeth David’s books did (and do) make plain simple food accessible to people. How could anyone not be swept off their kitchen clogs by the following?

Every scrap of food produced is made use of in some way or another, in fact in the best way possible, so it is in the heart of the country that one may become acquainted with the infinite variety of charcuterie, the sausages, pickled pork and bacon, smoked hams, terrines, preserved goose, pâtés, rillettes, and andouillettes, the cheeses and creams, the fruits preserved in potent local liqueurs, the fresh garden vegetables, pulled up before they are faded and grown old, and served shining with farmhouse butter, the galettes and pancakes made from country flour, the mushrooms, cèpes, morilles, and truffesfritures du golfe, the risottos aux fruits de mer of France’s lovely prodigal coast, from Brittany to Biarritz and Spain to Monte Carlo. (p. 8, French Country Cooking) gathered in the forest, the mountain hares, pigeons, partridges and roebuck, the matelots of pike, carp and eel and the fried trout straight form the river, the sustaining vegetables soups enriched with wine, garlic, bacon and sausages, the thousand and one shell-fish soups and stews, the

Yes, indeed. Before Alice Waters, there was Elizabeth David.

And we’re reaping what she sowed.

_______________

[1] Interview with Dave Weich of Powell’s, June 16, 2002.

[2] From Alice Waters’s Facebook page.

Books by Elizabeth David, a veritable baker’s dozen:

  1. Mediterranean Food, illustrated by John Minton, published by John Lehmann (1950)
  2. French Country Cooking, illustrated by John Minton, published by John Lehmann (1951)
  3. Italian Food, illustrated by Renato Guttuso (1954)
  4. Summer Cooking, published by Museum Press (1955)
  5. French Provincial Cooking (1960)
  6. Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970)
  7. English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977)
  8. An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (1984)
  9. Harvest of the Cold Months (1994)
  10. South Wind Through the Kitchen: The Best of Elizabeth David (1998) (Editor Jill Norman), posthumous anthology
  11. Is There a Nutmeg in the House?: Essays on Practical Cooking with More Than 150 Recipes, a posthumous anthology edited by Jill Norman (2000)
  12. Elizabeth David’s Christmas (2003) (Editor Jill Norman), posthumously produced from David’s notes
  13. Elizabeth David Classics ( Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking, Summer Cooking. )
    preface by James Beard Knopf (1980)

For more on Elizabeth David’s life, see Artemis Cooper, Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David (2000) and Lisa Chaney, Elizabeth David: A Biography (1999)

© 2009, 2010 C. Bertelsen

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi Gerry,

    Sounds like you’re pretty amazing, too, with the boat and all. I agree with you — if I were restricted to a very small library, I’d include several of Mrs. David’s books, chiefly the French and Italian volumes.

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  2. Gerrymh says:

    For me it is Elizabeth David every time. As one of the previous comments said, I read her like a novel. I believe that is her charm and key to her success, she is a ‘literary’ writer. Not only passionate about food and it’s provenance but also able to use language to bring it to life.
    I carry a tiny library on my boat(that I cruise the world on) but I have a vast collection of Elizabeth David’s books. Her ‘English yeast and bread cookery’ is probably the most definitive work of it’s genre that I have ever read.
    What an amazing woman and what an influence she continues to wield in the culinary field.
    thank you for your piece, it has started my day off exceeding well!

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  3. Thank you, David Castle, for sharing such a lovely comment about Elizabeth David. I still gravitate to her books all the time and love re-reading her many essays.

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  4. david castle says:

    i to loved elizabeth david.we holidayed on the glebe estate,studland dorset,where she had a secret holiday home with her lover.
    she took the pseudonym elizabeth craig to escape the pestilential press even then.
    my mother told me in elizabeths presence that every time she had a good meal in france she got the recipe off the chef and then cooked it with him.she then put it in her books.we were sworn to secrecy,iwas 7 at the time she was absolutely charming and a true lady without any snobbery whatsoever.

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  5. cbertel says:

    Yes, there seems to be something elusive about the Troika of Fisher, David, and maybe de Groot that keeps drawing me back in time, too. Gotta think about why.

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  6. cbertel says:

    I really think that Alice found her vision in Elizabeth’s work — she says so, after all — and I just thought Elizabeth deserved a little more credit!

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  7. Susan says:

    Oh, thank you for this…I’ll have to return on the ‘morrow but I saw your title feed thru & said, “YES!” (no offense to Alice)…

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  8. Jamie says:

    Great cookbook although I have spent more time reading it than cooking from it. I guess it is now time to start. Thanks for this nice post.

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  9. delianeal says:

    I love Elizabeth David!!! I stole her “Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen” from my mom years ago and I just love reading it like a favorite novel!
    That era of cookery writing I find to be so much more gratifying.

    Like

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