Book Review: Mini-Review

Artemis Cooper


Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David

by Artemis Cooper Ecco Press 384 pp., $27.50

In this enlightened era of the culinary global village, when we take utterly for granted the widespread availability of and common interest in pan-Mediterranean food (not to mention the use and desirability of fresh, seasonal, and simple ingredients), it is probably very hard for us to conceive of the drab, unimaginative, overprocessed, and insular food consumed in Britain just after World War II. It is probably equally difficult to imagine the profound and evocative influence that Elizabeth David's food writing, which made the cuisines of France and Italy accessible to the hearts, minds, and palates of the postwar, ration-weary British public. Her writing about European food made Britons dream about it and want to cook and eat it, and it caused people to think about cooking in a different way -- not as a necessary drudgery, but as a creative act to be enjoyed for its own sake.

Beginning with the publication of A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1949, David's long and distinguished career continued until her death in 1992. Often regarded as the most influential food writer of her time, she was friend and mentor to many of the British and American shining stars of 20th-century food and wine writing -- Richard Olney, Gerald Asher, Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, and Alan Davidson. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse maintains that Elizabeth David was the greatest influence on her cooking.

Reading David's writings about French and Italian and Mediterranean food over the years, I had formed a mental image of the writer as a proper, perhaps somewhat straight-laced, upper-class British matron who, having lived abroad and fed her family there, wanted to share her opinions and culinary discoveries with her countrymen at home. In Writing at the Kitchen Table, however, I found that the Elizabeth David I had imagined was rather a far cry from the real story. But it isn't surprising that I had such misconceptions; throughout her extensive writing, she quite purposefully left everything unsaid about her personal life, revealing nothing at all about who she really was. And famous though she became, she resisted interviews and guarded her privacy ferociously. "Everything I want to say is in my books," she adamantly declared.

Now, almost a decade after David's death, Artemis Cooper has undertaken the task of telling the story of that very private, difficult, enigmatic, sometimes astonishing, sometimes tragic, life. And an extraordinary story it is -- a tale of international adventures and multiple lovers, profound friendships, and carefully nourished grudges. Above all, it is the chronicle of an intelligent, stubborn, talented, elegant, scholarly, and unforgiving woman, one who found her calling and established her principles early, and never erred from following either one throughout her life.

Elizabeth David was born in 1913 into a wealthy, aristocratic, and rather cold Sussex family. After boarding school, a degree at the Sorbonne in Paris, and studying German in Munich, she (rather daringly for her time and social position) began a desultory acting career at 20 -- a properly brought-up, upper-class girl set loose in the carefree bohemian world of the London theatre. She was beautiful, bright, uninhibited, and out to have a good time.

In 1938, looking for adventure, David and her lover bought a boat and embarked for the Greek Islands. In a stopover in Antibes, she met Norman Douglas, the unconventional writer, raconteur, and homosexual roué, who became her mentor, champion, and the greatest influence of her life. She was 26 and he was 72. She called him the best teacher she ever had -- like all good mentors, he expressed, developed, and refined her instinctive inner guiding principles. Within the context of Mediterranean culture, he talked knowledgeably about food at a time when educated people simply did not do so, and he taught her that, with a little care and attention, one could eat well and inexpensively every day. He instructed her in the art of searching out the best and rejecting all that was bogus and second-rate. The inscription in a book he gave her could be taken as her consequent text for living: "Always do as you please, and send everybody to Hell, and take the consequences. Damned good Rule of Life."

Continuing the boat voyage from France on to Greece in 1939, David and the boyfriend were picked up by the Italian navy off the coast of Sicily and interred as British spies. After a series of harrowing experiences, she found herself freed and living in a tiny Greek village on the island of Syros, where, by poverty and necessity, she became intimately acquainted with the ancient basic foods of the Mediterranean -- the lemons, olive oil, wild herbs, cheese, and crusty bread that forever informed her views about food.

David spent the remainder of the war in Cairo, where she managed a reference library for the British Ministry of Information, absorbed the culinary influences of North Africa, and moved deftly among the bohemian and aristocratic international communities, where she knew everyone from Freya Stark to Cecil Beaton to Laurence Durrell. She also engaged in an ill-considered marriage to a British army officer -- it lasted only a few years, ended badly, and definitively cured her of matrimony.

After six years abroad, David returned home to England. Her dismay at the drab and chilling climate she found there (both meteorological and cultural) drove her to begin writing her thoughts and impressions about the food and cooking of her beloved Mediterranean countries. Once begun, she never looked back.

Over 40 years, she produced a series of widely admired and bestselling books, most of which, amazingly, are still in print today. She also wrote prodigiously for British periodicals, including Vogue, The Sunday Times, Harper's Bazaar, House and Garden, The Spectator, The Tatler, and Wine and Food. Her popularity grew across the decades, paralleling the expanding public interest in cooking and eating. She received numerous awards and accolades on both sides of the Atlantic, including an Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth in 1976. When the Queen asked her what she did, she replied, "Write cookery books, ma'am." "How useful," remarked Her Majesty.

Although completely self-taught, David's scholarship and standards were unstintingly high, and she never hesitated to measure everyone else against her own elevated principles. She did not suffer fools gladly, and her feuds with editors were legendary. "I would like it to go in as I have written it," she said. Late in her life, she loftily refused to meet M.F.K. Fisher, perhaps her only true contemporary in culinary writing. "What on earth would we two old women have to talk about?"

David's self-absorption, artistic temperament, and dedication to her calling produced sterling work, but often made for difficult personal relationships. While her love life was rather hectic for decades, she was ultimately disappointed in that arena, although she was blessed with a coterie of stalwart friends and companions who admired her, humored her, and looked after her. Her acerbic wit, erudition, and conversation were as sought after as invitations to the dazzling lunches in her working kitchen/study.

Elizabeth David's books are as alive and inspiring today as they were when she wrote them. And thanks to this biography, now those books are informed by the difficult, brilliant, and larger-than-life personality of their creator. At her funeral, Hugh Johnson observed that she "combined the writing of an angel with a certain celestial invisibility." David certainly wouldn't have approved, but she is invisible no longer.

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Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David, Artemis Cooper

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