Trailblazer cooking writer, Elizabeth David – changing the way a nation eats
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There’s no shortage of talented cooks and cookery writers to have come from Sussex. Perhaps the one who has had the most influence on how we eat today is Polegate born Elizabeth David, CBE, (1913 – 1992)
Perhaps fitting for someone who was going to change a nation’s eating habits, David was a rebel. Although a grand-daughter of a viscount with a wealthy upbringing at Wootton Manor in Folkington (her father was Conservative MP for Eastbourne, Rupert Sackville Wynne) she pushed back against convention, traveled, and dabbled in several careers. Studying art in Paris, experimenting with acting in London, and even spending a brief time as a shop assistant at Worth fashion house, adventure seemed to follow her. Running away on a boat with a married actor, she was detained in Italy as a suspected spy, trapped in Greece at the start of the Second World War, and eventually found herself in Cairo in the Second World War where she worked in a library for the British government.
In 1946 she returned to an England that was very different to the one she had left. Scarred by the war and a series of hard winters, the country was still under the heavy yoke of austerity and food rationing. With butter, cheese, margarine, cooking fats and meat still to be rationed until 1954 and such delights as tinned apricots cooked in bacon fat, fake marzipan made from beans mashed with almond essence passing as the delicacies of the day, David was appalled by the contrast to the simple, healthy vegetable based diet she had encountered during her years in the Mediterranean. Friends suggested she take out her frustration by writing about it.
Various magazine articles duly followed and in 1948 she was invited to write a cookery column for Harper’s Bazaar, in which she extolled the virtues of such then exotic foodstuffs as basil, aubergines, and garlic. This led, in 1950, to David’s first book, simply called A Book of Mediterranean Food. With a striking cover by artist John Minton that evoked the bright colours of a sunny sky and the sea with a table set out in the sun, the book presented dishes such as moules mariniere, bouillabaisse, and moussaka, all healthy, colourful and promoting sociable eating, to blast away the pale spectre of suet pudding and cabbage from the British table. At her publisher’s recommendation, David interspersed her well researched recipes with snippets of travel writing, advice on street markets in Italian towns, snapshots of French picnics en famille, descriptions of the smells of fresh herbs growing in sunny gardens. For today’s reader, bombarded with restaurants, take-aways and TV programmes showcasing food from every corner of the world, it’s hard to understand just how novel and exciting David’s Mediterranean recipes must have seemed to a 1950s readership in need of escapism. If most people couldn’t travel to the French Riviera or have dinner in a Greek taverna, thanks to A Book of Mediterranean Food they could at least now create a little of that atmosphere – and joie de vivre – in their own homes.
David produced seven more books, notably French Country Cooking (1951), Italian Food (1954), and French Provincial Cooking (1960). These, plus the several cookery columns and articles for magazines and newspapers she wrote, were to introduce the ordinary British amateur cook (and diner) to delights such as risotto, lasagne, ragu, and dauphinois potatoes and usher in an era where garlic, courgettes, dates, and apricots would become a staple of our supermarket shelves. Now classics, David’s books didn’t only make Mediterranean food mainstream, they also introduced the British to the idea that food could be a pleasure rather than a chore. Although detractors claimed David’s recipes were too intimidating for the novice cook, her popularity has been enduring and many cooks today, such as Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater, and Prue Leith have acknowledged her as an influence, many appreciating her no nonsense tones and refusal to patronise the reader.
In 1965 David opened a shop in Pimlico, London, where people could buy authentic French pans and other pieces of equipment which were then hard to obtain.
Elizabeth David received many awards in her life, including two honorary doctorates and Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature for her skills as a writer. In 1986 she was made a CBE.
She died on 22nd May 1992 and is buried at St Peter ad Vincula church, Folkington, East Sussex.
In 2012, to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, David was chosen by BBC Radio 4 as one of the 60 Britons who have been most influential during the 60 years of the Queen’s reign.
Written by social historian, Louise Peskett