Elizabeth David and the cook book as historical document

olivesgarlicCulinary aids they may ultimately be, but cook books can also can also reward readers who have no intention of attempting their recipes. They can offer well-written prose; evoke a time or place fondly remembered (the cook book as travelogue); and reflect the society and culture of the historical period when they were written.

This last aspect was at the forefront of my mind as I read the prefaces and introductions to the various editions published of Elizabeth David’s first book, a Book of Mediterranean Food, which was first published in 1950 by John Lehmann.

“The cooking of the Mediterranean shores”, the book’s introduction begins, “endowed with all the natural resources, the colour and flavour of the South, is a blend of tradition and brilliant improvisation. The Latin genius flashes from the kitchen pans … ‘it is not really an exaggeration’, wrote Marcel Boulestin, ‘to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking'”.

By the time she came to write the preface to the first Penguin edition of the book, in 1955, David admitted that when the book was first released, “almost every essential ingredient of good cooking was either rationed or unobtainable.” In other words, the book has been published as pure food escapism, as a culinary aide memoire for those individuals lucky enough to have toured the Mediterranean before the start of the Second World War. “Even if people could not very often make the dishes here described”, David wrote, “it was stimulating to think about them; to escape from the deadly boredom of queuing and the frustration of buying the weekly rations”.

For a generation of shoppers used to buying olive oil, olives, garlic, saffron and basil in their local supermarket, it’s amazing to read David exhorting cooks to make expeditions to Soho or “the region of Tottenham Court Road” for their tahina paste, stuffed vine leaves and mozzarella, as if these places were themselves foreign and far-flung.

The UK’s food culture had moved on apace by the time David penned her introduction to the 1988 edition of the book. Now, she pinpointed the “spirit of defiance” in which she had written her recipes – defiance at a system of rationing that had left “lemons, oranges and tomatoes as rare as diamonds, commodities such as olive oil, rice and imported pasta no more than exotic memories, and fresh fish something you stood in a queue for …”

Given all this, it’s easy to look back on Elizabeth David and her peers as early food activists, stirring up a demand for unusual ingredients that has spawned a ‘foods of the world’ aisle in every supermarket. I suspect David herself would be amused to have pointed out to her the direct lineage from her post-war writings to the shelves of miso soup, Thai paste and tajine spices  we can choose from today. Afterall, her intention was only to take “refuge from reality in writing down memories of the food I had cooked and eaten during my Mediterranean years”.

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  1. […] Elizabeth David and the cook book as historical document […]

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