Anne here, still thinking about food in books.
There's a very funny scene in a P.G.Wodehouse story, Something New, where the young hero, Ashe, has been hired supposedly as valet, by Mr Peters, an overweight, dyspeptic, cigar-smoking, insomniac millionaire. For his health Mr Peters has been placed on a diet of "seeds and grasses" by his fashionable doctor. In order to help his employer get to sleep, Ashe reads to him from Peters' favorite bedtime reading book . . .
Ashe said, "Lie back and make yourself comfortable and I'll read you to sleep first."
"You're a good boy," said Mr Peters drowsily.
"Are you ready? 'Pork Tenderloin Larded. Half pound fat pork—"
A faint smile curved Mr Peters' lips. His eyes were closed and he breathed softly.
Ashe went on in a low voice: "four large pork tenderloins, one cupful cracker crumbs, one cupful boiling water, two tablespoons butter, one teaspoon salt, half teaspoon pepper, one teaspoon poultry seasoning."
A little sigh came from the bed.
The scene made me chuckle, but it also made me think that if I were to be read to from a recipe book, my absolute first choice would be the books of Elizabeth David — not just for the recipes, but for the beautiful prose, the evocative images, the absorbing discussions of various methods of cooking, and the delightful food-related anecdotes she includes in her books.
“To eat figs off the tree in the very early morning, when they have been barely touched by the sun, is one of the exquisite pleasures of the Mediterranean.” ― from An Omelette and a Glass of Wine
Elizabeth David is not well known in the US — she was a contemporary of Julia Child — but she's one of the most important and inspired food writers of the twentieth century. She's best known for educating British people about cooking and European food. Her writings have inspired generations of cooks, and are still treasured — and in print— long after her death. Such well known UK TV chefs as Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Simon Hopkinson and Nigel Slater cite her as their biggest influence.
Elizabeth David, clever, beautiful and born into a well-off family, had, as a seventeen-year-old girl, boarded with a Paris family while she studied at the Sorbonne. The tales she tells of this experience are a delight:
"Twice a week at dawn, Madame, whose purple face was crowned with a magnificent mass of white hair, went off to do the marketing at Les Halles, the central market where she bought all the provisions, including flowers, for the flat… She would return at about ten o'clock, two bursting black shopping bags in each hand, puffing, panting, mopping her brow as if she was about to have a stroke." (From French Provincial Cooking)
But always it comes back to the food — in this case an observation about clever shopping and buying the right food – the best, the freshest, and what was in season.
Elizabeth later worked as a vendeuse (saleswoman) at the fashion House of Worth, and an actress, before traveling to places such as Malta, Antibes, Corsica, Tuscany, Capri, Greece, Crete, Egypt, Morocco and spending eight months in India. Her love life was scandalous and adventurous.
When she returned to Britain after WW2 the country was still on food rationing (even into the 1950's) and she was appalled at the cooking she encountered. Of the meals in one hotel, she wrote that the food was ‘produced with a kind of bleak triumph which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity and humanity’s needs’.
To quote from an article in the Guardian newspaper:
"The food was beyond bad: insupportable, in David's view, even allowing for the shortages; she was overcome with a sense of "embattled rage that we should be asked – and should accept – the endurance of such cooking". To comfort herself, she scribbled down lists of the things she most missed: apricots, olives, butter, rice, lemons, almonds…. This, then, was how she first began to write. Her notes and recipes were an expression of her yearning, a way of assuaging something that was not homesickness exactly, but which must have felt a lot like it."
In 1949 she started writing about Mediterranean cookery for the magazine Harper's Bazaar. At the time, most readers could not dream of following the recipes — olive oil was something sold in small bottles from a pharmacy, things like aubergines, zucchini, figs, saffron, pistachios and basil were almost unheard of and mostly unavailable, garlic was to be avoided — so as much as anything her writing was a delicious fantasy for people dreaming of escape from the dull stodge they faced each mealtime.
The articles were sensuous and vivid, evoking images of good, often simple food, sunshine, wine, and la dolche vite (the sweet life) – an unexpectedly delicious lunch in a French country inn, an English picnic, meeting up with friends in an Italian village. She laced the articles with relevant literary quotes, historical food snippets, methods, impressions, advice, and opinions. Reading her books, you get a glimpse of the depth and breadth of her knowledge.
Cleverly she kept the copyright of her articles, and collected and edited them for publication in her first book — A Book of Mediterranean Food.
She was highly opinionated: "Good cooking is honest, sincere and simple and by this I do not mean to imply that you will find in this, or indeed in any other book the secret of turning out first class food in a few minutes with no trouble. Good food is always a trouble and it's preparation should be regarded as a labour of love."
Her books are still well worth reading, and as well as wonderful recipes, she evokes times and places and experiences that are long gone. Her recipes are all good — I first came across them when I bought a paperback copy of French Provincial Cookery when I was living in my first student share house. We all learned so much from that book, and many are still my standard go-to recipes.
She introduces French Provincial Cookery thus: “The dishes described are not spectacular, rich, or highly flavoured, the materials are the modest ingredients you would expect to find in a country garden, a small farm, or in a market of a quiet provincial town. But it is not rustic peasant cooking, for the directions for the blending of different vegetables in a soup, the quantity of wine in a stew, or the seasoning of the sauce for a chicken reflect great care and regard for the harmony of the finished dish. This is sober, well-balanced, middle class French cookery, carried out with care and skill, with due regard to the quality of the materials, but without extravagance or pretention.”
The biggest trouble I have with her books is that I go to look up some recipe and find myself simply reading on and on, like a novel. Here, for instance is the way she introduces the chapter on fish in French Provincial Cookery:
"Probably some of everyone's most dismal nursery memories are connected with food. One might come to accept the stewed prunes, the hateful greens, even the tapioca pudding, as part of Nannie's mysterious lore as to what it was necessary to eat in order to survive the perils of childhood. The miseries of fish days were harder to overcome because the food looked so terrifying even before it was on your plate. Egg sauce didn't do much to compensate for the black skin and monstrous head of boiled cod; fish pudding, a few spiteful bones inevitably lying in wait in that viscous mass, and whiting biting their own tails were frightening dishes for children, and often painful too. . .
None of these dishes did anything to allay the suspicion which I fancy is shared by a good many English people when "fish for dinner today" is announced.. .
It was not until my first visit to the Mediterranean that I began . . . to appreciate the beauty of red mullet, bass or sardines brought straight from the sea to the grill and served crackling and golden with no garnish but a lemon . . . "
Elizabeth David's books have been in continuous publication; she won many awards and accolades, but the one she was proudest of was her fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature. When she died in 1992, among the mounds of her favorite flowers — blue irises and violets—somebody placed a loaf of good bread and a bunch of herbs tied up in brown paper.
So what about you? Had you heard of Elizabeth David before this? Any favorite recommendations? Do you enjoy reading food writing, follow any food bloggers, or watch food and cooking shows on TV? Which are your favorites?