Kitchen Anxiety

Rosemary Hill on disliking Elizabeth David

The Guildhall Library has just finished cataloguing Elizabeth David’s archive of cookery books and memoranda, down to the last wine-stained post-it note and quite right too. It is impossible to know what will interest later generations.

The Belfast Women's Institute will go down to history as perpetrators of the ‘most revolting dish’ David ever came across. A nasty confection involving macaroni, tinned pears and raw carrot it nevertheless evokes some sympathy in me, and a certain queasy nostalgia for my mother’s more elaborate efforts. In the 1970s our part of the Home Counties was still in the culinary 1950s and as the backwash of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking reached us it caused dismay. Avocado pears for example. Fruit or vegetable? Hot or cold?

There would have been no point reading David’s books even if my mother had heard of them. David was not a populariser. She rarely gives anything so middle-brow as a recipe, her quantities and timings are vague. If you don’t know already you can’t find out from her. Short-tempered, short-sighted, a heavy drinker and such a committed smoker that you wonder how much she could actually taste of what she cooked, she was a snob of a very English sort. She thought it vulgar to be seen to try as my mother did with her carefully cut-out and pasted-in recipes, her anxious high teas and strange sandwich fillings.

For my generation, at ease with vinaigrette, the crucial thing was to put the cookery book away before the guests arrived. Especially if it was Delia – which it often was because she is so much clearer and more reliable. What I dislike about David is that despite her reputation she didn’t really liberate British cookery, she merely replaced one set of anxieties with another – fear of food gave way to fear of Elizabeth David.


  • 6 July 2009 at 12:20pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    I don't entirely agree - for many years I made pizza to general acclaim from David's fairly precise recipe (which appears in a chapter titled, typically, "The pizza and the pissaladeire"). Then we had kids and mozzarella became de rigueur, but I still start the topping using her onion-stewing method. Her "Armenian pizza" (derived from the lahmajun) is also very good.

    But her directions were very prescriptive, and class was never far away. A couple of pages on from the cheese-free pizza recipe she tries to persuade the novelty-hungry masses that her purism doesn't preclude variety, you just have to find it in minimalism: "There is no need even to add tomatoes. Just onions (if you like them), stewed gently in olive oil". If you don't like them, you're a bit stuck.

    • 1 June 2011 at 9:27pm
      alex says: @ Phil Edwards
      I came across this piece very late and also disagree, along the same lines as Phil. I read cookbooks avidly, but there's few I've learnt more from than Elizabeth David. It's not true that she doesn't give recipes, and you can read it as snobbery but she explains why certain details are worth caring about. Only other advice is know your ingredients (Tom Stobart), and a more general application of something someone told me about boning chickens - "you've got to want to do it".
      Compare her with contemporaries like Constance Spry or Vita Sackville-West, and you'll understand her snobbery to be (unlike the aforementioned) the least important feature of her work.

  • 14 July 2009 at 2:44pm
    Steve Cook says:
    What tosh.
    I'm working class and I have tried numerous recipes from French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David and can testify that even allowing for my mediocre skills in the kitchen I have been very impressed with each recipe I've tried. So have my wife and two children. Try the onion sauce, pork chops with cider or leeks in red wine. No snobbery just common sense. Delia does not address cooking as an art which it is.