David, Elizabeth

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David, Elizabeth (1913–92) the food writer to whom is given by common consent most credit for leading British tastes, from the 1950s onwards, in a new direction. Her keynote was struck, clear and melodious as a church bell in the Greek island where she had lived for a while, by A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950). Like the book which she acknowledged as a principal trigger for her own writing (The Gentle Art of Cookery by Mrs Leyel and Olga Hartley, 1925), it was inspirational rather than didactic. Although it impinged on a relatively small number of people (until the late 1950s and 1960s, when it and her other early books were published by Penguin in paperback for a wider audience) its influence began to show at once, for its content and style, echoed in the brilliant jacket by John Minton, matched a mood which was there in the post-war years but had not previously found expression.

French Country Cooking (1951) and Summer Cooking (1955) were charming, unpretentious books which echoed her keynote in size and style. Italian Food (1954) was more substantial: the first of the author’s books to qualify as a reference work in addition to having literary and inspirational merits. Indeed, after successive revisions, it remains one of the best surveys of its subject. The same is true of the even larger French Provincial Cooking (1960), in which some aspects of her food writing which had been nascent in the Italian book (a section on cookery equipment, a short bibliography) came into full blossom. With its really extensive bibliography it marked the author’s steady movement towards research in books as well as in markets and kitchens; and its illustrated section on French kitchen equipment brought this aspect into prominence and foreshadowed the beautiful kitchen shop which Elizabeth David subsequently planned, opened, and personally ran in Pimlico (not far from where she lived in Chelsea, London). It was unfortunate that a disagreement with her partners brought her own participation in the shop enterprise to an end.

During the 1960s she was busy with journalism (especially a series of articles in the Spectator, where she was given a free hand to write as she pleased, with results evident in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, 1984, the volume in which these and other essays were collected). The shop also took up much of her time and energy. It was not until 1970 that the next book, Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, came out. This had several remarkable features. One was that it included a charming tribute to Mrs Leyel, co-author of the Gentle Art of Cookery, for the inspiration and stimulus which she had supplied and an affectionate analysis of the merits of Mrs Leyel’s writing. Another was that she included in it material about Anglo-Indian cookery, perhaps reflecting in part the short period after the war when she lived in India (accompanying the military husband she had married in Cairo).

English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) represented the zenith of her scholarly writing. It at once became a sort of bible for home bakers and people interested in the very strong baking tradition of the British Isles, but its relatively narrow focus and its length and weight were in contrast to the earlier, lighter books. Harvest of the Cold Months (1994), on which she had begun work, was prepared for its posthumous publication by her long-time editor and close friend Jill Norman. Since her death there have been published various anthologies drawn from her writings such as South Wind through the Kitchen (1998), and a further collection of essays and occasional pieces (Is there a Nutmeg in the House?2001).

Elizabeth David valued her privacy and was highly selective in offering glimpses, in her writings, of personal feelings. Her strong negative feelings against food snobbery, pretentiousness of all kinds, and careless writing were never concealed, but a natural kindliness prompted her to express these, for the most part, in general terms rather than personal attacks. And she allowed her admiration for a chosen few (e.g. Norman Douglas, the famous travel writer with whom, when she was in her twenties and he in his seventies, she formed a close friendship in the south of France and, later, Capri) to be fully apparent. Her writings did reflect, but not as much as they could have done, the breadth of her interests and knowledge in the arts (especially painting), history, and literature.

  1. Reading Chaney (1998);
  2. Cooper (1999).

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