Friday, October 03, 2008

Elizabeth David

I just read Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David by Artemis Cooper. The book concentrates mainly on the life, social and family background, and personality of David. She was born and reared in a particular segment of the British upper class that could have been the subject of an Evelyn Waugh book. Her life is most interesting prior to her settling down to write her books. Cooper does a good job with David's early escape from her lofty social stratum. The early parts of the book are a good read -- better than the part when she's successful.

As the book proceeds, Cooper's concentrates on Elizabeth David's personality, frustrations, and the minutiae of her daily life. This concentration eclipses the explanation of exactly what she accomplished. Because I'm really most interested in David as a leader of a food revolution, I found the second half of the book somewhat disappointing. This sentence from the Epilogue is key:
All agreed that Elizabeth David had changed British cooking for ever, although it is hard for anyone not familiar with pre-war English attitudes to food to understand just what an impact she had made. (page 334)
Only to some extent does Cooper really make the readers see what this impact was. It should be possible: I think Julia Child's autobiography My Life in Food and even the book The United States of Arugula manage to show how American attitudes changed under various influence.

Cooper does describe some food as David experienced it in her early life, but these passages are a bit of a cliche. English boarding-school fare she presents thus: "a meal began with a nondescript bowl of Brown Windsor soup, went on to boiled beef and carrots and ended with chocolate shape." (p. 120) She repeatedly says that the English held onto their roast with two veg & pudding for Sunday dinner, and resisted David's introduction of Mediterranean food. Cooper also depicts the terrible shortages, the rationing of so many products, and the drabness of post-war England, in contrast to the vivid colors and freshness of the foods in David's early books.

Here's a passage where Cooper does her best:
'Cooking with Wine' (February 1950) began with the words, 'Nobody has ever been able to find out why the English regard a glass of wine added to a soup of stew as a reckless foreign extravagance, and at the same time spend pounds on bottled sauces, gravy powders, soup cubes, ketchups and artificial flavourings.' Many people think of Elizabeth David as a cook for those prepared to take infinite pains. It is worth remembering how liberating and refreshing her work was too, and how she never missed an opportunity to point out when things could be done better, more cheaply and without cluttering up the cupboard. (page 154)
As a remarkable cookbook author, Elizabeth David was dedicated to her mission of finding out how French, Italian, and other cooks created their foods. Cooper shows, for example, how during one trip she waited and waited to learn how seasonal peppers were preserved:
By the end of August the pimentos, piled in great heaps in the market, looked ready to burst with ripeness; but they were not yet good enough for Malfalda. Elizabeth had to wait nearly a month before the great day came, 'while my host and hostess on the island must have been wondering if I was ever going to leave.' (page 171)
Cooper sketches in the food issues in occasional passages like these; I just don't think she made the issues sufficiently vivid. I wish she had devoted more effort to the central reason why a reader might care about David; I would have appreciated more social history.

What I liked least is the enormous amounts of time spent on Elizabeth David's feuds and resentments. I learned way too much about her interactions, mainly hostile, with publishers, editors, book illustrators, lovers, friends, husband, business partners (in her cookware shop), and family. Elizabeth David's dislike of many people, especially those who wanted to interview her or write about her, becomes a central theme and upstages the portrayal of her accomplishments and impact. Her important acolytes (such as Alan Davidson and Hugh Johnson) didn't seem portrayed as central to her life, though they are critical to her lasting influence.

One thing I did realize in reading the book: there was a vast gap during the post-war years between food writing in the US and in England. Publications like Gourmet magazine, writers like Joseph Wechsberg, M.F.K. Fisher, and James Beard, and many trends in US cooking were having a parallel impact on American cooking, but they seem to have been invisible on the English scene. Elizabeth David evidently stood alone: Cooper doesn't even mention coincident trends in the other part of the English-speaking world.


Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I wonder if part of the reasons the feuds, etc., were given focus is that voyeurism sells? It seems out of place in a serious study about food transformation, though.

Mae Travels said...

Jen, I don't think the descriptions were all that sensationalistic. In fact, I found them kind of genteel and boring. The author just didn't seem that interested in the social history of food. I believe she was chosen because she wrote "Cairo in the War" which was relevant to part of the pre-food biography. (Elizabeth David lived in Cairo during the war.)

Angeelina said...

Elizabeth's books were seen as serious and well-researched. She had a different writing style from all others. She could give her reader a deeper angle for the content.

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae,
I was just reading a blog post by Barbara over @ Moveable Feasts about Elizabeth David and immediately thought of this post of yours. (it's a link on the post I did a while back for David) Anyway, let me know if you want Barbara's link. I think you'll like it, it's called 50 Women Game Changers in Food: #14, Elizabeth David.

Have a nice weekend, Mae.

P.S. I would have included the link but I recently learned it is not good manners to leave links in people's comments:)