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.