Swaying at the Stove

Rosemary Hill

  • Elizabeth David: A Biography by Lisa Chaney
    Pan, 482 pp, £10.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 330 36762 5
  • Waiting at the Kitchen Table. Elizabeth David: The Authorised Biography by Artemis Cooper
    Viking, 364 pp, £20.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 7181 4224 1

When Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food appeared in 1950, many of the ingredients it called for were unobtainable. But even after meat came off the ration, few people can have had much practical need for a traditional Turkish recipe for stuffing a whole sheep. That was not the point. Saturated with description, of figs and aubergines, of fishing boats at anchor in Marseille and paella pans left out to dry in Spanish courtyards, Mediterranean Food brought a beakerful of the warm South to chilly, postwar England.

The manuscript had been rejected by several more literal-minded publishers before John Lehmann, the editor of New Writing, took it on at the recommendation of his assistant, Julia Strachey, Lytton Strachey’s niece. So it was as a literary work, with a lingering glow of Bloomsbury behind it, that David’s first book made its appearance. To draw the jacket and illustrations Lehmann chose John Minton. It was a good choice. Minton, like John Piper, John Craxton and the others sometimes called Neo-Romantics, was an artist who brought a healing lyricism to the English landscape of the late Forties and Fifties. David’s work belonged to the same tradition: it was more about evocation than ingredients and, however foreign the ostensible subject-matter, more about home than abroad.

David was taken seriously in Britain in a way that no previous writer on food had been. She was credited with transforming the national diet and she gave cookery a place in high culture. Evelyn Waugh admired her writing and she was praised, often wildly overpraised, as an author. Lisa Chaney goes so far as to describe her as a highly complex and driven artist. David also managed to make domestic cookery glamorous. No comfortable Mrs Beetonish connotations attached to her striking, much photographed good looks.

The compound of character and circumstance that made her such a figure, though she was far from being the only or even, it could be argued, the best food writer of her generation, emerges from these two biographies. For those of us to whom the very fact of Elizabeth David is a constant reproach – so elegant, so intelligent and always able to do something delicious but simple with an oxtail and a few nasturtium flowers – there is a degree of unworthy comfort to be derived from the facts of her life. Bad-tempered, obsessive and a heavy drinker, she quite liked Uncle Ben’s rice and preferred instant coffee. Though neither the authorised nor the unauthorised Life sets out to debunk her, both books, especially Cooper’s, are candid. In the end there is something endearing as well as reassuring in the image of David swaying at the stove with ash from her untipped Gauloise dropping into the paella.

One friend called her ‘a sort of Lord Chesterfield of food’ but she was more of a Gertrude Jekyll. She reinvented cookery on Arts and Crafts lines as Jekyll reinvented gardening, taking a craft that came dangerously close to manual labour and transforming it into a liberal art. The same thing was happening at about the same time to ceramics. Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book, first published in 1940 and hugely popular after the war, offered a similar idyll in its description of the humble lives of Oriental peasant craftsmen to the one David evoked in the olive groves of Greece, appealing to readers who had no more intention of building their own tunnel kilns than David’s had of stuffing a sheep.

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