Disdain, rebellion & pork in milk: how Elizabeth David changed my lifeJuly 2, 2009
This 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.
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?