Disdain, rebellion & pork in milk: how Elizabeth David changed my life

July 2, 2009

elizabethdavidbookThis week’s Guardian has a nice little piece about the spiteful annotations made by Elizabeth David on other people’s cookbooks. Irresistible, no?

I have an abiding love of Elizabeth David which is only tangentially to do with her cookbooks. The first time I ever heard of her was when I went to my university art teacher’s house for lunch, where his spiky, intelligent and beautiful wife cooked something rustic, garlicky, slow-cooked and to me, delicious in an unearthly way. I had never eaten food like it.

It seemed to me that day, sitting in that rambling country house full of Norman Lindsay paintings and art books and warm-toned, casually handled antiques, talking of art and books and garden-grown food and life, that this smell, this dish, this way of eating was somehow a portal into an entirely new creative life, a simpler-but-richer way of living than I had ever known existed, or aspired to. I was right, I think.

It’s not that my own upbringing was lacking in creativity – quite the opposite; I had a talented father who made half the furniture in the house as well as beautiful, ethereal costumes for school plays and other things, and a florist mother who routinely created beauty in small ways around our house (I have written about them here) – it’s just that food was never really a part of that creativity. Food, for my beleaguered mother, was a matter of filling up seven hungry stomachs every day in the most efficient and responsible way possible before escaping out into her beloved garden. The cooking got done out of love, but I don’t think she really ever enjoyed it. And who on earth could blame her?

But the food I ate at my painting & drawing teacher’s house that lunch time, I intuited, was somehow to do with art, not separate from it. It seemed to draw the very art from the walls, and the garden and the furniture and the conversation of that day, into one living whole. In an unspoken and completely unpretentious way, it seemed to somehow feed not only the physical but the artistic selves of these people.

I think the dish my teacher’s wife (who later became a friend too) cooked that day was Maiale Al Latte, or pork cooked in milk – I remember it because I found the idea of cooking meat milk completely astounding – and when I asked about it, the elegant chef said it was “just an old Elizabeth David thing”. I feigned familiarity with this person. Ah, I said, and nodded. And noted the words Elizabeth David, Elizabeth David, in my head.

A short time later, in a local op shop, I came across my first copy of Elizabeth David’s little Penguin paperback, A Book of Mediterranean Food. It was destiny. I took the book home and began cooking boeuf en daube a la nicoise and soupe au pistou for my uni flatmates, and began to fall in love with cooking.

I still have this book (that’s it, above) even though the pages have fallen out and the cover is ragged. I bought a new hardback version a few years ago, but I can’t let go of this one for sentimental reasons. Even though I only ever cooked a few things from it, and never have properly read David’s musings and impressions, this book seems deeply emblematic to me, in the way objects can represent those moments one has, as a young person, when you find a way of becoming your real self – that person you want to be. I treasure it still for that reason.

I know there are plenty of Elizabeth David fetishists out there, and I suppose I am one of them.

I absolutely loved, for example, that brilliant television biopic screened here last year, Elizabeth David: A Life in Recipes, not because it was an accurate portrayal – which those who know their stuff about her tell me it absolutely wasn’t, omitting any mention of her elite Tory childhood and patrician ways, for example – but because it was a film about the creative struggle, and about abundance in the midst of postwar miserliness, and saying yes to personal freedom in spite of society’s disapproval. And the price paid for all those things.

(As an aside, any writer who’s ever done a bookshop or library reading to an audience of four, two of whom are asleep and one of whom berates one for using, on page seventy-two, the word ‘squashed’ when they themselves would have chosen ‘crunched’, should clasp to their bosom the scene in this film when cookery writer ED goes to address a Women’s Insitute meeting. Priceless).

Anyway, back to the Guardian piece: apparently her archive of personal papers shows that Elizabeth was a right snidey-pants about other people’s cookbooks and recipes (and even the illustrator of her own books), keeping notes on their faults.

There’s a light dusting of yellow stickies with general comments to set the tone: “p166 This is NOT a tian [a Provencal mixed-vegetable gratin]”; “This is a useless book”; and “Chocolate in the Renaissance?” There are comments that should be engraved on every modern food writer’s heart: “Why say crispy when crisp is more expressive?”

Then, suddenly, you find yourself deep in sedition and heresy. Inside a copy of The Cooking of Italy (1969) by an American journalist Waverley Root: “Waverley Root is a pitiful phoney.”

On the legendary 1969 French book Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point, regarded by a generation of chefs as the bible of modern cuisine: “This is a really awful book.”

In a carbon copy of a private letter dated October 1983: “I have to tell you that really I never did care very much for the John Minton illustrations for my books. They are so cluttered and messy. They embarrass me now as much as they did in 1950.”

On a copy of Full and Plenty, a mercifully forgotten volume by Maura Laverty: “The kind of pretentious rubbish that has brought French cooking into disrepute as a snob’s preserve.”

Perhaps she was a vindictive snob, but who cares? These are personal papers, not published remarks (until now!). Or perhaps she was right. Regardless, I’ll always be grateful for whatever spirit of rebellion or snobbery (along with, doubtless, the Tory money) sent her from England to the Continent, into and out of her miserable affairs and her drinking and her stroke. And I’ll be grateful too, for what many have seen as her unforgivable disdain for the lives of ordinary Britons, because a generation and a lot of geography later, it was that same rebellion and disdain that made an everlasting difference to my very ordinary life.

So tell me, did you ever have a small but transformative culinary moment like mine? And which was the cookbook that changed your life?


  1. Charlotte
    I’m an Elizabeth David devotee from the mid 70s (would you believe most of the Penguin paperback reprints I have in the kitchen are all dated 1976, and I do think I bought them all in quick succession, after starting off with French Provincial Cookery). She’s well worth reading, cover to cover, as her writing is such a big a part of her contribution, as well as her recipes, but I am sure you know and enjoy all that already.
    A few years ago I read a biography of ED by Lisa Chaney, and while the various biographies suffer from being either authorised or unauthorised and condemned accordingly, I loved this one for its sense of romance and adventure. Gosh that girl had a great War! Escapes galore, romance, months on the Mediterranean islands in between more escapes, then Alexandria.
    If you haven’t read any of her biographies, do so. And yes, she could be a bitter, nasty old cow, but she doesn’t scare me! Love her still.
    Discovering ED was my ‘moment’ and I credit two cooks – Colin and Yvonne – who both also cooked ED’s recipes at the same time (they both knew each other, too).

  2. I really wish I could say it was ED that changed my life but sadly my story’s so much daggier. It was ‘Cooking with Sheri’ by Sheridan Jobbins whose pikelet recipe got me cooking at around 6. I didn’t discover ED until I was about 20 but by then I was already in the clutches of Greta Anna whose opulent first book became my bible (until I moved to England and discovered I couldn’t afford any of the ingredients. D’oh!). Still I adore Elizabeth but more for her writing than anything else. I reckon a big part of her appeal was that she was writing about Mediterranean al fresco eating for a sun-starved British audience on post war rations. We’ve all come so far that I think her recipes today seem a bit obvious. The rest of her food writing appeal, however, is eternal. And I’m SO with whoever outlawed ‘crispy’.

  3. ED ignored me for years. My stained Penguin with the cover off is Cordon Bleu Cookery by Rosemary Hume and Muriel Downes, the last word in sophistication in the 70’s. It falls open at .. Jeerusalem artichokes- which is a puzzle as I’ve never cooked them- orange and tomato soup- v nice, and I had forgotten all about it; chocolate mousse(but of course.)Escalopes a’l’orange (“two good oranges”) has a pencilled tick next to it which was later crossed out. Luckily, I cannot remember why. What seems remarkable now is how very short the list of ingredients and instructions are, with no pictures except the line drawings of casseroles and whisks in Appendix A: “cooking equipment.” And what modest flavourings- one tablespoon of brandy, lemon juice, parsley etc. I suspect I am now a chronic overseasoner. Can I blame the other first favourite? Charmaine Solomon The Complete Asian Cookbook, a fat 500 pp. Also stained with dark soy sauce from 1978 and something growing on the spine. All good things were possible and surprising and came from somewhere else.

  4. Reading all this made me get my ED off the shelf – hard back tattered cover with a photograph off some half finished fois gras in the foreground. It is a 1967 edition of French Provincial Cooking with the usual spills & yellowing pages. The cover flap is tucked in on p 3435 Boeuf a la Gardiane – Beef & wine stew with black olives. Despite the page being spattered a little a don’t recall making this dish.

  5. Oh, I’m LOVING these recollections, kids. Steph, Sheridan Jobbins! I had forgotten all about her. Sorry Sheri if you’re out there. Also Greta Anna – I have never cooked her food but years ago I spied one of her well-used and stained books at my mother-in-law’s place and I plan to steal it next time I see it (hi Annie, just look the other way). And Ms J, your Charmaine is a replica I think of one Senor bought at a garage sale recently, stains and all. Love your last remark. Jamie & Eileen, French Provincial Cooking. Mmmm. Actually as I type this I’ve got Marcella Hazan’s version of the pork in milk, with some whole garlic chucked in, on the stove. A test run before cooking it for others …. it already smells incredible. Marcella H actually is goign to be my next big cookbook purchase, once I find somewhere to put all these others …

  6. I loved this post, Charlotte, had a rollicking good time reading it, thanks, but I am utterly ashamed to admit I’ve not read ANY Elizabeth David EVER. I don’t know how this has happened – she sounds like Dorothy Parker in the kitchen, up my alley absolutely, so I’m just going to have to rectify the situation toot sweet. I’m going with Charmaine Solomon as my breakthrough cookbook. I was given two copies of The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook for my 21st birthday (I was vegie during and post-college in Canada, where grey institutional meat really turned me off my carne), so it felt like destiny.

  7. Hey there miss DrDi. Of course most of the world has never heard of ED let alone read her (and as I say, I’ve been a slackarse on reading beyond recipes) – but you have a fab time ahead of you, is all I can say. She was a one-woman wild child adventuring escapetress culinary romantic, is what I think we can say from all the above. And the Empress’s remark about her bringing the Mediterranean sun to boring old boiled-beyond-recognition England (and thus ‘daughter’ countries like us) is spot on, I reckon.

    By the way, I just ate the delicious garlicky nuggety divinity of that porky thing. Oh my, oh my, oh my. The milk splits, gradually, and when the fat is spooned off you’re left with a clustery, buttery sauce of velvety, sweetish nut-brown splotches of pure unadulterated joy. Heaven.

  8. Charmaine Solomon…
    Several years ago I went to Charmaine’s house for a photo shoot, and so I took my old paperback copy of The Complete Asian Cookbook with me, for her to autograph (hopefully). She grabbed it straight away and thumbed through it, and loved how saffron-stained my tandoori chicken page was, and then leafed through all the pages looking for stains that indicated which recipes I loved the most. And so now my autographed copy of Charmaine’s book is probably my most treasured cookbook!

  9. Charlotte, bad meal envy here even though it’s breakfast and not milky garlicky pork time. Yum! I’m excited – I’ve been gifted every single cook book I own (which is fabulous! Never fiction, always food…) except The Popular Potato, so this will be my first hunt for a particular tome, and she sounds worth the wait.

    I also love, love, love Jamie’s story about Charmaine snatching the book to read his culinary splotches as a language of love.

  10. Love Jamie’s story about Charmaine’s autograph and stain inspection. I have always been sure she is a seriously nice woman. It’s still a very good cook book I think and was astounding at the time. My favourite was Lampfreys Curry. Not your actual lampreys, but four different meats, maybe even different curries, combined. And- to my surprise now- Lumpia, not cellulite, though that no doubt follows if you eat enough of them- fresh spring rolls and wrappers attributed to the Philippines.(I cant believe it but I made the wrappers too) Only 10 years afterwards I was sent to the Phillipines for work for two and a half years and never saw a single lumpia. Another keen favourite was leg of lamb covered in green yoghurt-not mould, but pistachio and herbs I think.Am going to dig it out and try the tandoori.
    Speaking of Vegetarian cookbooks, my standby was Anna Thomas’s Vegetarian Epicure which may still be in print. That cornbread – so toothsome hot, so rocklike cold. Lots of curly illustrations of gels in flowing Laura Ashley type frocks and locks.
    One cookbook I cannot recommend is 1001 ways with Mince- a share house standby. After Dinner Mints may be included.

  11. […] know we’ve touched on this via my Elizabeth David ramble here, but I want to hear more about your early cookery book love affairs. After Elizabeth, it was two […]

  12. […] who is midway through a fab-sounding novel and whom you will know as a wonderful writer from her many astute and hilarious comments on these pages; and also my dear friend Lucinda Holdforth (who, I learned last night, among other […]

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